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Columbus police utilizing expert's advice on force tactics after officers mace fans at Crew match

Columbus police wade through a crowd of Columbus Crew and Club America fan following a match on July 31, 2023
George Shillcock
Columbus police wade through a crowd of Columbus Crew and Club America fan following a match on July 31, 2023. Police deployed pepper spray to disperse the crowd after responding to a burning object in the center of the crowd that evening.

Columbus police used mace to disperse a crowd of local and international soccer fans following a July 31 match at Lower.com Field after someone lit an object on fire.

Those actions are now being re-evaluated by the Columbus Division of Police's new crowd management expert hired last month to help law enforcement find better ways to interact with rowdy sports crowds and protestors.

Clifford Stott, of Keele University in the United Kingdom, and the Columbus Police Dialogue Unit will appear at the "Hell is Real" rivalry match on Sunday between FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew.

Body camera footage obtained by a public records request by WOSU showed police at the game just before 10:30 p.m. when a call came in and the half dozen officers left the stadium and went toward a crowd of people. As police approached the large crowd, drums are heard beating.

The Columbus Crew played Mexico City's Club America in an international tournament with members of Liga MX. The Crew won the match with a score of 4-1 and fans gathered outside the stadium following the match.

Police reached the crowd and immediately began telling them to disperse or they would be sprayed. In the center of the crowd, a man flew a large Club America flag and an object was on fire in front of him on the ground.

The crowd soon dispersed after police officers entered the circle.

It is unclear from the video if mace was used by the Columbus Division of Police, but spokesperson Andres Antequera confirmed mace was used on the crowd. Antequera said no arrests were made.

After the crowd dispersed, some people are heard complaining to police that "there is kids" in the crowd and words being yelled at police. Another man approached police with a large cup of water and handed it to an officer. The officer poured the water on the flaming object and called the man "a life saver."

Stott declined to comment on the contents of the video, but said handling rowdy sports crowds are exactly why he was hired and what he hopes to work on with police at Sunday's match against FC Cincinnati.

The Crew and Cincinnati are members of a growing rivalry since Cincinnati joined Major League Soccer in 2018. The game is dubbed the "Hell is Real" match after the infamous billboard between the two cities that drivers often pass by.

Stott said he hopes the work he does with CPD is able to make changes to policing following how departments across the country responded to protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. Stott's focus is on what he refers to as sports "hooliganism" at European soccer matches, but he said his teachings could be applied in Columbus to rowdy crowds, following OSU Buckeye football games and political protests.

"What we're trying to collectively achieve is a circumstance where we reduce the likelihood, where police judge it necessary to use force. And that's really the core ambition," Stott said.

He said the incidents like the one at the July 31 Crew match highlight what he is here to unpack and examine with CPD.

"The work I'm involved in is around how police and other agencies interact with each other and how they then deliver a safe and secure event for everybody. And that will be true of a crew game college football game up at the Ohio State stadium and of protest," Stott said.

The incident prompted at least one citizen complaint to be submitted to the Columbus Inspector General.

The complaint from Molly Ryan said she and her family attended the game and witnessed the Mexican soccer fans chanting their team songs and celebrating. She said at one point in the center of the drum circle a small Columbus Crew flag was lit on fire. She said the general vibe was fun and lighthearted, but no one was violent and fans from both teams were singing and laughing.

Ryan said Columbus police officers entered the center of the circle out of nowhere without using airhorns or flashlights and maced the entire group. She said she and her family were standing far enough away that they only had a coughing fit, but she witnessed and aided a family with a child who was maced in the face.

"This child was a visiting sports fan enjoying song and dance with fans after a sports match. I am infuriated and extremely embarrassed for our city," Ryan said.

Columbus Crew spokesperson Rob McBurnett said the Crew have assisted CDP during their process to gather more info and will continue to do so at their discretion. He provided a statement from the organization about the incident.

“The safety and well-being of everyone throughout their time at the stadium is our top priority as it is the most important element to creating a positive, welcoming experience for all attendees, staff members and team personnel. We are aware of the situation and are assisting Columbus Division of Police as they gather more information," the statement said.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.