The Ghost of Police Brutality Past

I got a ticket for making an illegal u-turn last week. I did it in order to get to the curb in front of a club on Broad Street downtown where I was dropping off my wife and her friend who were going to see a show. It was one of the dumber tickets I’ve ever received.

It was dumb because, instead of making the u-turn, I could’ve just made a block and added maybe 25 seconds on to the trip but I didn’t because I was lazy. It was dumb, also, because I did it right in front of a cop who was leaning on the cruiser stationed at the entrance to the club. I didn’t notice him or his car before I did it, but I’ve been to that club before and knew that they station police there when they have big shows. Just a total brain fart on my part.

The saddest part of it all: the cop didn’t even have to drive to pull me over. He simply walked the 50 feet over to my car as I was letting my wife and her friend out, flashed his flashlight at me and came to my window. Five minutes later I was driving back home, $99 + costs poorer.

I didn’t pay much attention to the cop when he was talking to me. It was a pretty rote interaction as far as these things go. He was calm and businesslike, I was angry at myself, didn’t put up much of a defense and was otherwise none too chatty. I didn’t even really look at the ticket until I went to pay it online a few days later.

That’s when I noticed the cop’s name:

Officer: Exline, Michael

My jaw dropped. It’s a name I remember well. It’s a name anyone who was around Columbus in the early 1990s should remember.

On February 9, 1991, a 19-year-old Ohio State University student and member of the Buckeyes wrestling team named Oleatha Waugh was walking on the sidewalk on High Street, the main drag of OSU’s campus, when he came across two men fighting. A crowd had formed and police were already on the scene attempting to break it up. Waugh, trying to avoid the fracas, stepped out onto the street and began to walk around the crowd.

Officer Michael Exline, who is white, sprayed Waugh, who is black, with mace and then struck him at least twice with a 15-inch metal flashlight. When Waugh crumbled to the ground Exline and other officers kicked him and beat him with their fists. Waugh suffered bruises and contusions to his head, face and upper body and had teeth broken and knocked out. They arrested Waugh, charging him with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

The charges wouldn’t stick. Once Waugh and witnesses to the beating came forward — including, most prominently, one of Exline’s fellow officers, who told superiors what had happened —  Exline was suspended without pay and was administratively charged with using excessive force by the Columbus Police Department. Chief of Police James Jackson recommended that he be fired, saying that Exline, “had no future value to the department.” Exline would subsequently be criminally charged with felonious assault. For his part, Waugh would plead guilty to a reduced charge of walking in a roadway and was fined $100. He then sued the city alleging that his civil rights were violated and quickly reached a settlement for $170,000.

At this point the system seemed to be working exactly the way it should in situations such as this. Then it started working differently.

Exline would go to trial in January of 1992 and even his own sergeant would testify against him. An all-white jury acquitted him of felonious assault, however, with one of the jurors later telling the press that “[w]e felt the level of force needed was actually created by Waugh’s actions.” She added that, “[w]e did not think that the flashlight strike was deliberate or done with malice. It was more of a reflex action.”

The administrative hearing against Exline took place a couple of months later. At the end of the hearing the city’s Public Safety Director, Ronald Poole — noting that the standard of proof in that proceeding was lower than that of the criminal trial — found Exline guilty of using excessive force and did, in fact, fire him. But, in what was described as “an unprecedented move,” Poole stayed the decision to fire Exline, saying that if Exline underwent counseling and completed a retraining course within a year, he could get his job back.

The date of the decision: April 29, 1992. That was the same day the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, sparking deadly riots. The decision allowing Exline to get his badge and gun back drew parallels to the King case locally but, while there was extreme displeasure about it all in the community and heated protests — the Columbus Dispatch reported that it “nearly prompted riots” — things remained peaceful.

For most of the next year Exline would be assigned to the police training academy and would do some plainclothes work in an office with no interaction with the public. By March of 1993 he was back in a police cruiser, at first with a “training officer” who monitored his progress. It was a bumpy ride at first. From the March 22, 1993 edition of the Dispatch:

Sgt. Laura Stratton once noted that she and the training officer had to discuss the use of a flashlight with Exline because Exline seemed to carry it all the time, a troublesome signal in daylight officers.

“This seems to have been a force of habit as opposed to a hostile act,” Stratton wrote Dec. 20. “Officer Exline’s career has been spent on third shift where a flashlight is always needed. Officer Exline has acknowledged the need to overcome habits or behavior that elicits negative perceptions.”

A week later, Exline “became defensive” and “argumentative” when the discussion turned to flashlights again, according to one evaluation. On Jan. 3, Cmdr. Gerald Perrigo wrote, “Appears officer still has an attitude problem. Training to continue.”

Stratton later praised Exline’s progress and called it an awkward, stressful situation for all involved because no other veteran officer in recent history has had to be trained again.

Exline’s attitude away from work didn’t seem particularly great either. From the same profile:

Off duty, Columbus Police Officer Michael Exline sometimes wears a sweat shirt that reads, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God I’m Free at last, 1/28/92.”

January 28, 1992 was the date of Exline’s criminal acquittal. If he was aware of the irony of a white police officer who was found to have used excessive force against a black man wearing a shirt featuring the most memorable phrase uttered at the most notable civil rights rally ever by the most significant civil rights leader in history it was not mentioned in the story.

Later in the same story Exline described the two years since he beat Waugh with his flashlight as something that happened to him, saying “[t]hose seven minutes put a lot of chaos in my life. The incident itself has made me a stronger person.” The reporter couched the entire story as Exline “surviving” a two-year ordeal and made almost no mention of Waugh. For his part, Exline voiced no regret about his treatment of Waugh two years prior.

A year later, following a grievance filed by the Fraternal Order of Police, Exline would receive an award of back pay from the time during which he was suspended.

 

On November 1, 1993 — a little less than six months after the Exline interview mentioning his “free at last” sweatshirt — Oleatha Waugh was arrested after attempting to sell three ounces of cocaine with a street value of about $3,600 to undercover agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He would be charged with six counts of aggravated drug trafficking. He’d eventually plead guilty to one count of drug trafficking and two counts of drug possession. He was sentenced to four to 15 years in prison and fined $10,000.

Waugh entered prison in April of 1994. It appears that he served no more than about four years, as there is a record of his application for a marriage license in a December 1998 issue of the Columbus Dispatch. There is a record of him and the woman he married purchasing a house in 2005. A 2008 article talked about him visiting the high school where he was a wrestling champion and giving a pep talk to the squad at the coach’s invitation.

In 2011, Officer Exline fired his weapon while chasing a fleeing suspect. After an internal investigation he was found to have acted within the Columbus Police Department’s firearm use policy.

According to Waugh’s LinkedIn page, in 2011 he began working for the Columbus Ohio Urban League, where he is now the Assistant Director. He received an associate’s degree from Columbus State Community College in sport and fitness administration in 2000. He received his Bachelor of Arts in athletic training from Capital University in 2003.

On Father’s Day 2014 Waugh was in the Columbus Dispatch again, quoted in an article detailing a community “Fishing with Dad” event, put on by the Urban League. In the article Waugh, his ten-year-old daughter and his six-year-old son are described as joking and enjoying their day fishing together, with Waugh saying, “It’s a blessing to be able to do this with your kids.”

In March of 2018 Waugh was one of seventeen people appointed to Mayor Andrew Ginther’s Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission. The purpose of the Commission: “to review Columbus Division of Police policies, training and procedures,” and to “thoroughly review existing research of respected law enforcement and social justice experts and make concrete, actionable recommendations to further strengthen the Division of Police.” The Commission’s focus would be on de-escalation in officer-citizen interactions, crisis intervention, implicit bias training, use of force policies, diversity recruitment and retention, and early intervention and officer wellness programs.

Soon after Waugh’s appointment, a local television news station — owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group — aired a story about Waugh that led with the headline “Convicted felon appointed to Mayor Ginther’s new Safety Advisory Commission.” The story used nearly 25-year-old courtroom footage of a then-young Waugh pleading guilty to the drug charges. It also featured Fraternal Order of Police leaders questioning Waugh’s ability to serve because he was convicted of drug-related offenses back in 1994. From the story:

“It is alarming to know that somebody who can’t actually sit in our position will now review how we do our jobs,” said FOP President Jason Pappas.

The story did not mention Michael Exline by name nor did it mention that he was found to have used excessive force. Given those omissions and given that neither the mayor’s announcement appointing Waugh and the 16 other members of the board nor the news stories about it mentioned Waugh’s past with officer Exline or his arrest and prison sentence, one strongly suspects that the TV news report originated with the FOP or its members who recognized Waugh’s name from the events of the early 1990s. It comes off like a spiteful smear.

In response to the report, the President and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, Stephanie Hightower, issued a letter staunchly defending Waugh and his character. She excoriated the FOP for “attacking men of color because of a nearly quarter-century-old mistake.” She noted the irony of the FOP engaging in such antagonizing behavior in response to Waugh’s appointment to a commission that was specifically set up to reduce antagonization between the police and the community.

As of today, Waugh remains a member of the Commission.

In October 1999, the United States Justice Department sued the city of Columbus, alleging that it tolerated a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and illegal searches and seizures by its police department. The suit was settled in 2002, with the DOJ obtaining the right to review CPD training classes and review documentation of alleged misconduct and internal investigations. It likewise reserved the right to re-file the suit if it determined that a pattern or practice of misconduct exists.

In 2017 the Associated Press reported that, at that time, there were no fewer than 26 pending lawsuits alleging police brutality and the violation of residents’ civil rights by the CPD. It reported that the city had paid more than $4 million to individuals who alleged civil rights violations over the previous decade. Included in that were multiple wrongful death claims in the wake of fatal shootings of black citizens by white police officers. New cases of police misconduct and brutality make the news on a pretty regular basis. The practice of firing and then reinstating officers found to have committed acts of police brutality which, in 1992, was characterized as “unprecedented,” is now common practice.

Officer Michael Exline is pushing sixty years-old. He is nearing 40 years with the Columbus Police Department.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.