Beset by the fallout of a high-profile scandal involving adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and allegations that an officer traded sex for releasing women he had arrested, an Ohio police department has taken the unprecedented action of disbanding a unit that was once in charge of pursuing “moral crimes.”
On Tuesday, Columbus Police Department interim chief Tom Quinlan announced he was abolishing the department’s 10-officer vice unit, a group overseeing crimes involving gambling, prostitution and drugs, as a result of the negative attention it received in recent months.
“Today I removed three officers from their vice assignments, and notified the remaining seven vice officers that I am abolishing their assignments,” Quinlan said in a video posted to the department’s Twitter account. “The vice unit is currently undergoing an internal review by the investigative deputy chief.”
The announcement comes the same week that one former vice unit officer — Andrew K. Mitchell — appeared in federal court on Thursday to address charges he forced two women he had arrested to have sex with him in exchange for their release. The vice unit’s end also coincides with the recent release of results of an internal investigation into the July 2018 arrest of Daniels, the adult-film actress who alleged the incident was politically motivated and in retaliation to her claims of having sex with Donald Trump before he became president.
And although the department’s step of disbanding the unit represents an acknowledgment of the vice unit’s problematic tenure, the move this week probably will not end headaches in Columbus, Ohio.
Mitchell — who, after more than 30 years with the department, filed for retirement two days after his March 13 arrest, the Columbus Dispatch reported — continues to face federal criminal charges. He has pleaded not guilty and denies the charges. Daniels also has filed a civil suit against the city over the 2018 arrest. And two additional officers assigned to the vice unit are now the subjects of an FBI Public Corruption Task Force investigation, according to the Dispatch.
“I applaud Police Chief Tom Quinlan’s decision to disband the Vice Unit, recognizing the Unit has lost the public’s trust,” Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) posted on Twitter following Tuesday’s announcement. “I also commend the dedicated, hardworking officers of our Division of Police who dedicate their lives to safer neighborhoods across Columbus.”
The Columbus Police vice unit, which reportedly operates under the umbrella of the department’s narcotics bureau, rocketed into national headlines in the early hours of July 12, 2018. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was making an appearance at a Columbus strip club, Sirens Gentlemen’s Club.
According to The Post, during Daniels’s 11:30 p.m. performance, a female detective approached the stage. The dancer allegedly grabbed the officer’s head and “began smacking her face with her bare breasts and holding her face between her breasts against her chest.”
Later in the night, Daniels and two other dancers were arrested by the vice unit for violating the state’s “Community Defense Act,” which prohibits “nude or semi-nude” dancers from touching customers, WOSU reported.
The Columbus city attorney quickly dropped the charges against Daniels and the other two dancers, and recommended the department cease enforcing the “Community Defense Act.”
In the fallout of the arrest, the department opened an internal investigation into whether the sting was “preplanned” by vice unit detectives targeting Daniels for political reasons — the adult-film actress’s lawsuit again President Trump over hush-money payments. According to the department, investigators interviewed 19 individuals and reviewed 11,000 emails and more than 30 hours of video as part of the probe.
On March 8, the department released the results of the investigation, which determined vice unit officers had not preplanned the bust or targeted Daniels out of political motivation. Investigators, however, did determine the arrests were “improper.”
The report noted the officers acted “by placing themselves, unnecessarily, at risk and potential for physical contact with Ms. Clifford,” according to the Associated Press.
“That was just I think clear recklessness and I think probably worse on that, definitely worse on that, they were warned by the prosecutor’s office that they should not be engaging in that type of investigation,” Daniels’s Columbus attorney, Chase Mallory, told NBC 4. “They clearly didn’t even look at the statute they were using to arrest her and she was clearly targeted so I think that’s why CPD has made the correct decision to terminate that unit.”
Daniels’s suit against the city is ongoing. Columbus has already settled a similar suit filed by the other dancers for $150,000.
Two of the officers targeted by the investigation — Steven Rosser and Whitney Lancaster — were suspended last year because of the ongoing FBI Public Corruption Task Force probe. Details of the investigation have not been released, and both have not been charged with any crimes.
Mitchell was charged March 13 with seven counts, including three counts of deprivation of rights under the color of law, two counts of witness tampering, one count of providing a false statement to police and one court of obstruction of justice. According to the Dispatch, the federal government alleges Mitchell arrested two women, then forced them to engage in sexual activity in exchange for their release.
On Thursday, the now-retired Mitchell pleaded not guilty to charges related to the two women.
At the hearing, prosecutors argued Mitchell should remain in custody because witnesses fear retaliation from the former officer. The government also alleged in court filings that they have found women who lived in properties owned by Mitchell — including drug addicts and prostitutes — who say they had sex with Mitchell for reduced or free rent, the Dispatch reported.
According to the paper, Mitchell’s attorney, Mark Collins, noted the former officer has not been charged with any crimes related to his properties.
Mitchell — and the now-defunct vice unit — will continue to be the target of scrutiny next month.
On April 4, Mitchell will testify before a grand jury over the August 2018 shooting of a 23-year-old woman named Donna Castleberry. Mitchell and Castleberry were together one night last August in an unmarked police car when she allegedly stabbed the officer and he fatally shot her. Mitchell remains in custody.