Three police officers in Columbus, Ohio, face criminal charges for their conduct during protests over the death of George Floyd last year, when officers in cities across the United States frequently used force to break up demonstrations.
The nationwide protests provoked accusations of police misconduct in many American cities. But in only a few — notably New York, Philadelphia and Buffalo, N.Y. — were any officers charged with crimes, and the officers in Philadelphia and Buffalo were later cleared. In Columbus, the city ordered a special prosecutor and an independent investigator last year to evaluate complaints of police misconduct during the protests there.
That led to the announcement on Wednesday that three officers had been charged. The Police Department said the officers had been assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Traci Shaw, an officer, was charged with three counts each of assault, dereliction of duty and interfering with civil rights related to a protest on May 30, 2020, five days after Mr. Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
Officer Shaw was accused of leaving her police vehicle, approaching people on a sidewalk and pepper-spraying them. One woman told investigators that she and the others who were sprayed “did not provoke the officer at all,” according to a complaint. The woman said she had told Officer Shaw that they were walking home.
Holly Kanode, a sergeant, was charged with one count each of falsification and dereliction of duty. While assisting in the arrest of a woman on May 30, 2020, she was heard in body camera footage telling an officer that the woman had grabbed another officer and jerked him to the ground. But the body camera footage, and another video submitted to the city, did not show any such assault, according to the complaint.
Phillip Walls, an officer, was charged with two counts each of assault, dereliction of duty and interfering with civil rights. On May 29, 2020, he pepper-sprayed “peaceful protesters” standing on a sidewalk, including an “unknown older black female” who had previously been pepper-sprayed, according to a complaint. He then pepper-sprayed the woman again, along with another woman who was trying to help her leave, according to the complaint.
“We will continue to work to identify additional officers who may have committed misconduct,” Kathleen Garber, the special prosecutor, said in a statement.
Mark C. Collins, a lawyer whose firm is representing the three officers, said in an interview that they intended to plead not guilty and that “we’re going to fight this tooth and nail at trial.”
He said the officers acted within the scope of their duties based on their orders, that the charges were motivated largely by the money spent on the investigation and that top police officials were escaping accountability.
“Instead of addressing it from the top down, they simply made people at the bottom scapegoats,” he said.
The city of Columbus has used Sergeant Shaw as an expert to testify in federal court on the use of force, and she teaches at the police academy, Mr. Collins said.
The charges against the officers were filed as the Police Department in Columbus is under scrutiny after four fatal police shootings of Black people from December to April. Each led to intense demonstrations, including one on April 12 in which protesters broke through a door at Police Headquarters.
Though almost 30 percent of Columbus residents are Black, 85 percent of the police force is white. Yet slightly more than half of all use-of-force cases in 2017, the most recent year surveyed, were directed at Black residents, according to an operational review.
Andrew Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, said in a statement that the department’s response to the George Floyd protests “did not meet my expectations or the community’s.”
“The fact is some Columbus police officers acted outside policy, abused their authority and may have committed crimes,” he said in the statement. “That is why we engaged independent investigators to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, and today we got the answer. Officers who break the law should expect to be held accountable.”