Police-village relationship a work in progress
- Published: March 12, 2015
This is the first in a series of articles
examining the local police department and its relationship to the village.
• Click here to view all the articles the series
On a recent call for medical service to a resident in the village, Yellow Springs Police officers responded, as is routine, with the Miami Township Fire-Rescue squad. The resident had broken his arm and needed to be transported to the hospital. Before heading off, the patient asked police if they could please take out his trash and start his car. They gladly helped the man, as police often do in a day’s work in Yellow Springs.
There is an anecdotal tradition of community policing in the village that goes back at least to the 1970s, when police were considered trusted friends who helped and supported villagers, especially youth. And largely, still, villagers have a positive view of the local police department we employ to respond to us when we need help and to enforce the laws of the village.
But for at least a decade, according to former Human Relations Commission member Joan Chappelle, the local police have sometimes morphed into a more aggressive force of officers prone to stopping people with little cause and profiling at least two groups, African Americans and youth. And when the militarized response to the Paul E. Schenck shooting ended in that villager’s death in 2013, another wave of distrust was born for the heavily armed tactics police chose over mediation in that instance.
High turnover within the department over the past three years and the inappropriate aggression a senior officer displayed last fall against a villager also have served to undermine the rebuilding of trust between police and the community, several residents who spoke to the News this week said.
To address some of these issues, last fall the Village Human Relations Commission held its first police-community forum, where residents gave input on the role of the police chief. On March 19 a second forum will focus on the Village’s involvement with the Greene County ACE Task Force on drugs and new policies Chief David Hale has added to the department.
At the same time, the YS News will be taking a deeper look at policing issues in the village with a series of articles beginning this week and extending through the spring. Story topics will include a closer look at the Village’s participation in the drug Task Force, a look at the history of policing in the village, crime statistics, YSPD’s approach to drug enforcement in the village, a report on a day in the life of a Yellow Springs officer, as well as police-community relations.
The first installment will focus on the state of the police department and the current sense of trust between police and the community at large.
YSPD’s approach to policing
As might be expected in a village the size of Yellow Springs, the local police department deals with low crime numbers and very little violent crime, Chief Hale said this week. As such, the vast majority of officers’ time is spent on routine tasks such as business walk-throughs, neighborhood patrols and aiding villagers who have been locked out of their cars or homes.
“For officers here, it’s 90 percent boredom and 2 percent excitement,” Hale said. “The trick is when WesBanco is robbed, we have to go from being an Andy Griffith cop to being assertive and ready to solve a crime.”
YSPD saw a total of 129 reported offenses last year, of which 60 were classified as thefts, 17 were considered criminal damaging, 15 were misdemeanor assaults and 15 were operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Incidents involving motor vehicle theft, burglary, breaking and entering and felonious assault were all in the single digits.
According to Hale, the size of the local department is based less on the crime rates than on the community’s desire to have a local dispatch team and one to two police officers on duty 24-hours, seven days a week. To cover all the shifts, the department keeps 22 people on staff, including a chief, 10 full-time police officers, five part-time officers, three full-time dispatchers and five part-time dispatchers. The staffing and operational needs of the department cost the Village $1.43 million in 2014, or 45 percent of the general fund budget.
Because they have time between actual criminal offenses, Yellow Springs officers routinely do the kind of community policing that villagers have said recently they want in their local department, according to Chief Hale. Villagers said, for example, that they wanted friendly officers who are there to help people. Recently a Yellow Springs officer responded to a call from a villager who was locked out of her home. Police arrived but couldn’t use any other doors or windows to gain entry into the house. So the officer managed to squeeze himself through the cat door to let the resident back into her home. And officers routinely perform business and vacant property checks, support students at the Mills Lawn morning drop-off, and help people who call when they are locked out of their vehicles or need a jump start.
Villagers have also said they wanted a department that would employ the principles of restorative justice. On another recent investigation, several businesses downtown called police about some local teenagers who were throwing stink bombs into their shops. Police contacted the youth and their parents, who decided to have the youth speak with each of the business owners to figure out a solution. According to Hale, none of the businesses pressed charges, and one barred the youth from trespassing on the property. The issue was handled in a personal way that was commensurate with the nature and magnitude of the offense, as it often is in the village, he said.
But the village does occasionally see some of the more serious crime that Hale believes is connected to the illegal drug trade, which no city or town is immune to. He attributes most of the thefts, stolen vehicles, forgeries to activity to support drug habits.
“A lot of crimes go back to getting money or manipulating people to get drugs,” he said. “Drugs are still illegal, and if we don’t put some pressure on them, if there’s no enforcement, it leads to elements far worse than a 5-cent bag of weed — I mean violence.”
Partly for that reason, YSPD currently pays for one staff member to work full-time at the Task Force. While Yellow Springs, one of the smallest members of the force, would still benefit from the work of the Task Force without being a member, Hale said the officers also benefit from the intense, long-term training experience the Task Force offers them.
Trust in the department
According to longtime villager and former HRC member Chappelle, a majority of village residents seem to trust the police and feel supported and protected by them. Though Steve Eddington would like to know more of the officers personally, he values their service as the owner of a late night business, the Dayton Street Gulch, and has always had favorable reviews of their intervention skills. Local resident Lee Ferguson also has had very positive interactions with police on two recent occasions, one involving a medical call, during which the responding officer was “very soothing,” and another in which the officer sucessfully mediated a situation involving a business in town. And Tony Seimer, who grew up in town and whose family works and goes to school in the village, also has a positive impression of local officers, who in recent dealings with him have been “fair, polite and thoughtful.”
Others also see that the police have a “tough job,” especially at a time of negative national press and in a village as vocal as Yellow Springs, said villager Janet Murie, who feels not critical but unfamiliar with the police. Others, including 50-year resident Thomas Watkins and Cassandra Courtney, said similarly that they had faith in local police but wished they would get out and get to know villagers better.
But many representatives from two particular populations, African Americans and youth, have voiced concerns that for at least a decade, the more aggressive practices of some local police have sometimes inspired fear and resentment. And some villagers also have concerns that Yellow Springs police have been affected by a more national movement to militarize local forces — a fear that was compounded by the SWAT response that ended in a villager’s death in 2013. A handful of villagers shared their experiences along these lines.
Twice in the past six months, Julius Eason, a young African American who moved to the village in 2013, was stopped by local officers and treated in a manner he felt was not commensurate to his offenses. The first time, he was pulled over at night for expired tags, but even after assuring the officer that the beer he consumed hours earlier did not impair his driving, he was given a field sobriety test anyway. Soon, two backup cruisers arrived and four to five officers were shining flashlights into his vehicle. He was released with the simple traffic citation. The second time he was stopped, Eason was putting his bicycle into the trunk of his car in Tom’s Market lot when an officer spotted him. Though he was doing nothing wrong, Eason was not suprised to find the officer followed him five turns home and asked to see his driver’s license, which, it turned out, had been suspended.
Though he couldn’t prove it, which is why he never reported the incidents to the Village, “it was hard to shake the feeling of being profiled,” he said in an interview this week.
Steve McQueen, another African-American resident, has also felt “profiled” to some extent by local officers, who for several years had him “on some kind of radar,” and thought that because he was “black and popular I must be doing drugs.” Police often stopped him and asked for his ID, asked him who he was, and acted suspicious of him until they got to know him. Then a wave of new officers would get hired, and they would do the same thing, until they figured it out as well.
Talis X, an African-American resident whose official name is Talis Gage, has had similar experiences. Shortly after he moved to the village three years ago, an officer followed him on foot from Speedway, stopping to talk to him for no apparent reason at the Little Art Theatre.
“He was the friendliest officer I had ever met,” Talis said. But he was subsequently stopped several other times for no reason at all, including once on foot while carrying signs for a local Black Lives Matter event and once while he was driving, when an officer accused him of driving under suspension and later apologized for confusing him with another person.
The police are also just recovering from a period of some public distrust marked by the resignation of a chief last August who served largely part time for two years due to injury and was rarely seen outside his office, the recent turnover of exactly half of the full-time officers, the shooting death of a villager and the missteps of Sergeant Naomi Penrod in grabbing a camera from a disabled villager. Especially because the senior officers within the department were the ones who called the SWAT team in response to the Schenck incident and used poor judgement in grabbing the camera, villager Carole Cobbs said she feared that those senior officers had been training younger officers to follow their aggressive lead. The result is that Cobbs has been afraid to call the department when she or her family members needed help.
Villager and HRC member Kate Hamilton voiced concern that officers should be using great discretion with their power to cite villagers into court, using it only if needed, and not for drug enforcement. She believes that Yellow Springs should withdraw from the Greene County ACE Task Force.
“The drug war is over, it’s been proven that that type of aggression doesn’t work to keep people from abusing drugs,” she said. “Being on the Task Force doesn’t benefit us financially and it seems to represent something that Yellow Springs is not.”
And though Ferguson’s personal experience with local officers has been positive, she also worries that the militarization displayed during the 2013 shooting and especially the lack of mental health training for the officers is a dangerous deficit for the local department. If there are enough resources for SWAT, there should be more resources for rehabilitative support systems, she believes.
What’s going right
There are signs of greater accountability from police over the past six months, evidenced by the visibility of Chief Hale and his presence in both public venues and at public meetings and events, according to both Hamilton and Cobbs. The disciplinary actions the Village took against Sergeant Penrod in December were transparent and showed that the department is serious about reining in officers who exercise undue force, several said.
According to Hale, accountability will continue with him. He aims to set a tone of fairness and friendliness for his sergeants and officers and encourages them to get out, walk around and get to know people personally, he said. He welcomes those with complaints to contact him about any grievances they might have. Regarding crimes that involve a victim, such as a vandalized homeowner, Hale supports the victim’s option to pursue his or her own charges. With victimless offenses, however, such as a single marijuana use or disorderly conduct from an intoxicated resident, Hale does support officer discretion in guiding the outcome. According to Hale, “the idea is not to take the person to jail — that would be the last alternative…but you also can’t spend forever talking. And especially if you display aggressive tendencies, I’m only going to back up so far.”