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Police explain the status quo

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The Yellow Springs Police Department will continue to employ one officer on the Greene County ACE Task Force to help contain violent crime in the region. The local police will also continue to call the SWAT team when appropriate to ensure the village’s safety during violent and potentially harmful situations. The size of the department is appropriate for the tourist-centered village, and any decrease in personnel would be at Village Council’s discretion. The current traffic stop policies work to keep drivers safe and deter illegal activity.

These were some of the explanations that Yellow Springs Police Chief David Hale offered at the most recent policing forum held at the Bryan Center Thursday, March 19, by the Village Human Relations Commission. About 40 villagers attended the event to learn more about the department and to ask questions about how the police make their decisions and why they do what they do. The forum was a continuation of the first event held last October to get community input on what villagers wanted in a police chief. The HRC plans to hold more forums in the future to keep the conversation between police and the community going.

Concern over outside agencies

Many villagers engaged in questions about police participation in or use of both the Greene County SWAT team, of which Yellow Springs is no longer a member, and the ACE Task Force, to which Yellow Springs contributes one officer.

Ellis Jacobs said the encounter in July 2013 when a SWAT officer killed a village resident actually “created problems” and was “so bad” that he wondered how the community could be assured it wouldn’t happen again. Al Schlueter was concerned that the number of SWAT raids per year has increased from several hundred in the 1970s to about 40,000 today, and that they are disproportionately employed against people of color and low-income areas. Helen Eier also had concerns about SWAT and the proliferation of heavy arms and equipment in police departments.

According to Hale, “mistakes, missteps and miscalculations” were made during the SWAT incident in 2013, perhaps partly due to the inexperience of a little-used organization in a lesser populated area. Perhaps in the future the Village could consider using the Montgomery County SWAT force instead, he said, adding that the Greene County team reviewed its tactics after the incident and significantly improved the radio communication that led to some of its mistakes. But in situations involving an active shooter causing “risk of serious physical harm to other citizens or police officers,” SWAT is still considered “the best resource available” to protect the most people and to protect the Village from being sued if police fail to use enough force.

“When someone is shooting at you, it is a military [situation], and that is why military equipment is used,” he said, noting that police cruisers are not adequate protection from bullets.

But SWAT works in tandem with hostage negotiators with the ultimate goal of creating an opening for negotiators to reach a resolution, according to Hale.

“The idea is to use SWAT to contain the problem and hostage negotiation to deal with the problem,” he said.

Regarding the county’s ACE Task Force, villager Chrissy Cruz voiced concern that illegal drug enforcement focuses too much on the small-time users, and wondered how a budget-strapped Village could afford the “luxury” of employing a full-time officer on that regional team. Villager John Hempfling also pointed out the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s conclusion that drug enforcement has no effect on drug use and asked what was the point of supporting drug enforcement agencies that only serve to raise incarceration rates and “make the community feel the police are the enemy.”

According to Hale, drugs and mental illness within a community produce violence and crime, and police need the tools to address those issues.

“Just because you’re not seeing the seedy side of things doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Police will never be able to catch the “king pin” dealers without “casting the net” and getting a lot of “little bass” too, and the larger the Task Force is, the more effective it’s going to be, he said. The police also benefit from the training they get at the Task Force, whose officers can then mentor other officers within the local department.

Use of force and other policies

Chief Hale is currently in the process of formalizing approximately 30 of the Village’s policing policies, including modifying some, such as the domestic offense policy, and adding some, such as mental illness protocols and the use of recording devices. Villager Joan Chappelle asked about the police use of force policy, while Isaac Delamatre voiced concern that the current policy on minor traffic stops unfairly targets low-income people and young people. Al Schlueter also expressed concern that not encouraging officers to live in town was changing community-police relations in a negative way, and Ken Huber wanted to know the plan for helping officers to know the community.

According to Hale, officers are trained to employ a use of force continuum in which they get to use slightly more force than the suspect they’re dealing with. The appropriate force is relative to the disparity in size between the officer and the aggressor. All the department’s officers except Hale have had some Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, and often use verbal techniques to handle a situation without force, though Hale said he doesn’t mandate that and trusts his officers to make good decisions.

“I want the officers to have discretion,” he said.

Officers are allowed to stop drivers who fail to obey simple traffic rules, for instance, and if the problem is limited to a small vehicle defect, they may not issue a citation. But some of those stops allow police to learn about more serious infractions, such as a vehicle stop last week that led police to a stolen gun and a bigger Task Force drug case. An officer’s presence discourages unsafe driving practices, and the stops that lead to bigger issues, Hale believes, do “deter problems.”

Former Village Manager Kent Bristol spoke in agreement during the forum that traffic stops are worth the criminal activity they prevent.

“It’s not targeting low-income people, it’s stopping people who need to be taken off the street,” Bristol said.

On the police budget

The YSPD is funded through the Village General Fund budget, which is currently in deficit spending. Police department expenditures account for slightly under half of the general fund, and most of the expense is for the 14 full-time officers and dispatchers plus additional part-time personnel. The police budget is supplemented by state seizure assets, but those funds cannot be used to pay salaries or benefits.

Villager Ken Huber wondered why the  department has grown so much since the 1960s, when it staffed four full-time officers. Steve McQueen also wondered if body cameras would be both effective and affordable for the local force.

The department is the size Hale found it when he came, which, he said, is determined by Village Council and the Village manager. While some communities of comparable size in the area have fewer officers, such as New Lebanon and Enon, Yellow Springs needs more officers to serve the tourist economy that often increases the weekend and fine-weather population to 6,500 and sometimes 7,500 people. The crowd issue is compounded by multiple establishments that serve alcohol, which demands contingency plans, Hale said.

“The bars bring in good crowds, and you want that to continue to be a source of revenue for the Village, but you need a police department that can respond to it.”

Regarding body cameras, Hale likes the idea but wants to gauge how other cities handle privacy, security and data storage issues before investing in a relatively new technology.

Contact: lheaton@ysnews.com

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