Some note change in policing style
- Published: April 30, 2015
This is the fifth 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
Late one evening last month, a local couple was celebrating their anniversary with friends at the Gulch. The couple went out to the parking lot to partake in the marijuana sent by the woman’s brother for the occasion. The man stood outside their car packing marijuana into a pipe when a local policeman walked up — seeing the officer, the man threw a baggie into the car, according to the police report. The policeman asked what was in the baggie and the man said it was marijuana. Asked to hand over the bag, the man did so. The officer called for back-up.
Asked if there were more drugs in the car, the woman handed over a second baggie of marijuana, after which the officer said he would conduct a search. He found several pipes with marijuana residue. The couple were handcuffed and transported to the police station, where they were separated, interviewed and held for about an hour and a half. The man was charged with possession of controlled substances and illegal possession of drug paraphernalia and his wife with possession of controlled substances. (They later pled guilty to a lesser charge and paid about $300 in fines.)
The couple, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their children, were stunned by the event. Yes, the man said recently, he broke the law. But as local residents active in the community and parents of children in the public schools, they never expected such treatment from the local police. Being handcuffed in front of friends was embarrassing and being held at the department was nerve-wracking, the man said. They felt themselves treated like criminals, not respectable members of the community.
“The chief said the police are going after bad people,” the man said. “Why are citizens getting harrassed?”
Also last month a police car began following a local young man at about 10 p.m. when the man turned from Xenia Avenue onto Corry Street, the officer driving so closely behind that the police car was tailgating the man, until the officer turned off onto Allen Street. Although the man was sober and within the speed limit, he felt unnerved.
The man, who has been followed by police several other times too, has no idea why police follow him except that he drives an old car. Having grown up in Yellow Springs, he hadn’t experienced what feels like harassing police behavior until fairly recently.
“It felt like an agggressive pursuit for someone who has done nothing wrong,” according to the driver, who asked to be anonymous due to discomfort criticising the police.
Another young man who also grew up in town and drives an old car reports that police have followed him at least a dozen times over the past year. An officer will fall in behind him and when the man, feeling nervous, turns off to another street, the officer turns too, over and over. While the man has never been stopped, the man doesn’t appreciate being treated as if he’s doing something wrong.
“It makes me kind of nervous,” the man said recently, also requesting anonymity due to discomfort criticising the police.
Rex Gilbert, a resident of the village for 40 years, was disturbed by two recent incidents when he was stopped by police when walking his dog in Gaunt Park.
Walking his dog at night is nothing new for Gilbert and both times he was surprised to be stopped by officers with flashlights who told him the park was off limits at night, Gilbert said. While the officers were polite and respectful, he found being stopped by police for such an innocent activity unnerving. Since then he’s changed his route.
The problem, according to Glbert, wasn’t how the officers treated him, but that they stopped him at all. It’s an example, he believes, of a police presence that seems more ever-present and authoritarian than it has felt to him in the past.
“I wasn’t harrassed per se but it made me feel uncomfortable and to me the question isn’t, “what am I doing in the park?” — the question is, “why is the question being asked?”
Change in style?
In recent years, some villagers, especially younger ones, feel there’s been a change in the style of local policing, with an increase in incidents that feel harassing and unfriendly, such as those cited above.
“It feels like they’re everywhere,” said one young man, who asked for anonymity due to discomfort criticising police.
Some older villagers have also felt a difference.
“I’ve noticed a shift,” said longtime villager Carole Cobbs. “I’m not feeling the same sense of community policing. I don’t know when it changed but some newer officers don’t seem as friendly or as good at handling people.”
When longtime villagers talk of past policing in the village, they often use the term “community policing” to refer to the low-key police presence in town initiated by former Chief Jim McKee in the 1950s and largely extending through the tenure of John Grote that ended in 2012.
“There were fewer police, they were on foot, they knew us, they’d come to our door to say our kids were doing this or that,” said Joan Chappelle, who as a longtime Human Relations Commission member kept an eye on police activities. “There were fewer citations. Enforcement was the exception, conversations were the rule.”
The foundation of the style was a strong relationship between the community and police officers, who lived in the village, according to Joan Horn.
“It was their familiarity with the community that was important, feeling they were a part of the community,” she said of the officers. “It was the humanizing of the process I appreciated.”
A significant component of Chief McKee’s philosophy was his belief that police shouldn’t just stop crime but address community problems that might lead to crime, according to former Chief John Grote, who was hired by McKee in 1984. McKee wanted his officers aware of teens in crisis or people struggling with poverty. Noticing that some children lacked warm coats in winter, McKee started the police coat fund, which continues today, along with other McKee-related initiatives such as the Yellow Springs Food Pantry (started with Mary Ann Bebko) and the annual Christmas gift program.
“It grew,” Grote said. “We made sure people were fed, that they were warm and had holiday gifts. That’s the way we did things here.”
After Grote became chief in 2005, he tried to continue McKee’s legacy. For instance, to build better community relations, officers read stories to preschoolers at the Children’s Center and continued Officer Huey Livingston’s engagement with kids on the Mills Lawn safety patrol. Grote tried to make officers more visible by putting some on bikes, and he also tried to be at Mills Lawn each day to greet children as they arrived, taking advantage of the opportunity to talk to both kids and their parents.
“It was a good way to keep the lines of communication open,” he said.
Overall, according to Grote, in order to engage with the community, “We tried a lot of things. And a lot of what worked was the way Jim did things.”
A different definition
New Yellow Springs Police Chief Dave Hale, on the job since December after 29 years with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, is also an advocate of community policing, he said in a recent interview. However, Hale acknowledged that there’s a difference in what villagers refer to as community policing, which emphasizes familiarity between police and the community, and his understanding of the phrase, which is linked to its use by the Department of Justice as a crime-fighting tool used especially in the War on Drugs.
“During the interview process, I was interpreting the use of “community policing” with the terminology I was used to, which was closer to the DOJ definition,” he wrote in a recent email, regarding his hiring process.
Crime prevention is the DOJ’s highest priority and likewise, it’s the first priority of the local department, Hale wrote.
Statistics show that crime rates are low in the village and have remained steady over the past seven years, according to figures released by the department. Rates of property crime are well below that of nearby communities, below the state and national average and similar to other small towns.
However, regardless of the local low crime rates, it’s important that police train and prepare for more serious crime, Hale said in a recent email, citing a recent murder in New Richmond, a village of 2,700.
“What can happen in New Richmond can happen in Yellow Springs, so part of my job is to provide the village with the best officers and provide those officers the best training possible. It is much better to train for the improbable than to pray the improbable does not happen,” he wrote.
But some villagers worry that a focus on more serious crime could undermine the low-key police presence and community engagement that villagers have enjoyed in the past.
“The bottom line is fighting crime,” said Dayton attorney and villager Ellis Jacobs in a recent interview. “But so many other things need to be done besides that. If the emphasis on training and hiring cancels out other things the community wants police to do, like engage with the community, provide support or even guidance, that’s a problem. This is a less exciting version of policing but a more effective one longterm and certainly one more suited to this community.”
Several factors work against familiarity between police and the community, Hale said. Most obviously, once the Village could (and did) require that its police officers live in Yellow Springs, and now it is against state law to make residency a requirement.
“It’s not legal to give extra points for residency,” Hale said.
Currently, only two officers (David Meister and Dennis Nipper) out of 10 fulltime police live in Yellow Springs. And adding to the sense of unfamiliarity between police and the community, four of those officers were hired within the past year.
Aside from the change in residency requirement, Hale, who lives in Washington Township, said he has mixed feelings about the value of officers living in the community. While he can see the benefits of familiarity to the town, he also sees drawbacks for the officers.
“As a police officer, people want to talk to you about that ticket they got,” he said. “I don’t relish the idea of going to the grocery store and having to listen to someone complain about their ticket.”
When former Chief Grote had the job, he faced similar restrictions regarding giving preference to local candidates, he said recently. But he saw ways around the restriction, and at times actively tried to recruit people from the community.
“I do think it makes a big difference,” Grote said regarding familiarity between police and the community. “You could see the officers’ buy-in. They took a special interest” in the village.
Given that many villagers don’t know most current police officers, Chief Hale said he is doing his best to get his officers out into the community. He encourages them to walk downtown, he said, and to engage with people.
However, preventing crime is the department’s first priority, so it takes time for officers to get to know the community.
“When you have officers putting their focus on crime prevention, it’s a slow process,” he said.
Hale also believes that he is creating the groundwork for community policing by helping his officers, especially those new to the job, learn effective communication skills. He reviews the in-car footage of police interactions in order to give them feedback on their responses, and occasionally rides along to witness interactions.” And so far he has received no complaints about his officers’ behavior, aside from the assault and disorderly conduct charges against Sgt. Naomi Penrod regarding an incident with a villager in November. Penrod is currently on paid administrative leave.
As well as encouraging his officers to get out into the village, Hale has made himself available to groups and the local schools in an effort to reach out.
“I’ve only turned down one invitation,” he said.
The department is continuing some previous efforts to promote a relationship with the village, Hale said, including the coat fund and taking doughnuts to Mills Lawn crossing guards every Friday. And while an officer is frequently present when Mills Lawn children arrive at school, as Grote once was, Hale does not want to post an officer there on a daily basis, as he believes such a practice can encourage local crime.
“It would not take long for someone to figure out that if they wished to commit a crime (such as burglary, car theft, bank robbery) when would be the time they would most likely not be apprehended,” he wrote in an email.
Response to concerns
In a recent interview and emails, Chief Hale responded to the concerns surrounding the incidents cited above.
Regarding officers stopping those in parks after dark, Hale wrote in an email that if villagers want their parks to be accessible after dark, they should “contact the people who make the rules. The police department is the enforcement arm; we do not make rules/laws, we just enforce them.”
No one has been cited for being in a park after dark so far, Hale said, although several have been warned.
In response to the villagers who felt that police aggressively followed their cars at night, Hale pointed out that at least the drivers hadn’t been pulled over. It’s hard to respond to a vague accusation without knowing specifics, Hale said, but police generally need to follow a driver to see if they witness any infractions. If the same driver is being followed night after night and doing nothing wrong, that’s a problem, Hale said. But if police follow a variety of people in order to determine they’re driving within the law, he stands behind his officers.
“It’s okay for police to follow people. That’s what police do,” he said.
And while he’s sorry if the police actions made some villagers feel intimidated, he did not feel that that the police actions were necessarily to blame.
Seen from a different perspective, the officer was trying to do his job, and getting a drunk driver off the street is important to the community.
“My guess is that the cop was out there trying to be proactive,” he said. “You have to follow a little bit to see if it’s an OVI (operating a vehicle while intoxicated). This is what cops do. Their job is to prevent crime.”
The incident involving the couple with marijuana in their car would likely have gone differently in earlier years, according to former Chief Grote, who said his officers would probably have confiscated the substance and not arrested the couple.
The officer was certainly within his rights to make an arrest, Grote said, adding, “A lot of things are legal, but is that the kind of policy that people want?”
However, according to Hale, the department’s job is to enforce the law, and marijuana possession is still illegal in Ohio. He believes his officer acted appropriately in handcuffing the couple and bringing them down to the station.
“It is a correct and legal way to proceed,” Hale said.
And regarding putting a local couple in handcuffs, Hale said that was also an appropriate response to the situation.
“We’re not walking someone into the building without their being handcuffed and checked for weapons and contraband,” he said.
In a follow-up email, Hale said that while he stands by his officer, he would have preferred the officer confiscate the substance but not make an arrest. However, he said, he sees himself as having only two options as chief:
“First, I could micro-manage the department, which is a poor management style. This style leads to unhappy employees, a large percentage of turnover of employees, thus creating the lack of familiarity between the community and the officers.”
His second choice, Hale wrote, is to “allow officers the appropriate discretion within the limits of the law and attempt to mold those officers over time to a philosophy that is appropriate to the lifestyle that is Yellow Springs.”
“The second will not happen overnight,” he wrote.
Good will from police
Some villagers have had nothing but good experiences with local police and see indications that small town friendlness is still the norm among police and Yellow Springs residents. For instance, recently Joan Horn was surprised and pleased to see an officer taking an older woman grocery shopping.
“I was astonished. I thought, gosh, that is such a lovely thing, a way to build good will in the community,” Horn said.
And in a recent email, Hale described many instances of officers going an extra mile for villagers.
“I know of officers who shoveled snow for residents, stuck half of their body through a pet door to unlock a home where the resident had locked themselves out, bought breakfast rolls for a family after one parent felt they needed to leave the home for a while, made anonymous donations to families at Christmas, donated unclaimed bicycles to Antioch, allowed subjects too intoxicated to drive to arrange for a ride instead of charging them with a disorderly conduct,” he wrote, among other examples.
Hale wants the community to know that he hears their desire for more familiarity between police and the community, and for a department engaged with the village.
“We will continue to seek alternatives to enforcement action in victimless crimes or crimes where there is little to no damage and the parties are willing. We will continue to make contact with the businesses and owners. We will continue to seek training that promotes understanding of persons and cultures, the appropriate and minimal use of force,” he said.
To Hale, the best way to enhance familiarity between police and the village is to build a department that’s a professional and rewarding place to work thus inspiring longevity in his officers.
“I want to keep my officers here so they have time to know the community,” he said.