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A closer look at village police officer actions

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At Council’s June 6 meeting, several villagers expressed concern over two recent instances of what they perceived as aggressive behavior by a local police officer.

The officer involved in both events, John K. Whittemore, is the local department’s newest hire, having joined the force the end of March. However, he is a 16-year veteran of policing, having served most recently in West Carrollton and Jamestown until he was hired by Yellow Springs.

Since the two recent incidents, Whittemore has been taken off the road and is spending several weeks shadowing Officer Dave Meister, Chief Dave Hale said this week.

The department is currently in the midst of a use-of-force review for each of the recent incidents. Such a review is completed every time an officer uses force, Hale said, and the reviewing officers are himself, Sergeant Josh Knapp and Defensive Tactics Specialist R.J. Hawley. The three will look closely at the cases to see if the use of force and tactics involved were appropriate.

“We have a process and it takes longer than some people want,” Hale said. “We will complete the process so that the review is fair and impartial. If the officer is found to have done something wrong, it will come down to a recommendation from the Village manager and me.”

Doing the responsible thing?

The first encounter took place at about 1 a.m. on May 28, in the parking lot behind the Gulch. A longtime local resident, who asked not to be identified at this point as her case is still in the court system, had exited the bar with several friends in order to sit in her car. She had had too much to drink, she said in a recent interview, and texted her daughter to come pick her up. In the car, she tilted the driver’s side seat back so she could rest.

On foot patrol in the parking lot, Officer Whittemore, along with Officer Jessica Frazier, approached the car. It appeared that the woman inside was either asleep or passed out, according to Whittemore’s report of the event (there is no video available). However, in an attempt to make sure she was okay, the officers approached the car to ask about her welfare. According to the report, the woman cursed at them and refused to produce identification. Officer Whittemore noted that he detected a strong odor of alcohol.

The officers noted that the inebriated woman’s car keys were within her reach (a violation of the Ohio Revised Code) and requested that she produce her ID several more times. She refused, and continued to curse at them, the report says. After Whittemore warned that he would smash in her window if she didn’t comply, he grabbed his baton and struck the window four times, smashing it, according to the report. The officers ordered the woman out of the car, and used “joint manipulations” to force her out of the vehicle.

The officers threatened the woman with a Taser, after which she calmed down, according to the report, although further “joint manipulations” were necessary in order to handcuff her. She was charged with obstructing official business, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, and transported to the Greene County jail. The woman was later released after she paid bail of $12,000. A hearing is scheduled next week.

In an interview last week, the woman disputed the police report. She didn’t use profanity until the police shattered her window, she said, nor did the police threaten to Tase her. It makes no sense to her that the police were so aggressive, as she was initially lying down inside her car waiting for her daughter to provide a ride home.

“I was doing the grown-up, responsible thing,” by not driving while intoxicated, she said.

Having her car window smashed in while inside the car was frightening, and she remains infuriated by the event.

“The police escalated the situation,” she said. “This should never happen anywhere, and it shouldn’t happen in Yellow Springs.”

A commercial truck driver, the woman worries about losing her job. The incident added unwanted expense for her family, including $3,000 to procure attorney Jon Paul Rion and $250 to replace the window.

Grounds for arrest?

The secound event took place at about 9:30 p.m. on May 30. A police video of the encounter begins as villager Leonid (Lonya) Clark exits Kieth’s Alley onto Glen Street, then heads diagonally across the street to Speedway. The police car faces him, and Clark walks toward the car, then veers away. There is no interaction between Clark and the officer in the car. Next the police car turns to face Xenia Avenue, and Clark can be observed walking south down Xenia, seemingly oblivious to the
police car.

“It should be noted that [the subject] had several feet in which to walk past me but appeared to have purposely walked in close proximity of my vehicle, with a continued agitated look on his face,” Officer Whittemore wrote in his report of the incident.

Because of Clark’s agitated look, the officer “wanted to check his welfare and mental state,” the written report states. In the video, the police car exits Speedway onto Xenia Avenue heading south, lights now flashing and siren blaring. The car pulls into the parking lot beside the Mills Park Hotel, cutting off Clark as
he walks.

Stopped parallel to the hotel, the car’s video points straight ahead, so that the interaction between Clark and the officer that took place at the driver’s side of the car is not seen in the video. However, the officer’s mumbling voice can be heard on audio, along with Clark’s response, “What are you doing? I didn’t do anything. You have no right to do this.”

According to the report, the officer told Clark to stop but Clark ignored him and kept walking. At this point, the officer grabbed Clark’s wrist. He could smell alcohol on Clark, the report says.

On the audio Clark’s voice becomes increasingly agitated and scuffling sounds are heard. The officer says, “On the ground,” and Clark responds, “I’m on the ground, I surrender.” The officer can be heard threatening to use his Taser on Clark.

According to the officer’s report, he feared for his own safety. “He turned toward me in an aggressive manner and began screaming at me,” the report says. “I attempted to place [the subject] in an arm bar joint manipulation to gain compliance from him but he began to wrestle with me.” The officer describes more “joint manipulations” on Clark, who continues to struggle.

A second officer, Mark Charles, appeared on the scene and helped to subdue Clark, who remained agitated, according to the report. Officer Whittemore is heard contemplating whether to charge Clark with assaulting an officer. Finally, he charges Clark with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and he’s transported to the county jail.

Because Clark was already on probation, he remains in the Greene County Adult Detention Center until his June 24 hearing, according to Probation Officer Jason Parsons. In an interview from the detention center this week, Clark said he is “not too bad,” although he fears he will lose his job at the Mills Park Hotel. He also described the incident and its aftermath as “mentally and physically taxing.”

This week Clark agreed that he probably looked upset when he walked toward the police car, as he had just come from a dispute with two acquaintances, but he didn’t speak to the officer at that point. He still doesn’t understand why the officer stopped him and doesn’t remember anything after being forced to the ground and threatened with being Tased.

“I think it was misconduct on the officer’s part,” he said.

Clark said he had not been drinking and didn’t understand why the officer feared being assaulted.

“I’m 5´ 4˝ and weigh about 120 pounds,” he said.

Council concerns

At the June 6 Council meeting, two Council members responded to the events with their own concerns.

“We want our officers to de-escalate, not escalate situations,” Marianne MacQueen said. And Judith Hempfling stated, “This is a matter of grave concern to me and needs to be investigated.”

Council President Karen Wintrow said at the meeting that she and Brian Housh had met with Village Manager Patti Bates to communicate Council’s concerns.

This week Chrissy Cruz of the Human Relations Commission, who also spoke at the Council meeting, repeated her concerns.

“These events make me feel that all the work the community has done over the past two years is for nothing,” Cruz said, referring to the recent series of HRC-sponsored forums on the relationship between local police and the community.

During the hiring process several months ago for the police department position, Whittemore rose to the top of the 36 candidates who applied for the job, Hale said. He then had about a month of training, which mainly involved becoming familiar with Yellow Springs ordinances. New officers generally receive more training, but as a veteran of policing, he was considered ready to go out on the road quicker than most, Hale said.

In 2012 Whittemore was terminated by West Carrollton after eight years on the job following a several-year pattern of not showing up for work on time. The department investigated the situation and ultimately fired him, according to his West Carrollton personnel file. While Whittemore charged the department with discrimination and filed a suit with the State Employee Relations Board, he lost that case, according to October 2012 records of the SERB meeting.

According to Chief Hale, Whittemore was upfront about having been fired from West Carrollton, and explained that he was going through a hard period in his life at the time.

The Jamestown department hired Whittemore in 2013 and he remained there fulltime until joining the Yellow Springs department, according to Jamestown Police Chief Rodger Tyree this week. Tyree described Whittemore as an exemplary officer who still works for the department parttime.

This week Hale urged villagers who have complaints about interactions with local police to file an official complaint form at the department. While he sometimes hears anecdotes about problems between police and villagers, Hale said he rarely receives official complaints, so that it’s difficult to determine what actually happened.

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