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NYE investigation begins

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The resignation of Yellow Springs Police Chief David Hale last week left the Yellow Springs Police Department without a head. Hale vacated his post on Tuesday, following villagers’ concerns at local police acting in what many perceived as a heavy-handed and aggressive manner at the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop downtown.

Village Manager Patti Bates, currently overseeing the police department, is “in charge of overall operations,” and aims to appoint an interim police chief within the next week or two, according to a press statement released Friday.

Village officials are also starting an investigation into the events of New Year’s Eve, when four local officers drove into the crowd with lights flashing and sirens blaring in an attempt to disperse the crowd just minutes after the ball drop. Village Council passed a resolution at last week’s meeting calling for an independent review of the incident. David Williamson of the Dayton firm Bieser, Greer & Landis has been hired by the Village to lead the investigation.

On bringing in independent counsel, Bates said she “wants the community to be assured that it’s an independent, objective review” of every aspect of the New Year’s Eve event.

According to a press release announcing Williamson’s hiring, the Village anticipates the investigation will take approximately 30 days. However, Bates said, the time frame may change depending on the scope of the investigation and what information is uncovered.

Investigation begins
Williamson was recommended by Village Solicitor Chris Conard. According to his website, some of Williamson’s primary areas of practice are criminal defense and professional liability litigation.

The Yellow Springs Village Council passed a resolution at last week’s meeting to start the investigative process. Council Vice President Brian Housh said that Council’s motivation was first and foremost a “response to citizens’ demands for investigation.”

“Right now we’re focusing on listening and responding to what community members want,” Housh said.

The Village will pay for the investigation. Williamson will be paid $275 per hour for his services, with the two assistants working with him earning $175 per hour, Bates said.

“Village Council made the decision to do it this way, and I support that decision,” Bates said. “The facts have to remain objective to whoever is conducting the investigation.”

According to Conard, the goal of the investigation is to provide a comprehensive overview of the New Year’s Eve disturbance. The findings of the investigation will be used to determine the culpability, or lack thereof, of both the officers and the citizens involved in the affair.

As the investigation is just getting started, there is not a whole lot to divulge, Bates said.

“We will give as much info as we can, but there are things we can’t talk about,” she said.

Villagers involved
Additionally, Bates said that the Village will continue to work with groups such as the Justice System Task Force and the 365 Project to address many of the concerns that members of the community have voiced regarding the police department. Gavin Devore Leonard of the 365 Project said that leaders from that group met with Village officials in July and October and were able to talk about some “proactive” changes and best practices that could be adopted by the YSPD in areas such as hiring and use of force policies.

“The issues were already there,” he said, “but the events of New Year’s Eve finally shed light on the concerns voiced by young people and people of color” that had heretofore gone unaddressed by villagers outside those demographics. “The pieces are there to try to institute some changes internally,” he said.

The Justice System Task Force met on Tuesday this week for one of their regularly scheduled meetings. Much of the meeting was focused on the role the Task Force would take over the next few months in getting changes passed by Village Council, similar in scope to those sought by the 365 Project, said Task Force member and Village councilor Judith Hempfling.

The Justice System Task force aims to have some input in the search for the new police chief and in rewriting the YSPD’s taser policy, for example, which Hempfling said has become “way more open-ended now” than when it was adopted under Police Chief John Grote in 2008.

Hempfling also said that she is interested in getting all misdemeanors sent to Mayor’s Court, a policy change that she will be advocating for as well.

“It’s not about going after the whole department,” she said, “but some simple changes that could be made.”

Interim leadership
While Hale’s resignation was announced to the public at Council’s Jan. 3 meeting, his decision to step down went into effect as soon as it was decided earlier that day. Village solicitor Chris Conard said that the Village charter enumerates protocol for a situation in which a police chief suddenly vacates the post; as such, Bates has stepped into the position. Bates previously acted in the capacity of an interim chief in 2014 following the resignation of former Yellow Springs Police Chief Anthony Pettiford.

The Village has been in contact with the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization that Bates said keeps a list of retired police chiefs available for hire as interim chiefs. All discussions so far about the interim chief have involved external candidates, Bates said in an email this week, as it “seems prudent to maintain current status with employees.” Moreover, “it was felt there wasn’t sufficient leadership experience in the department to consider an internal interim.”

The Village hopes to have an interim chief in place within the next week, she said.

While the leadership has changed, the day-to-day operations of the department have not, Bates said, nor has the chain of command. The department’s two sergeants — Naomi Watson and Josh Knapp — are facilitating the other officers doing their routine patrols and working cases as they normally would, she said. Watson was the sergeant on duty on New Year’s Eve, though she was not present at the ­altercation.

One officer involved in the New Year’s Eve incident, RJ Hawley, is on injury leave, with the other officers — Allison Saurber, Mark Charles and Jeff Beam — are working their regularly assigned shifts.

Questions concerning reprimands or changes in duty that could be faced by the officers involved with the incident were referred to Williamson, who did not respond in time for publication.

Though the Greene County Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction in the village, no other department has been asked to work with the YSPD in the absence of a chief. Review of the Village’s policy on the use of tasers will be part of the upcoming investigation, but as of now, the policy remains the same and is still in place.

Hale’s resignation
In an interview on Friday, Bates characterized Hale’s resignation as “entirely voluntary.” Bates said that neither she nor Village Council pressured him to make that decision.

Hale’s resignation was “obviously a surprise,” Bates said, and the “resignation letter speaks for itself” when it comes to his reasons for vacating the position. The resignation letter can be found at the YS News website.

In his letter, Hale said he regretted not being more explicit in his instructions to officers about how to patrol the celebration. The officers “made a very poor decision to shut the event down early,” leading to the difficulties and thereby “shattering” the “positive influence” the YSPD had with the village.

“I believe the best way to heal this rift is for me to resign from my position effective immediately,” Hale wrote.

Hale was not scheduled to work on New Year’s Eve and thus wasn’t on hand following the altercation on Xenia Avenue. However, he did “answer immediately” when Bates called him that night. According to Bates, Hale has attended the ball drop in the past but it would “normally be the chief’s decision” whether or not he wanted to be present each year.

Sergeant Watson followed up on the incident by penning the initial reports, Bates said. Though the event happened in the earliest hours of Sunday morning, the chief did not make a statement until Monday afternoon. However, Bates said in an email this week that the delay was due to “information gathering [and] trying to put together as much information as we had preliminarily.”

Hale was in his office on Tuesday and met with those who came to speak with him, she said. Since Jan. 3, however, Hale has not been back to the police department and is having all correspondence forwarded to him through the Village. Bates is currently receiving all of the email that would normally go to the police chief. Bates said she is in her office during normal business hours but is in constant contact with the sergeants regarding the daily goings on of the YSPD.

Hale did not make himself available to speak with the Yellow Springs News in the days following New Year’s Eve, and has not been available for comment since his resignation.

The Village has not yet been able to look into his contract for what kind of severance or other benefits Hale might be accorded following his departure, Bates said.

Sobering lesson
Council will next meet on Jan. 17, and will address the business that was put off at the last meeting in favor of addressing the New Year’s Eve incident exclusively, Bates said, but it’s possible that some preliminary findings from the investigation will be presented.
While there has been much outcry on social media and in real life about last week’s drama, Bates said many people have also stopped by the police department or communicated with her directly with supportive messages and have expressed sympathy for the difficult situation facing the department.

“You can be upset about the situation but still support the department,” she said.

Anticipating the analysis of police procedure and the changes the investigation might inspire, Bates said the events that ushered in 2017 have offered a sobering lesson to residents of the community and the institutions that serve them.

“Officers and the community are now more understanding of the need to work together,” Bates said.


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