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Several Yellow Springs residents spoke out about policing issues at the Village Council meeting on March 6. Prompted by the incidents of New Year’s Eve, many villagers are hoping to change the culture of Yellow Springs policing and redefine the relationship between local police officers and the villagers they serve. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

Several Yellow Springs residents spoke out about policing issues at the Village Council meeting on March 6. Prompted by the incidents of New Year’s Eve, many villagers are hoping to change the culture of Yellow Springs policing and redefine the relationship between local police officers and the villagers they serve. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

Citizens seek strong voice in policing

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This is the fifth article in a new series examining police policy, practice
and relationship to the community.

Articles in this series

By now it’s a familiar sight: large numbers of Yellow Springs residents gathered at a Village Council meeting, with many lined up to address the room with grievances about Village policy. Prompted by the incidents of New Year’s Eve, the focus is the overhaul, or at least significant reworking, of the Yellow Springs Police Department.

The collective concern manifests itself in the push for change. In addition to attending Council meetings, many villagers have spoken personally with Village officials about their concerns, while others have joined groups researching alternatives to what many characterize as the “militaristic” style of policing currently taught at police academies. Ultimately, these groups and individuals would like these changes codified into practice by changing Yellow Springs policy.

But how do they plan to implement the changes they seek? What ideas have been put forth so far? More broadly, to what degree are citizens actually able to influence the workings of their local department? The fifth article in the People and Police series takes a look at the changes sought by key local groups and how local officials and the Yellow Springs Police Department are addressing their proposals.

Citizens seeking change

Organizing as citizens is one of the most efficacious ways to facilitate change, said Pat Dewees, a member of the Justice System Task Force examining official policy. And when it comes to the operations of the local police department, this may be an especially effective tactic, provided local officials and the local chief are receptive to citizen ideas. According to the office of the Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a local police chief has considerable latitude in determining how a department is run.

“The state does not mandate a form of policing,” he said in a recent interview with the News. “The form of policing is a decision made by the local chief. The state doesn’t say police officers must get out of their cars, or must not get out of their cars.”

The Ohio Legislature passes law outlining what areas of policy local departments must have in place, said Jill Del Greco, the Attorney General’s public information officer, but not necessarily what those policies have to be. For instance, a department must have policies on police pursuits and forfeited property, but the local department determines the specifics. In contrast, Ohio Revised Code dictates the entirety of some procedures, such as how to respond to domestic violence incidents.

“Ohio is a ‘home rule’ state,” Del Greco said. “A lot of [rule-making] is done on the local level.”

The 365 Project, a local citizen group, is one of the local groups hoping to catch the YSPD’s ear. The 365 Project is working to “conceptualize and create actionable changes” within the YSPD, said group member Louise Smith. Like other groups in the village, the 365 Project is examining departmental hiring, training and approach to policing in an effort to realign YSPD policy with village values. Also of concern is officers’ apparent unfamiliarity with the community, and so the 365 Project and other groups would like to find ways to bridge this gap and foster more comfortable relationships between villagers and police.

Many changes sought by the group would establish local officers as “peace officers.” Ohio recently increased annual police continuing education training hours to 20, and Smith said the 365 Project is hoping the department focuses some of this required training on de-escalation tactics. Another change would include closer collaboration with NAMI and other mental health advocacy organizations to ensure that villagers with mental health concerns have access to the care they need if engaged with police. Similarly, the 365 Project and others are exploring the idea of having a social worker employed by the department.

The group is also proposing a more thorough process of vetting officers applying for a job in the village, such as taking a closer look at past disciplinary actions and association with groups whose ideologies are at odds with the kind of policing many villagers would like to see. Officers currently take aptitude tests and undergo background checks, polygraph tests and psychological evaluations when being considered for a job at the YSPD, said YSPD Interim Chief Brian Carlson in an interview this week. The last time there was a job opening, only four of approximately 20 candidates passed all of the evaluations.

Overall, officers’ apparent lack of familiarity with the community’s expectations of police has fostered the current climate of mistrust, Smith said, and so going forward it might make sense to advertise more overtly what kind of policing the department wants so that officers applying for a job in the village are familiar with the approach taken by local police.

“You can’t train people to adopt a certain sensibility,” Smith said. “They have to want to be here.”

The 365 Project has also recently completed an updated version of a Police Policy Vision statement passed by Village Council in 2015. The newer statement outlines a philosophy for the department that reflects the approach to policing outlined above, and the group has already shared its recommendations with Village Manager Patti Bates and Village Council.

While many of the group’s suggestions at this point are theoretical, John Gudgel, a member of the 365 Project, cited the openness of village officials and Carlson as positive signs that such changes could eventually be implemented.

“The important thing is that we’re all invested in the village and really want these changes to reflect the community we live in,” Gudgel said. “We have to be optimistic.”

Another group examining the department is the Justice System Task Force, or  JSTF, commissioned by Village Council in the fall of 2016 to study issues related to policing. The group is comprised of two Council representatives and approximately 12 citizens. 

Like Village Council meetings, JSTF meetings are open to the public and villagers are encouraged to participate, member Dewees said. The group has heard input from villagers regarding a variety of ways to restructure the department, up to and including doing away with the YSPD completely. While she appreciates that anyone takes time to voice recommendations, she said, in the latter instance, disbanding the YSPD would mean that the town would be served by the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, a solution that she imagined the “majority of citizens don’t want.”

More concretely, the JSTF is considering ways in which officers can better integrate themselves into the community. Officers can’t be legally obligated to live in town, Dewees said, but some citizens have suggested paying a stipend for officers’ rent to encourage them to live here, though she acknowledged that the relatively high cost of living in town might remain a barrier.

The JSTF has a number of subcommittees that in turn study a specific area of policing. The “Best Practices Committee” is exploring the concept of restorative justice and how this philosophy might be implemented in the local department, said Yellow Springs resident and lawyer Ellis Jacobs. Restorative justice could be implemented locally through better use of the local Mayor’s Court, he said, which can offer a more community-minded approach to handling low-level cases.

The YSPD would also like to see some changes, and is interested in repairing its relationship with villagers, said YSPD Interim Chief Brian Carlson in an interview last week. 

For example, Carlson suggested that “liaisons” between the police department and citizens would be helpful in clarifying police policies and intentions. He cited a recent discussion on a Facebook forum where misinformation about the department was quickly disseminated. Members of a Yellow Springs Facebook discussion forum wrote that the department was aiming to charge the person who wrote graffiti on local stop signs with a felony, a misunderstanding based on an interview about the incident Carlson recently did with an area news outlet. The Facebook posts prompted numerous calls to the department about the issue. Carlson was happy to clarify his comment, he said, which in turn dispelled citizen ire, but such misinterpretations have the capacity to strain the relationship between villagers and YSPD. 

Smith, of the 365 Project, acknowledged that there are some hurdles to implementing the changes they seek, such as attracting officers who want to do Yellow Springs-style police work and the challenge of reworking Village law, which Council members have warned takes significant time to update. 

But while Smith was initially wary of the potential for confusion caused by so much input, she now feels the range of people advocating for a new approach to policing will expand the conception of what’s possible for the department while also indicating to Village officials that residents are invested in doing things in a new way.

An evolving YSPD

Direct conversation with residents has already been productive, Carlson said, citing his writing of a new YSPD policy that prohibits police vehicles to be used as crowd control, as happened on New Year’s Eve. He has also recently mandated officers dedicate two hours of each 10–hour shift to foot patrol. In response to calls for crisis intervention training, or CIT, Carlson announced at a recent Village Council meeting that all but three of the officers have completed the training, with all scheduled to be trained within a few months. And next month, officers will have lunch with Antioch students in order to familiarize the police with campus life, he said. 

Additionally, according to Carlson’s February report to Council, the department will be “examining its policies regarding use of force, use of taser and use of verbal force,” a step influenced by the research into taser use conducted by the JSTF. Carlson also noted in this report that officer evaluations will now take into consideration the “number of interactions officers have with residents and visitors in the community,” a rubric intended to encourage familiarity with the village and build relationships with residents.

Overall, most officers at the YSPD have been receptive to the suggestions and are interested in repairing the relationship with the community, Carlson said. Some officers have been wary of the changes or disagree with the philosophy behind them, but those objections will have to be overcome, he said.

“It’s important that the people who live here love it here,” Carlson said. “One interaction at a time, but I’m determined we’re going to earn the trust back.”

Carlson said that he intends to maintain an open-door policy in an effort to continue this conversation and to get a better understanding of what citizens would like to see in their town.

“I am 100 percent willing to listen to suggestions and work with the community,” he said.

A ‘wakeup call’ to Council

Village Council writes Village policy and hires the Village manager, who directly oversees the police chief.

The events of New Year’s Eve and the citizen uproar that followed was almost like a wakeup call, Council member Brian Housh recently said. The work done by citizens has prompted Council members to reassess their own relationship to both the YSPD and villagers.

In Housh’s view, Council didn’t take as active a role as it could have in assuring the YSPD was operating according to village values despite working with citizens on items such as the Policing Vision statement passed in 2015. Council members oversaw the big-picture operations of the department, such as the budget, but were less engaged with policy specifics. Going forward, Council members will be working more closely with the YSPD on every level, he said. 

“It is certainly within the purview [of Council members] to get things back on track,” Housh said. “We try not to interfere with the running of the department, but we want to make sure policy [in line with recommended changes] is being operationalized.”

Council President Karen Wintrow agreed, saying that it is Council who sets the tone for the culture of the department.

“There was a crisis of confidence,” she said in an interview this week. “[Council] will be more directly involved in establishing expectations for the YSPD and setting up a culture that reflects a better relationship with the community,” the establishment of which depends on citizen input, she said.

The events of New Year’s Eve also prompted more citizens — and Council members — to take the experiences of marginalized groups with greater seriousness, according to Village Council member Marianne MacQueen, which will in turn ideally result in policy that takes into account these perspectives. 

“New Year’s Eve awakened people to the realities that young, black and poor people regularly experience,” she said.

Smith, of the 365 Project, said that the fallout from New Year’s Eve presented a “big opportunity” for Village Council. The change in leadership of the YSPD forced Council members to confront the issues that have been of concern to villagers for years.

“It’s heartening,” she said. “There is a very different tone in the leadership from the fall.”

Confident in changes

The continued presence of villagers at Council meetings and the recent assertion by independent investigators that police created a “volatile and unsafe situation” on New Year’s Eve helps many residents feel that the YSPD will continue to evolve with significant input from the community. Moreover, everyone interviewed for this article mentioned Carlson’s receptiveness to citizens’ concerns and ideas.

“I’m reasonably confident good changes will happen,” said Jacobs, of the JSTF.

Village officials too anticipate changes. Chastened by New Year’s Eve, Housh vowed to redouble his own efforts to work with resident and official Village bodies in the interest of the community.

“I’m optimistic about the job Chief Carlson is doing, but I don’t see us becoming less vigilant” about the oversight of the department, he said.

Changes of the kind Yellow Springers want to make in their police department have been successfully implemented in other jurisdictions around the country, Smith said, and that too augurs good things for Yellow Springs. 

The next entry in the People and Police series examines how other towns have effectuated progressive policing.

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