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Task force urges taser changes

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At Village Council’s March 20 meeting, Council members approved recommendations from the Justice System Task Force, or JSTF, that would clarify taser use and training for local police officers, require Crisis Intervention Training for all officers, and put in place officer training on implicit bias. The action took place during an agenda-packed four-hour public meeting.

Council unanimously approved a motion stating it “affirms and supports” the recommendations, and asked the task force to move on to next steps.

Formed in September 2016, the JSTF is a Council citizens group that studies police policies and practices with the aim of improving police/community relations. While the group originally planned a two-year process, the heightened concerns over local policing after the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop incident led to their picking up the pace to make recommendations for changes. The recommendations made on March 20 are the first the group has presented to Council. The group has also been in discussion with Interim Chief Brian Carlson, who also approves the changes.

Justice System Task Force members are Pat Dewees, Kate Hamilton, John Hempfling, Ellis Jacobs, Steve McQueen and Pastor Bill Randolph, who was sworn in at the meeting. Alternates are David Turner and Al Schlueter, and the Council liaison is Judith Hempfling, with Marianne MacQueen the alternate.

The group is focusing on seven areas of potential reform, including building trust and legitimacy; policy and oversight; technology and social media; community policing and crime reduction; training and education; officer wellness and safety; and the restorative justice system, according to a written report. The report also acknowledges other areas of police/community relations that are being addressed by citizen groups such as The 365 Project and a government class at Yellow Springs High School, among others.

“We can all feel good that the entire village is working on this; people are engaged,” Dewees said to Council.

Regarding taser use, the group recommends changes in current policy that clarify how and when tasers may be engaged. The recommendations state that tasers should be used “only to protect life or prevent serious injury, and not to secure compliance or in a punitive manner.”

“It’s become standard practice to go to tasers quickly as a compliance tool, and we saw that on New Year’s Eve,” Dewees stated, noting that tasers can be dangerous and even deadly. The report states that the current department training seems to encourage officers to “depend on tasers for compliance in situations when other tools and tactics are available.”

In an independent investigation of the New Year’s Eve incident, during which police engaged with citizens in a way many considered overly aggressive, two officers were criticized for using tasers inappropriately. Officer RJ Hawley was cited for aiming a taser at David Carlson, a young black man standing just outside his vehicle, who Hawley considered to be behaving in a threatening manner, although the investigation did not find witnesses to corroborate that impression. And the report also criticized Officer Allison Saurber for aiming her taser at a crowd and yelling at the crowd to “Get back!” Saurber has since left the department.

A factor in the inappropriate use of tasers may be a lack of clarity and training around their use, Dewees said, stating that local policy on tasers has gone through several revisions in recent years. When tasers were first introduced to the local department in 2008, the policy was written by then-Chief John Grote and attorney Ellis Jacobs, but the policy was changed after Grote retired. It was changed again during the tenure of Chief David Hale, although Council members were unaware of the change, according to Council President Karen Wintrow.

“The changes were never articulated to us. I was shocked,” she stated.

While Council Vice President Brian Housh agreed with approving the JSTF recommendations, he also stated he wants to revisit the issue.

“I think taser policy needs to be stricter,” he said. “We’re not done talking about it.”

In its second recommendation to Council, the task force asked Council to require that all officers have taken the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team Training, or CIT, by the end of this year. A variety of citizen groups have recommended the training, which trains officers on de-escalation techniques when dealing with those who have mental health issues, according to the JSTF report. These groups include the Human Relations Commission, or HRC, and The 365 Project.

In response to the recommendation, Chief Carlson said that all but three officers have received the training, and those needing the training are scheduled to take it in April and September.

And in the third JSTF recommendation, the group asked Council to direct the department to ensure that all officers complete implicit bias training by the end of the year. Implicit bias refers to “unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our behavior,” according to the report, and is especially troubling around the issue of race.

“Implicit bias is pervasive in all professions, but it’s of particular concern when police officers act on it, especially racial bias,” Dewees said.

Search for new chief?
In a second policing-related topic, Council continued a discussion regarding how best to proceed with hiring a permanent police chief. Several villagers spoke, expressing equally passionate arguments for and against engaging in a search for a new chief, or forgoing the search and hiring Interim Chief Carlson.

Carlson was hired as interim chief at the end of January, replacing former Chief Dave Hale, who resigned shortly after the New Year’s Eve incident. Hale had been on the job for two years, and before that, Anthony Pettiford also had a brief tenure of less than two years. Carlson has been an officer with the department for seven years.

The turnover of chiefs has contributed to problems within the department, according to Al Schlueter, who urged Council to take time before starting a search. He also stated disappointment that he felt citizens’ preferences weren’t listened to during the last search process.

“You need to slow down,” he said. “Chief Carlson is doing good things, let him continue. Take the time to listen respectfully to the community.”

Others also recommended that Carlson be given more time.

“At least give Brian six months or a year,” Karen Gardner said, before having the Village go through the “expense and challenge” of a search for a new chief.

Others felt no search is needed.

“I think Chief Carlson is the right person,” said Karen McKee of the McKee Association. Villagers have stated over and over their preference for having a chief and officers who know and respect them, she said. “It’s pretty clear what we’re looking for in a chief.”

Council members understand that many villagers think highly of Carlson and the work he’s already done to change attitudes and practices in the department, Council President Wintrow said, and Council members share that sentiment. But they also know that after Hale resigned and before Carlson was hired, many villagers spoke passionately of wanting a “broad and deep” process for finding a new chief. They also remember that some villagers during the last search urged Council to hire Hale, the interim chief, for the permanent position “to not rock the boat.” But Hale turned out to not be a good fit.

“Council is in a bit of a quandary now,” she said.

Other villagers urged Council to move ahead with a search.

“Wanting a search process does not mean disrespecting the work of Chief Carlson,” said Janet Mueller of The 365 Project, whose members advocate holding a search.

And 365 Project member Louise Smith also urged Council to look widely for a new chief, stating that she wants to “raise the bar higher” than just seeking someone who is familiar with, and friendly to, villagers. Rather, she said, the new chief should lead the way to “serve the needs of a department with a 21st century racial justice policy.” Carlson may be that person, she said, but the Village needs to look wider as well.

In the end, Council members stated their intention to slow the process down.

“We need to take time,” Brian Housh said, and turn Council’s attention to immediate needs, such as reviewing current department policies. “We’ll take a break from this discussion for now.”
Other March 20 Council agenda items will be covered in the March 30 News.


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