Three candidates for chief offer nuanced differences at forum
- Published: June 8, 2017
If you were the Yellow Springs police chief, what would you have done differently on New Year’s Eve?
This was one of many questions posed by villagers to the three candidates for the position of Yellow Springs chief of police during a public forum on Tuesday, May 30. About 60 villagers squeezed into Council chambers to hear short presentations from the candidates — Brian Carlson, David Meister and Timothy Spradlin — and then asked questions during the 90-minute event. Moderating the forum was Jalyn Roe of Village Mediation, and following the event, villagers and candidates gathered informally at a reception.
While the candidates expressed similar views on some topics, there were nuanced differences presented in the areas of improving department morale, team-building and leadership styles. Those who attended were encouraged to fill out evaluation forms on the candidates; a decision will be announced at the Monday, June 5, Council meeting, according to Village Manager Patti Bates.
Carlson, Meister and Spradlin all currently work at the department, with Carlson serving since January as interim chief following the resignation of former chief Dave Hale, who left the department shortly after the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop event. That event sparked outrage and concern from many villagers, as the four officers on duty behaved in a manner considered by many to be overly aggressive and hostile to the crowd at the annual downtown celebration, including the attempted tasing of a young black man, who was charged with a felony. The senior officer on site, RJ Hawley, has since left the department.
In response to the New Year’s Eve question, Interim Chief Carlson, who has been a local officer for seven years, opened by saying, “We will heal and move on. But as a department, we made mistakes in judgement.”
Had he been chief, Carlson said, he would have been downtown during the popular event.
“The chief needs to be present at as many public events as possible,” he said. “Ninety percent of this job is showing up.”
But Carlson also emphasized that were he chief, he would want his officers to be “empowered to learn to back off.”
“The mistake in the end is not understanding that as an officer I have 1,000 people to protect and one intoxicated subject at my vehicle. Imagine if at that point I stepped back and said, ‘I’m sorry, everyone, Happy New Year!’ There would have been embracing rather than opposition.”
In his response, Meister, a local officer for seven years, also emphasized the lack of supervision at the event.
“If I were in charge, I wouldn’t have wanted just officers there,” he said. “You have to have someone in charge who is looking from the outside and not getting caught up in emotion and ego.”
The officers on New Year’s Eve didn’t use best practices for crowd control, Meister said, and he would have trained local police in those practices “so we don’t turn a peaceful crowd into a riot.”
“Mistakes were made and they were public mistakes,” he said.
Spradlin, who has worked part time at the department for two years, also cited a lack of supervision on New Year’s Eve, as well as a lack of planning and what he believes is a need for a clear Village policy to clarify the role of police at public events.
“In the future we need a special events policy for everything,” he said. “We need to plan the event in advance with all parties involved.”
Police especially need clarity on their role, Spradlin said. When he worked the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop several years ago, Spradlin said he was concerned at the level of “public intoxication and open containers that were allowed even though it’s illegal.”
“We need a clear vision of who’s in charge and what are the parameters,” he said. “We can make it better in the future. I’m sorry it happened.”
The main differences expressed at the forum came in response to a question, posed by Kevin Stokes, about how the candidates’ past work and life experiences helped form their leadership styles. In response, Carlson emphasized empathy, Meister emphasized diplomacy and Spradlin emphasized strength.
Carlson’s leadership style has been affected by having a father who’s a Presbyterian minister, he said, growing up in a household with an emphasis on “caring for humanity. The way I was raised, there was empathy and caring for others.”
“When we see people, we need to really see them, not see their label,” Carlson said. “I hope to bring that to the department from the top down.”
After spending his 20s and 30s in business, Carlson entered the police academy at the age of 48, having realized that he felt “a void in my life.” The human aspect of police work has filled that void, he said.
While Meister also emphasized the importance of caring, he identified himself as a “diplomatic leader” who as a field training officer believes in offering officers options while also asking them to consider “what’s best for the suspect, for the victim and for the community” in making decisions.
Influenced by his own father, a farmer with a strong helping ethic, Meister also cited the influence of his past work as a biologist for Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he learned “negotiation and compromise, and to base my decisions on logic and science.” He also began police work then, motivated by a desire to “catch the people who were breaking the laws and harming natural resources.”
In his statement on leadership style, Spradlin cited his Christian faith as the source of his values and his experience in the Iraq War as a critical influence.
“There is evil in the world,” he said. “We have to stand up to evil.”
He has seen his share of “death and destruction,” Spradlin said, and he prefers peace. But to have peace, “You have to be strong,” he said.
“I would lead from the front, and would be a strong leader,” he said.
And he would also be honest and direct with his officers and the community.
“I will never lie to you, and I might not always tell you what you want to hear,” he said.
Chief should be present
In response to a question from Matthew Wallace, all of the candidates agreed that it’s critical for the police chief to be a visible presence in the community.
“It’s not a 9 to 5 job, being chief,” Spradlin said. “ It’s 24/7. I’d go to Dino’s to have coffee, I’d visit a local church. I like doing that stuff.”
As a resident of Yellow Springs, Meister said he’s already a visible presence at community events, and would continue to be so as chief.
“I go to a lot of events, and as chief that won’t change,” he said, stating that while he attends some events while on duty, many are off-duty as well.
“I love going to events in this community,” he said.
Carlson agreed with the importance of the chief being visible.
“That’s the bulk of this job, showing up, being supportive. It’s critical,” he said. “It’s the public as a whole who we’re guardians for, it’s not just preventing crime.”
The candidates also agreed on the importance of all local officers receiving the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, which teaches de-escalation techniques along with strategies for dealing with those with mental health issues.
“It’s the best law enforcement training I ever had,” Carlson said. “I found the training exciting and enticing.”
Each candidate also said he would, as chief, encourage the use of the local Mayor’s Court by local officers.
“It’s a win-win for everyone. It’s as close to restorative justice as we can get to right now,” Meister said.
Along with Mayor’s Court, Carlson said he would also like to see a local Teen Court, modeled after a restorative justice program in Oakwood. And Spradlin said that while he would like to see officers use the local court “whenever legally possible,” he believes the Village should be represented by a prosecuting attorney if the defendent brings to court a defense attorney.
“Let’s have an equal playing field,” he said.
In response to a question from Karen Gardner, the three candidates offered slightly different approaches to improving morale in the department.
Morale has been a significant problem, apparent in the recent high turnover in the department, according to Spradlin.
“It’s been like a revolving door downstairs for the last two and a half years,” he said. “We want young people to come here who want to stay.”
That instability can change with the right leader, one who offers support to his officers, Spradlin said.
“People who want to be police are good people, with a strong sense of right and wrong,” he said. “Cops need to be supported. We need to help lift them up.”
Meister agreed that officers need more support.
“I try to pass along positive feedback to officers,” he said. “We need more positive communication, and to get them to read Facebook less.”
The department has also suffered from communication problems the past several years, Meister said, and he would address that issue.
“We need clear communication with each other,” he said.
Regarding morale, Carlson said part of the reason for the high turnover is that in a small department such as Yellow Springs, there are limited leadership options, so that officers have few chances to advance, and thus they move on.
To address this challenge, Carlson aims to encourage officers to become trained in the specialization of their choice, such as child advocacy, so that they gain expertise and recognition in the area of their choosing.
“I have a plan for this, and it’s empowerment,” he said.
Beyond that, the department needs to do a better job of hiring officers who want to work in Yellow Springs, as opposed to just wanting a job.
“We want people who love it here, who care about this tiny blue dot in a red state,” he said.
Several villagers asked the candidates to speak on how they would encourage communication with citizens, including those with complaints about officers.
“I want to encourage both good and bad feedback,” Meister said. “I want to bring that information into the department, not just on Facebook.”
The department already has a formal system for filing complaints, and he’d keep that system. But Meister said he wants to add a second, more informal system where citizens can give feedback anonymously, if necessary.
“Our current system discourages complaints,” he said.
Spradlin emphasized that he’ll be available to respond to citizen concerns “anytime, anywhere.”
“I’ll have an open door and I want to hear your concerns, take your information, do some research and get back to you,” he said.
If people aren’t comfortable coming to the department, Spradlin said he’ll be glad to come to their home, out of uniform.
According to Carlson, one of the most difficult parts of his past months as interim chief has been hearing citizen complaints about having been mistreated by local police.
“To me, the relationship between the village and the department is paramount, transparency is paramount,” he said. “My door is open.”
He’s tried to create a welcoming environment for those who come to speak to him.
“I hope that friendly, warm environment invites conversation, for people to open up,” Carlson said.
But citizens need to be willing to come forward if they have complaints, the candidates said in response to a question from Shonda Sneed, who asked how they would engage those who have had bad experiences with police but are too uncomfortable to tell anyone at the department.
“If information isn’t getting to us, then we can’t address concerns,” Meister said. “We want to change the process so that people are not intimidated.”