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Village, Meister still at odds

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Last Friday’s pre-disciplinary hearing for Yellow Springs Police Corporal Dave Meister was postponed in hopes that lawyers representing Meister and the Village could reach a compromise agreement regarding discipline against Meister for two March incidents, recommended by Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson. While Village Solicitor Chris Conard made a compromise offer to Meister’s attorney, David Duwell, this Monday, July 2, Meister on Tuesday said he will not agree to it.

“I cannot in good conscience sign it,” he said in an interview.

The compromise proposal states that Meister agrees that it’s in the village’s best interest that he be demoted from corporal to patrol officer, that he have a one-day unpaid suspension, and that he enter into a 6-month Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, that requires him to take several Ohio Police Academy classes on dealing with drunk drivers, among other goals. It states that if sufficient progress is not made toward the goals, the department could then terminate Meister. And an additional agreement states that Meister releases the Village from any liability or wrongdoing.

The compromise proposal differed from Carlson’s original proposal in that it eliminated a proposed probationary period, shortened Meister’s unpaid suspension from three days to one day, and shortened a proposed 12-month performance plan to six months.

Since the proposed discipline became public two weeks ago, many villagers have protested that the discipline is too harsh for Meister, a popular nine-year veteran of the department. (See Council story).

Meister said he cannot sign the agreement because he does not believe that it’s in the village’s best interest that he be demoted, nor that the Village be absolved of any wrongdoing. Also, he had requested that a provision be included that protects him from retaliation in the department, and it was not included in the agreement. 

Because he will not agree, the pre-disciplinary hearing is now scheduled to take place on July 12, according to Solicitor Conard this week. Village Clerk of Council Judy Kintner will serve as the hearing officer.

In the first recent incident for which he’s being discipllined, Meister stopped a car driven by a local young man who had a previous OVI (operating a moving vehicle while intoxicated) and appeared intoxicated. Meister took away the young man’s keys and allowed him to walk the block to his house without charging him with a second OVI, partly because he knew the young man was already dealing with a family crisis, Meister said recently. In that incident, according to Chief Carlson, Meister broke departmental policy by allowing an intoxicated person to walk home rather than transporting him. 

In the second incident, Meister stopped a woman who was driving with a suspended license and whose car smelled of alcohol. However, the woman denied having been drinking, although her passenger admitted to doing so. Meister had the car towed and drove the two home, but did not press further to determine if she was, in fact, intoxicated. 

In both incidents, according to attorney Duwell, Meister is being disciplined for being too lenient. And to Meister, he’s being disciplined for practicing the sort of low-key, compassionate policing that villagers say they want.

“I’m doing community policing,” he said.

However, according to Chief Carlson, what’s most important is community safety. Meister should have charged the young man with a second OVI and further investigated whether the woman had been drinking, Carlson said, in order for them to get whatever help is available through the court system.

“How am I helping that person in any way by not charging them?” Carlson said this week. “What about tomorrow?”

Past discipline

In his nearly nine years with the Yellow Springs Police Department, Meister has been disciplined four times before the most recent recommendations, according to his personnel file, obtained by the News through a public records request.

Because past disciplines were cited by Carlson in a May memo as a reason that the current proposed discipline is substantial, the News this week looks at them.

The number itself is significant, Carlson said in a recent interview.

“It’s an extremely high number,” he said, stating that most of the Village’s full-time officers have no disciplinary actions against them.

While Meister doesn’t argue the facts of each situation, he does believe the incidents themselves reflect minor mistakes, and that he’s being targeted for relatively small infractions.

“I’m being treated differently,” he said.

Meister also said he welcomes attention being drawn to his personnel file. 

“There’s nothing there that I’m embarrassed about,” he said. “I took an oath to protect and serve, and I think I’m doing a good job.”

Meister’s file includes three letters of commendation from citizens. Villager Liz Porter commended Meister for his calm response to a frightening situation near her home, as well as his presence in a Nonviolent Communication class.

“…I believe that Officer Meister is exactly the sort of person who should be supported, encouraged and highly valued in his position,” she wrote.

And in a letter supporting Meister when he applied for the position of police chief in 2017, Joan Horn cited an incident she witnessed.

“I was struck by his concern, his willingness to help and his doing so in a thoughtful and humane manner,” she said.

According to Police Chief Carlson, he has no doubt as to Meister’s skills in dealing with people, although those skills are not noted anywhere in the file, where the only two yearly reviews, for 2014 and 2015 by Sergeants Josh Knapp and Naomi Penrod, rate his “relationship with people” skills as satisfactory, or average. However, Carlson believes the recent incidents, along with past discipline, calls into question not Meister’s manner with people, but his judgement.

“Dave is not ready for a supervisory role,” he said of the proposed demotion. “That’s all I’m saying.”

How significant?

Meister was not disciplined during his first four and a half years of employment, beginning in early 2010. The first disciplinary action came in mid-2014, when he was disciplined for speeding and running a red light without the cruiser’s lights and siren turned on when chasing a car. Naomi Penrod, who had earlier that year been promoted to sergeant, was the supervisory officer who brought the situation to the attention of then-Chief Anthony Pettiford. Meister was given a verbal warning.

According to Meister, it’s not unusual for police to sometimes begin a chase without lights and siren, as it may be the only way to get close to the target car. When he tells others in law enforcement about this discipline, he said, they are surprised.

“When I say I was written up for this, people are flabbergasted,” he said. 

But Carlson said that Meister’s mistake in this situation was clear.

“I honestly don’t know the details, but you don’t run a red light without lights and siren,” he said.

Meister’s second discipline followed what he believed was a sighting of Penrod and Pettiford on a motorcycle together late at night. Around 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in August 2014, Meister was fueling his cruiser near Trebein Road in Fairborn when he believed he saw the two police officers, both motorcycle enthusiasts, on a bike together. To identify the bike’s owner, Meister ran the bike’s license plate number using OHLEG, an Ohio police database specified as for use only for work matters.

Meister was already concerned that the two were having an intimate relationship, he said recently, so he brought the alleged sighting to the attention of Village Manager Patti Bates, according to investigation documents.

To Meister, what he perceived as the close relationship between Penrod and Pettiford was harmful to the police department work atmosphere.

Pettiford seemed to favor Penrod, according to Meister. He also communicated little to other employees, most often closing his office doors and staying inside his office.

“There was preferential treatment” to Penrod, Meister said. 

So when Meister thought he spotted the two on a motorcycle late at night, he reported the incident to Bates, although he also admitted that the license plate search indicated that the bike was owned by someone else. Bates asked him to report his concern to Village Solicitor Chris Conard. Not long after, Meister was alerted that he was being investigated for misuse of the database. He was also found guilty of “Improper” behavior for “reporting false information about witnessing two Police Department employees being together in an inappropriate or intimate setting.”

The investigation was conducted by Josh Knapp, the department’s second sergeant, along with Penrod, who has since married and whose married name is Watson. According to the interview report, Penrod was asked if the allegation of her being on a motorcycle was true, and she stated it was not. 

Meister was suspended without pay for one day due to misuse of the data base and improper behavior in reporting the incident. The discipline occurred several months after the incident, and was approved by then-Chief Dave Hale in 2015. Pettiford left his position in September 2014, a month after the incident reported by Meister.

Other discipline

Since that time, Meister believes, Watson, now in a supervisory role over him, has scrutinized him for mistakes in a way she doesn’t scrutinize others. He believes she’s retaliating about his bringing his concern about her relationship with Pettiford to Village authorities, and that, in fact, she said at the time she would do so.

In an interview this week, Watson disagreed with his assessment of the reasons for his discipline.

“That’s in the past,” she said. “I would like to think we’re mature enough to move beyond that.”

In the most recent discipline against Meister prior to this year, Watson brought a complaint against him following an incident in April, 2017. In that discipline, approved by Village Manager Patti Bates during Carlson’s interim period as chief, Meister was found to have exhibited “unsatisfactory work quality” during an incident when a local youth on house arrest was spotted by Watson at the Bryan Center gym as she left work. Because she was leaving the building, she told the dispatcher to alert Meister, who was starting his shift, to make contact with the youth and confirm he was on house arrest.

Meister contacted the juvenile’s mother, who came to the gym to take him home. However, the disciplinary action states that Meister should have contacted the youth’s probation officer, who would likely have sent him to juvenile detention. According to the disciplinary action, Watson later learned the youth was being sought by authorities for other offenses.

“I thought I was doing the right thing for the family, but I was written up for not doing the most punitive thing,” Meister said last week.

In response to the incident, Chief Carlson said that Meister’s mistake was not contacting the probation officer first.

“It was disobeying a direct order,” Carlson said this week. “The probation officer should have decided whether to detain the young man or call his parents. It’s not up to us to make that call.”

A year earlier, Meister was cited in 2016 for not properly processing evidence at the scene of a crime. According to Watson, the concern about the handling of evidence was brought to her by the prosecutor on the case and her role, as it usually is, was to evaluate the situation and decide whether a recommendation for disciplinary action should move forward to the chief. She believed that this did.

“Officer Meister gathered evidence from the scene and failed to process and book it into evidence,” according to Watson, who conducted the investigative interview of Meister.

According to Meister, the discipline involved a notepad that the owners of a burgled home said was not theirs, which Meister removed from the scene but did not include in the processed evidence.

To Carlson, any mistake in gathering evidence is significant because it calls into question evidence gathered in past crimes.

“Once it happens, you’re opening up problems with all your previous cases,” he said.

To Meister, these disciplinary actions, while not unfounded, relate to relatively minor mistakes. He also believes that Watson specifically targets him.

“She’s trying to find fault,” he said, regarding Watson. “If you want to find something negative, you will.”

Watson disagrees that she has any animus toward Meister from the 2014 incident, or that it affects his discipline.

“That has nothing to do with writing these complaints,” she said. “When they’re brought to me, I’m just doing my job.

Watson is the likely person to sign as the supervisory officer in disciplinary actions, as she has for all of the above except the 2015 discipline, because she’s one of only two sergeants, and the one who watches the officers’ dash-cam videos to review officers’ behavior, Carlson said. Carlson also said he is not concerned that Watson, the subject of Meister’s report to Village authorities about an inappropriate relationship, is not being fair to Meister.

“Naomi does a good job,” he said. “We’re all grown ups here.”

And in each incident, Meister signed the disciplinary action document stating that he agreed with it, according to Solicitor Conard. That signature indicates that Meister considered the discipline appropriate, Conard said.

“He didn’t lodge objections at the time. How would anyone know he disagreed?” Conard said.

But Meister said this week he felt pressure to sign the disciplinary actions. 

“I was trying to be a good employee, to not make waves,” he said. “I thought they were petty but could not argue with the facts. But now I feel enough is enough.”

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