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Village Council — Officer resigns amid concerns

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Officer Richard Neel resigned Monday, Oct. 1, from the Yellow Springs Police Department after seven months on the force.

Village Manager Patti Bates announced Neel’s resignation at Council’s Oct. 1 meeting. Later, in response to a question, Bates said that Neel would not be receiving additional pay or a letter of recommendation.

“There is no package. Officer Neel resigned on his own accord,” Bates said.

A small crowd that had come to the meeting to address a recent incident involving Neel erupted in applause at Bates’ announcement.

Officer Neel had been under scrutiny after residents made complaints to the YSPD, and on social media, that Neel had acted overly aggressive toward citizens during interactions and tended to escalate situations.

In an incident Saturday that some villagers found particularly troubling, Neel pulled his gun on a 92-year-old retired physician. Neel stopped longtime local resident Dr. Jim Agna on suspicion of a hit-skip, for not stopping when the officer tried to pull him over, and other charges.

YSPD Chief Brian Carlson said this week that after an initial review of the incident, Neel chose to resign rather than face an investigation into whether or not he violated police policy. 

“Due to Ofc. Neel’s resignation, an Internal Investigation cannot be properly completed as Ofc. Neel no longer has a duty to participate in the proceedings,” Carlson wrote in an email.

Including the recent incident, Neel was involved in three use-of-force incidents in his brief time with the department, according to Carlson.

Carlson also investigated several informal citizen complaints against Neel, finding concerns with “tone and demeanor” but no policy violations. After working with Neel to improve his de-escalation tactics and “understand the working environment in Yellow Springs,” in the end, the YSPD and Neel decided to part ways, Carlson said.

“He resigned and we wish him the best of luck,” Carlson said.

Neel was hired as a part-time officer in March in his first law enforcement job after receiving his peace officer certificate last year, according to his personnel file.

Recent incident

According to police records, at around 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, a Dayton Street caller told the dispatcher that a car struck his car on Dayton Street and kept driving. 

Neel responded and attempted to pull over the suspected vehicle, driven by Agna. However, Agna, who is known to have hearing problems, continued to drive for several blocks. According to Neel, Agna also drove through a stop sign and across marked lanes. 

Then, after Agna pulled into his garage on Meadow Lane and started to exit the car, Neel approached with his gun drawn and aimed at him, according to dispatcher records, which reported “one at gun point.” 

A witness who lives next door said he walked around his garage to find an officer “barking orders” at Agna “with his weapon drawn and pointed at him” from a distance of about 10 to 12 feet.

Lee Kibblewhite, the neighbor, intervened when it seemed the officer wasn’t aware he was dealing with an elderly man. When Kibblewhite first heard sirens he thought his neighbor might be having a medical issue, but grew worried when he saw the officer training his gun on his neighbor.

“My mind had gone from ‘I hope Jim is okay’ to ‘Oh my god, Jim is in danger. Jim is in danger,’” Kibblewhite said.

Agna appeared terrified and confused, according to Kibblewhite. Agna later said it was the worst day of his life, according to his daughter, Gwen, who was visiting from out of town during the incident.

Neel cited Agna on four counts, including a first-degree misdemeanor (failure to stop after accident), a fourth-degree misdemeanor (failure to pull over when signaled by the officer) and two minor misdemeanors (failure to control, and a stop sign violation). 

According to Carlson this week, those charges will stand and are not affected by Neel’s departure.

Citizens respond

At the meeting, several villagers addressed concerns over Neel’s recent actions and the YSPD in general during the citizen’s comments portion of the meeting. Others who had planned to speak left earlier after Neel’s resignation was announced.

Robert Paschell, who said he has known Agna for 52 years, found the incident involving Officer Neel “very upsetting,” saying that training a gun on someone should be a “last ditch measure” when an officer’s life is in danger.

“I just couldn’t imagine Jim Agna endangering someones’ life — quite the opposite,” Paschell said.

Tanja Resch-Jillson said that she was disappointed to learn of the recent incident involving Neel, but also disappointed that Officer Neel had resigned.

“I feel like we are losing an opportunity… to teach, to grow, to learn — him as well as us,”  Resch-Jillson said

Resch-Jillson added that the YSPD’s hiring process needs more transparency.

Athena Fannin, who goes by Minerva Barker in online forums, added her belief that the YSPD “has hiring issues,” citing the frequent turnover of police officers who work in the village.

Donna Silvert said she was concerned that the issue only arose because it involved an older white male “that we all know, so we know he is harmless,” when a policy should be in place “that keeps every innocent person safe.”

Silvert added that the process to address local policing has been too slow, and encouraged Council to not see the situation as over just because the officer involved resigned.

“For this to have happened this past weekend after all of the process that we’ve gone through is very frightening,” Silvert said. “Policy has to be addressed.”

Bates responded to say that Village staff are continuing the process of improvement at the YSPD that began after the New Year’s Eve incident at the start of 2017.

“We as a staff have internally already begun talking about how we can improve our processes to alleviate this problem,” Bates said. 

Council President Brian Housh said that Council and Village staff were distressed to hear about the incident, but that citizens should remember that the Village is in “unchartered territory” and must work with officers trained at the academy in ways that often don’t align with the Village’s desire for community policing.

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen agreed, saying it’s not just about policy changes but the importance of “reprogramming” officers after training that is geared towards making them warriors, not guardians.

“We want our officers to be guardians — to keep people safe,” MacQueen said.

Neel is the latest YSPD officer to resign or be terminated after coming under scrutiny for behaving in an overly aggressive way towards citizens. Last year, Officer RJ Hawley parted ways with the department after an investigation found that he contributed to creating “a volatile situation” during the annual New Year’s Eve celebration. And in 2016, Officer John Whittemore was fired four months into his employment after two controversial use-of-force incidents.

Carlson said that new officers, as well as experienced officers who are new to the village, face a “learning curve” when they arrive here. Even after orienting them to the Village’s policing style, it may still not work out.

Other items from Council’s Oct. 1 will be covered in next week’s News.

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