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Citizen review complete, police officers disciplined

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A citizen group investigating a Yellow Springs Police Department disciplinary matter has completed its work, according to the Village last month.

The process ended with two local officers being disciplined for their actions when responding to a domestic violence call in the village in August 2019.

The disciplines followed a review of the case by three citizens and one Council member, who met three times in November. The group then submitted its  findings to Village Manager Josué Salmerón, who decided on the final discipline.

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An initiative of Council, the ad hoc citizen committee engaged in a fact-finding process that diverged from the way discipline has been previously handled at the YSPD. It was referred to by Village leaders as a pilot.

“This was an alternative to the typical project, which would have been to engage an external entity, but instead involved community members,” explained Council Member Lisa Kreeger at Council’s Dec. 16 meeting.

Participating in the committee were citizens John Gudgel, Kate Hamilton and Jeff “Pan” Reich, along with Kreeger. The citizens’ names were originally withheld to protect their identities during the course of the pilot.

In the end, Cpl. Mark Charles was verbally reprimanded and Officer David Meister given an eight-week training requirement in lieu of his regular duties for not following state and local policy on the call, according to a December 2019 memo from Salmerón.

The officers had failed to arrest the suspected perpetrator and to offer various resources to the victim, Sgt. Naomi Watson found in an initial disciplinary review.

In a written “debrief” of the process, group members agreed it was a positive step for the Village, according to Kreeger.

“The participants agreed that this was a process that did seem to be headed in the direction of restorative justice,” she said.

At the same time, the group struggled to complete the task in a timely manner due to scheduling conflicts, Kreeger added.

“We wanted to give everyone who participated the time to tell their stories,” she said, noting that it took three to four times longer than the group anticipated.

Testifying to the group were both officers and Sgt. Watson.  Also present during the process were Village Solicitor Chris Conard and Village HR Director Ruthe Ann Lilich. The officers agreed to the pilot, and did not waive their rights to the existing disciplinary policy.

At Council, Salmerón expressed his gratitude to the committee, noting that the group helped with what was a complex case.

“There were some facts that were discovered in the process that I, or someone else on the team, might have not seen,”   Salmerón said.

Looking ahead, Village leaders suggested the process be formalized in policy and the pool of citizens on the committee be broadened.

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen added that she hopes the local police disciplinary process can be aimed at changing an officer’s behavior, not just punishing them.

“The impact of this is to move toward learning and changing behavior, which doesn’t necessarily come out of being punished,”  she said.

Citizen committee findings

In the early morning of Aug. 28, 2019, Charles and Meister were dispatched to a local residence after the YSPD received a 911 call from a woman who said she was being attacked. There the officers found “two people were involved in a domestic dispute that became physical,” according to the incident report, and investigated further.

However, during the call the officers disagreed about whether the suspected perpetrator’s actions met the legal criteria for domestic violence, according to the ad hoc committee’s report.

While Charles found there was probable cause to justify arresting and charging the suspect with domestic violence and assault, Meister said the facts did not support such a charge because “the individuals involved did not meet the legal definition of family or household members,” the report stated.

“Our assessment is that the situation came down to a lack of clarification and common understanding about the policies…” the ad hoc committee found, referring to state and local policies related to domestic violence cases.

Also complicating the matter was that during the call, another domestic violence in progress response came in, the report noted.

“This could have created a distraction and appeared to leave the discussion between the two officers unresolved,” the ad hoc committee report stated.

After Charles left, Meister, believing his supervisor agreed to his plan to charge both people with “simple assault” at a later time, allowed them to leave the scene.

Charles, for his part, did not direct Meister to arrest the suspect or file charges that evening, the ad hoc committee noted. However, at the end of his shift, Charles shared with his supervisor, Sgt. Watson, that he should have handled the case -differently.

“Commendably, Corporal Charles reported the events through the chain of command,” the report stated. “He took responsibility for the decision to not file charges that evening.”

Following YSPD leadership’s involvement in the case, Meister eventually filed domestic violence and assault charges against the suspect, a village resident.

In addition to interviews, the citizen group also reviewed narrative reports and policy documents and watched the cruiser video, according to its report.

Officer disciplines

After the ad hoc citizen committee submitted its report to Salmerón in early December, the Village manager rendered his final disciplines in the matter.

The first discipline, for Charles, came down in early September. It was then that Watson gave Charles a verbal reprimand, which is the first step in the Village’s “progressive discipline” process. Charles had not previously been disciplined during his five years at the department.

In his December letter to the corporal, Salmerón affirmed that the reprimand was appropriate, citing Charles’ “admitted lack of supervisory assertiveness with Officer Meister in assuring that he filed the proper charges …”

Charles will also be assigned supervisory training in 2020,  Salmerón noted.

Meister, however, was not disciplined in September, as several disciplines accumulated in the last two years would have led to more severe consequences for the officer, according to YS Police Chief Brian Carlson this week.

According to YSPD policy, following a verbal reprimand is a written reprimand, then a suspension or demotion and finally a termination, which can only be completed by the Village manager. The process starts over after 24 months. In lieu of that process in Meister’s case, the citizen committee was formed.

In Salmerón’s letter to Meister, he noted that Meister took too long interpreting Ohio law on domestic violence.

“As a 10-year veteran officer with the Yellow Springs Police Department, I expect that you would have clearer understanding of the Ohio Revised Code and of your responsibility to take the appropriate actions,” he wrote.

“As a result of your failure to take the appropriate action on this incident,” Salmerón continued, “it is evident that you are in need of further training.”

In lieu of his regular patrol duties, Meister will participate in an eight-week “refresher training” with a Field Training Officer. That type of training is standard for officers who are new to the department or who have had “a lapse of judgement,” according to Carlson.

Carlson has assigned Meister to train with YSPD Cpl. Jeff Beam,  who Carlson said, “exemplifies the philosophy of compassionate decision-making within logical policing protocols.”

Salmerón also noted that Meister’s status change was only temporary and would not affect the officer’s pay rate or benefits.

“I hope you will embrace this opportunity for additional training and will work to improve your skills to provide the best service that you can to our residents,” Salmerón concluded.

Citizen committee reflections

In a written document presented to Council, the ad hoc committee reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of the process, and how it should be changed if it were used again.

On the strengths, the participants noted that not only was the committee a “sounding board of diverse citizens,” it also provided community members with “insights into the different challenges, policies, and processes” of the YSPD.

The group also developed a sense of “comradery” and benefitted from legal counsel’s advice on the “scope of our work,” they wrote.

“Provides a transparent process to our community and inclusion of YS village values,” one participant noted.

The length of time, lack of clear guidelines and the sensing of “a bit of anxiety, or perhaps, distrust, from all officers” were suggested as challenges and weaknesses.

Asked if the process had “a positive value,” one participant wrote, “I feel the community will trust the findings of a group of fellow villagers … over an outside investigator, especially a police officer from a conservative community.”

Another comment was that the process could be useful to “to prevent any accusations of favoritism by employees, or being ‘targeted,’ by supervisors.”

Negatives involved the potential conflicts of interest in a small town and the perceived distrust from officers, as well as the fact that “confidentiality was breached while the process was underway.”

Finally, participants agreed that the process could be a useful tool for the Village manager moving forward. A larger group of citizens rotating into small groups when needed was suggested, along with continued clarity around the group’s “scope of practice.”

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