Police reform at the YSPD— What’s done, what’s next?
- Published: June 24, 2020
“Black Lives Matter.” “No justice, no peace.” “Defund the police.”
Last Saturday, protesters gathered along Xenia Avenue for the third straight week with signs calling attention to police brutality, the targeting of people of color by police and the need to work against racism.
Amid national calls for policing reform following the most recent wave of killings of Black people by police officers, villagers are once again raising their voices for change in the Yellow Springs Police Department.
On Friday, June 12, some spoke at an emergency virtual Council meeting called, in part, to discuss ways to address racism in the village. The discussion largely centered around police reform, in addition to ways villagers can engage in anti-racist work.
“It’s clear there is a whole paradigm shift that has to happen in policing,” local counselor Louise Smith, a member of The 365 Project, said at the meeting.
“[Policing] has to be focusing more on services and serving the community, rather than enforcing against some threat,” she added.
Proposed changes range from minor reforms to sweeping overhauls. On one end of the spectrum, some urge increasing the local social worker position in the department from a part-time to full-time position. On the other end are calls to defund the police, at least partially.
Matthew Carson, for instance, suggested at the meeting that the Village prioritize social services rather than policing, which currently makes up about half the local general fund budget.
“We should really be shifting resources away from policing and towards public health,” he said.
Other proposed reforms look at ways to bring citizens into the work of hiring and evaluating officers, reviewing citizens’ complaints against the police and policymaking.
Yet another group of reforms is focused on improving relations between officers and citizens through in-person dialogues. There is also talk of helping officers better understand systemic racism, bias and antiracism through local book groups, discussions and trainings.
“We have to continue to strengthen our relationship with our police department,” said Angela Allen, who grew up in the village and went on to earn a degree in criminal justice. She is now working with The 365 Project.
“The police are the community and the community are the police,” she added at the virtual meeting. “The only difference is a badge and a paycheck.”
This week and next, the News will look at past efforts to improve local policing in recent years, along with what is now being proposed. This article focuses on six years of reform at the YSPD.
Earlier reforms, 2013-2016
The latest calls for police reform in the village came after several years of collaborative work between citizens and Village government to create a less aggressive, more progressive department here.
Efforts began in earnest after a resident was shot and killed by police in 2013 following a standoff with area SWAT teams. The police killing of a Black man at a Beavercreek Walmart, and other high-profile police shootings of Black men in the summer of 2014, added urgency to local reform work.
Following several town halls organized by the Human Relations Commission, in 2015, Council voted to withdraw the YSPD from the county’s SWAT team and its drug task force. Commission members also successfully lobbied for new training for officers in de-escalation and dealing with those with a mental illness, training which continues to this day.
In 2016, after more national attention on recent police killings of Black people, two parallel police reform efforts began here. The Justice System Task Force of Council was organized with a two-year charge to review local policing policies. And The 365 Project, a local nonprofit that engages the community on issues of racism and diversity, organized a subcommittee to draw new guidelines for the department.
Gavin Devore Leonard, a member of The 365 Project subcommittee, said this week while the task force was looking at specific policy changes, their group wanted to “take a step back.”
“We wanted to look at not what someone is allowed or not allowed to do, but instead, how do we decide who the police officers are and how they should act,” he said.
The resulting “Guidelines for Village Policing” describe four principles: safety-centered, resolution-oriented, locally minded and demonstrably inclusive. The guidelines were officially incorporated two years later and included bold language about racism.
“The Village of Yellow Springs aims to be not simply tolerant, but proactively inclusive and antiracist,” reads a section of the guidelines. It adds that the Village and police, “commit to identifying, challenging and changing the values, structures and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism.”
Devore Leonard said the inclusion of the term “anti-racist” was important to him, but that he isn’t sure the Village is actively dismantling systems of oppression.
Louise Smith, who crafted the guidelines along with Devore Leonard and Janet Mueller, said anti-racism work is a “tall order.” Officers, like all citizens, she believes, need to commit to the practice of recognizing their biases, as racism is deeply ingrained.
“Racism is a mental illness, and we are all in recovery from it,” she said at the virtual meeting.
According to Smith, the guidelines were crafted with the understanding that they would be used in the hiring and evaluation of officers, tasks undertaken in collaboration with local citizens. That has not yet happened. But at least there are strong principles in place to begin that process, which would improve local police accountability.
“These are the stakes in the ground,” she said.
Justice System Task Force, 2016–18
A policing incident on New Year’s Eve 2016–2017 sparked additional reforms in the community. After local police dispersed the crowd at the annual celebration downtown a few minutes after midnight, nearly 250 villagers showed up at a community meeting to speak out against what they perceived as an overly aggressive and hostile response.
Pat Dewees, who chaired the Justice System Task Force, said that incident was a major “wake-up call” for the community.
“That was a peaceful community tradition that people felt attached to, and to have it disrupted and become violent with Taser use on the crowd, people were like, ‘What’s going on here?’” Dewees reflected.
The Justice System Task Force then picked up steam, proposing a series of reforms that Council went on to pass. Among them were new regulations limiting local officers’ use of Tasers and surveillance technology on citizens. Regarding Tasers, the new policy stated the weapons should be used “only to protect life or prevent serious injury,” and not for compliance, as had sometimes been the case previously.
As of a 2017 News update on its progress, the Justice System Task Force included Dewees, local attorney Ellis Jacobs, Kate Hamilton and Steve McQueen of the Human Relations Commission, Pastor William Randolph, John Hempfling, Cyndi Pauwels, Ayanna Madison and Mia Stewart. Alternates were David Turner and Al Schlueter and Council liaison was Judith Hempfling, with Marianne MacQueen the alternate.
Also after the New Year’s Eve incident, former police chief Dave Hale stepped down and Brian Carlson, then an officer, became the interim chief. That summer, Carlson was named chief after an internal search. At the time, Council members said he was selected because of his skills of community engagement.
The task force also proposed a part-time social worker at the department. Florence Randolph was hired in the role as the police department’s “community outreach specialist” in 2018. The task force crafted a policy to increase the number of cases heard at the local Mayor’s Court, to which officers had been citing fewer cases in recent years. And following a review of police data, it released a report showing that Black residents were receiving more citations than whites.
Reviewing the efforts of the JSTF, Dewees believes significant change was made, from “beefing up Mayor’s Court,” to hiring a social worker, to new policies on the use of force.
“Those are huge reforms,” she said.
The task force disbanded after two years, with the understanding that Council would create a standing commission in its place. Later, Council pivoted to setting up a less formal Village manager’s advisory committee.
But that group never came to fruition after several changes in Council leadership, according to Council member Lisa Kreeger this week. In addition, only three citizens responded to a call last year to participate in the committee. A separate proposal for a citizen review board, which would handle citizen complaints against officers, has not moved forward either.
The work of the task force did make an impact, Dewees believes.
“I don’t think everything is fixed in Yellow Springs, but we have made a lot of changes in a 10-year period, and we should feel very positive about where we’re at,” she said.
Recent efforts, 2019
Recent efforts for police reform have included new training, a community meeting and an assessment of the YSPD.
Toward the end of 2018, Council member Kevin Stokes championed implicit bias training for all 50 employees of the Village, including its police officers and dispatchers, with three half-day trainings over a six-month period. The idea was originally proposed by the task force.
While some participants shared in an anonymous survey that they were grateful for the training, which they called “eye-opening ” and “engaging,” others were critical. One comment singled out “victims wanting to be victims or ‘victims’ seeking oppression,” and another wrote, “‘Black Lives Matter?’ — No, all lives matter!”
In early 2019, Carlson started scenario-based training at the department, which he said was aimed at helping local officers with better “decision-making in the moment,” with an eye toward de-escalating situations.
Also last year, after a controversial disciplinary process involving a local officer, the second in as many years, Council paid a consultant $36,000 to assess the local department. As part of the assessment, a forum was held in May, at which about 50 villagers were invited to share positive experiences with police officers. A few YSPD officers participated in the discussions as well, sharing positive experiences they’d had with community members.
The recommendations in the 50-page report, released in October, were largely around improved transparency and management and the implementation of community policing strategies such as neighborhood “beats.” Council members criticized the report for taking too long and being too vague.
And following a domestic violence call that a police supervisor deemed was handled poorly, two officers participated in a pilot citizen review process in lieu of a formal disciplinary evaluation.
Next steps, 2020 and beyond
So what’s next for the Yellow Springs Police Department? Local officials still see much room for growth. And villagers are once again joining the conversation.
Council member Kreeger is eager to get a citizen review board and justice system advisory board organized, along with reviewing the police budget.
“I want our officers to serve and protect, not hunt and enforce,” she said.
Village Manager Josué Salmerón is focused on creating a culture at the police department that “represents the values of the community,” along with more policies and procedures that reinforce community policing.
“It is ongoing work,” he said.
Carlson wants to focus on accountability for officers who are overly aggressive, and to encourage officers to step in if a fellow officer is misbehaving.
In response to the recent attention on policing in the U.S., Carlson said that while it is unfortunate every department is pulled into the discussion, “there does need to be reform.”
“Racism is alive and thriving in this country, and even though we’re in the spotlight, it goes beyond police,” he added.
Smith agrees that anti-racism work is “bigger than the police department,” but that the village should also commit to making changes within the YSPD.
“I think it’s time to recommit to citizen oversight and a collaborative approach to keep community policing in this town,” she said.
Next week’s article will explore the latest proposals for reform at the YSPD.