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Aug
04
2020
Police

New police reforms aired

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Body cameras worn by every Ohio police officer. Psychological evaluations of those who hope to become an officer. More training in implicit bias and de-escalation. Requiring officers to report on another officer’s misconduct.

Those are a few proposed law enforcement reforms Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced at a press briefing last week in response to national outrage after high-profile killings of Black people by police in recent weeks.

Not on the list: the removal of qualified immunity for police officers, who are shielded from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, or defunding police departments, which DeWine called “absurd” in response to a question.

Instead, DeWine and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said some individuals should be kept from joining the ranks of the police, or removed quickly if they misbehave.

“There are some police officers who shouldn’t be police officers,” DeWine said, such as those who show obvious racial bias. Addressing the issue of racism, Attorney General Yost added, “this isn’t a law enforcement problem, this is a societal problem that has a law enforcement dimension.”

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“Police officers are heroes,” he said. “Exceptions to that general rule have not been dealt with in our society and this is the hour for that to stop.”

Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson agrees that the problem with law enforcement is not systemic, but the fault of a small number of officers who need to be removed from departments. He’s hopeful that the proposed reforms will help the YSPD continue to improve, along with other efforts to create a different policing culture in Yellow Springs.

“You mold a department so that you don’t have individuals that behave like that,” he said of officers like those involved in recent police killings.

Yellow Springs, Carlson believes, is different from other communities struggling with citizen concerns over policing.

“We are not those cops. We’re not beating up people, we’re not killing people,” he said. “We are what other agencies want police to be.”

But accountability for police officers who behave badly has been difficult to achieve, even in Yellow Springs.

Pat Dewees, the chair of the former Justice System Task Force, said that accountability was a challenge for the group to address. For example, officers could rely on the defense that they simply “followed their training.” In addition, there is currently no independent body to which citizens can report misconduct by local police.

“One thing we weren’t able to complete is figuring out how citizens can make complaints about officers,” Dewees said.

And few incidents in recent years in which local officers were deemed to be overly aggressive ended in disciplinary action, even if the officer left the department.

“It’s much easier for an entity to agree to resignation as opposed to termination,” Carlson explained. Instead of long, protracted disciplinary investigation, “resignation can be instant,” he added.

As national and state officials prepare the latest round of reforms to policing, what specific changes are being eyed for Yellow Springs?

One initiative is already moving forward after Council resolved, at its June 15 meeting, to create a Justice System Advisory Committee, a citizen group that will work with the Village manager on policymaking and funding priorities for local police as well as “address systemic racism in a transparent and open forum.”

Citizen review, body cameras

Last week’s article looked at six years of reform at the YSPD. In recent years, Yellow Springs left the countrywide SWAT team and drug task force, passed new policies limiting the use of surveillance technology and Tasers, increased the use of the local Mayor’s Court, instituted new training for officers in implicit bias and de-escalation and hired a social worker.

But more still needs to be done, Council member Lisa Kreeger said in a recent interview. Specifically, she wants policies around local expectations to be “clear as glass,” and for citizens to have a way to share their concerns about specific officers or incidents.

“I want our officers to serve and protect, not hunt and enforce,” she said. “They are trained to be hunters and to look for evil-doers, and as a result bad things happen. But if someone’s tail light is out, they should just ignore it.”

Creating a citizen review board is a priority, Kreeger said. Dewees agrees that it would help to have an independent citizen group that looks at police behavior. Currently, complaints are taken by the YSPD itself and, in some cases, outside agencies are called in to review them.

“Particularly for people of color who perceive and report on experiences of being targeted, and for young people who say the same thing … there has to be some way that this gets addressed,” Dewees said.

Carlson said he is open to the idea, although there are many “minor complaints” that he fields from citizens who don’t want to pursue a formal complaint. In some cases, they involve how an officer made a citizen feel, even if that officer’s actions followed policy, which Carlson follows up by coaching the officer.

“I’m frequently having one-on-ones with staff to help them improve,” Carlson said.

Another step, which had been proposed by a 365 Project subcommittee, was for a citizen review board to hire and evaluate police officers using the Village guidelines for policing that the subcommittee drafted. Those guidelines describe officers who are “safety-centered, resolution-oriented, locally minded and demonstrably inclusive.”

“We really wanted these guidelines so that you had a way of holding accountable someone you hire, someone you fire and someone you terminate,” said Louise Smith, a subcommittee member.

Another step in the direction of accountability may be the use of body cameras, which are not currently worn by YSPD officers. Jen Boyer, who has helped organize anti-racism rallies in town the last three Saturdays, wants to see a policy passed requiring local police to wear them.

“If they could wear body cams, it would not only protect them while doing their job, it would protect us as citizens as well,” she said.

Carlson is in favor of body-worn cameras. Village Manager Josué Salmerón added at a recent town hall that “more audio, more video is better” but that there will be significant costs to purchase cameras and store footage. There are also privacy concerns when officers enter homes or interact with juveniles, he said.

Defund the police?

At a special virtual Council meeting on June 12, local resident Matthew Carson honed in on the local police budget as another area to address.

“We spend $1.5 million on our budget on policing, but only $10,000 for the Youth Center,” Carson said. “I think we really need to talk about what we’re prioritizing in terms of what we’re spending our money on.”

Carson suggested that the Village use more social workers and fewer officers, since many calls to local police are to address issues such as mental health crises or homelessness.

Activists and community groups around the country are calling for similar steps to “defund” police departments and shift some of their resources to social services such as healthcare, education and affordable housing, which advocates say would be more effective at contributing to a safe community than policing as it is currently practiced.

For Dewees, the idea of “defunding the police” is about “reducing the police budget and funding those services they perform which are outside of policing.”

“There are ways of approaching crises without the policing mentality,” she explained.

How much money could potentially be shifted? In 2020, Village Council budgeted $1.57 million for public safety, which accounts for close to 40% of the Village general fund.

The overwhelming majority of expenses, $1.35 million, or 86%, was for police personnel expenses, including wages, healthcare, overtime and pensions. Meanwhile, current staffing levels are based upon having two officers on duty at any given time, which Carlson said was his preference for both officer and community safety.

At present, there are 10 sworn officers in the YSPD and 21 total full- and part-time employees in the department, including its social worker. Locally, officer staffing is on par with national and regional averages. Using 2018 figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Yellow Springs, with 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents, has more officers per person than the national average, 2.4 per 1,000, but less than the average for a Midwestern town under 10,000 people, which is at 2.8 officers per 1,000 residents.

Looking at staffing levels and the increased demand for social services, Carlson earlier this year stated in a report his desire to move the YSPD’s lone social worker, Florence Randolph, from part-time to full-time. Randolph assists local police on calls involving crisis or mental health interventions, and follows up with residents in need by referring them to various agencies that can help provide food, housing, healthcare or other services.

“The work that Florence does is transformative for us,” Carlson said.

But Carlson is wary of having fewer officers on duty, or separating Randolph’s work from the police department, as officers are critical to “clearing the scene” to make it safe for Randolph to do her work, he said. And officers are still needed to respond to violent crimes in the village, or to arrest “serious felons on the lam.”

“Police officers are there to make a situation safe,” he said. “I don’t know what we would do otherwise.”

Police-community relations

One area in which there seems to be widespread agreement is that local police and citizens should spend more time getting to know each other and building trust.

Police consultant Bob Wasserman, contracted by the Village to complete an assessment of the YSPD last year, said what he heard most from villagers was that they wanted to know their officers, and for their officers to know them.

John Gudgel of The 365 Project reflected that, historically, YSPD officers lived in the village they served. Currently, two of the YSPD’s 10 sworn officers live in Yellow Springs, and four of its 21 employees do.

“Back in the day, we knew our officers because they lived in the community,” he said. “That’s difficult today.”

Gudgel has witnessed progress in recent YSPD efforts to visit Mills Lawn School, where he is a counselor. There, they field questions from young children about their profession and “personalize the relationship between officers and students.” He hopes that a similar program is instituted at the local high school.

“The biggest takeaway is the kids see the officers as people, and the officers see them as young people, not as adversaries or violators of the law,” Gudgel said of the elementary school program.

Angela Allen, a 2013 Yellow Springs High School graduate who earned a criminal justice degree and now lives in Dayton, is working with The 365 Project on ways to bring the police and community together for dialogue. Allen said she worries that recent protests against police brutality could “bring in tension” from other communities, while Yellow Springs has a “unique situation” when it comes to policing.

“I think it’s time to get out of the streets and have a sit down,” with officers, she said of protests, in which she has also participated.

“The cops are the community,” she added. “They may not live here but they are here just as much. It’s only us versus them because we don’t know them.”

To move forward, Allen believes that the police and the community should “hold each other accountable for the safety and the quality of policing.” That includes increased transparency during officer disciplines, so that the community sees how officers are held accountable.

But it also includes more accountability from villagers, who sometimes call the police on Black people for no reason. In that regard, Allen sees a difference between the community today and the village in which she grew up.

“Growing up, Yellow Springs was a safe place of genuine community and trust among one another. I feel we are starting to stray from that a bit,” she said. “That’s in large part because of the implicit biases, the racism and the prejudice throughout the community.”

Carlson said calls that could have a racial motivation continue to take place in Yellow Springs, and that he is working to address them.

“We are trying to train dispatchers to screen the calls,” Carlson said. “They can ask, ‘Is there something going on other than they’re wearing a hoodie?’”

And though many times callers want to remain anonymous, Carlson added, “We need to hold people accountable who want to call the police on someone.”

Carlson added that he has implemented several new initiatives to increase police presence locally. Before the pandemic, officers had been attending local social and school events, helping youth with their homework daily at the Youth Center, and increasing their foot patrols. After adding a new code for “community engagement” in the local dispatch software, such activities increased from 208 events in 2018 to 469 in 2019, he reported.

Looking ahead, Carlson is hopeful that the latest rounds of police reform at the state and national level will help the local department improve oversight and accountability. Still, Yellow Springs expects more than the minimum.

“We need to go way further,” he said.

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