Outside investigation complete— Officer violated no policies
- Published: December 20, 2020
Did a Yellow Springs police officer use the term “angry mob” to describe Black Lives Matter rally attendees? And should a fellow police officer be disciplined for telling a community member that they did?
Those were among the questions that a Columbus law firm recently looked into for the Village of Yellow Springs.
At issue was whether YSPD Officer Dave Meister violated Village policy and state law by allegedly telling a citizen that a fellow officer, Paige Burge, referred to some attendees of the weekly Black Lives Matter rallies as an “angry mob.”
On Saturday, Sept. 12, Burge was on duty and nearby when a small group of rally goers went across the street from Mills Lawn to ask a man to stop mowing the lawn of the Presbyterian Church. Meister, who was not present at the rally, reportedly claimed he later heard Burge use that phrase, or possibly just the word “mob,” to describe the group, at YSPD headquarters.
Meister was also investigated for possibly lying to YS Police Chief Brian Carlson about making the comments.
But in the outside investigation completed last month, Stephanie Schoolcraft, of the firm Fishel, Downey, Albrecht & Riepenhoff, found that Meister did not violate any policies or laws by making the comments, or in his interactions with Carlson. Meister will not be disciplined for the incident, Village Manager Josué Salmerón confirmed this week.
“The allegations were unsubstantiated so there is no disciplinary outcome,” Sal-merón said.
Schoolcraft’s conclusion came, in part, because she could not determine if Burge actually used the phrase “angry mob” or “mob”; officer accounts of the conversation in YSPD headquarters conflicted, she wrote in the Nov. 17 report. The outside investigation cost the Village $5,382, according to Salmerón.
The Village manager opted for an outside investigation after both Chief Carlson and Sgt. Naomi Watson aired their concerns about Meister’s actions in reports they submitted to Salmerón in late September.
Meister’s comments were initially brought to light during a virtual meeting of the Justice System Collaborative Committee by Bomani Moyenda, a rally organizer who was concerned that an officer’s use of such language would “stereotype” rally attendees, he told the News.
“All of our protests were peaceful, educational and engaging, so a comment such as ‘angry mob’ is in complete opposition to what we were about,” Moyenda said.
Carlson made an informal inquiry into the matter, interviewing Meister twice. He ultimately wrote in a letter to Salmerón that Meister was “not forthcoming initially and his actions escalated tensions between the community and his fellow team -members.”
“I have concern that Officer Meister continues to circle truths about issues internally,” he added. “He has shown a pattern of covering all of his bases regarding his account of incidents.”
Sgt. Watson then looked into the incident, concluding that Meister violated three Village personnel policies related to dishonesty and giving false information. Watson also found that Meister could be cited with a criminal misdemeanor under Ohio law for “making false allegations of police misconduct.” If found guilty, Meister could have faced up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
“Officer Meister falsely accused Officer Paige Burge of referring to the BLM protestors as a ‘mob/angry mob,’” Watson wrote. “In addition, Officer Meister made this false statement/accusation outside of the office and to Yellow Springs community members.”
But before issuing any discipline, Salmerón opted for an outside investigation into the matter from what he called an “unbiased, detail-oriented” investigator. That decision was made, in part, due to recent incidents involving Chief Carlson and Meister’s wife, Zo Van Eaton-Meister. An outside investigation, Salmerón said, would improve trust in the process.
“We wanted to be as transparent and official as we could be,” Salmerón said.
Earlier this year, Van Eaton-Meister filed a formal complaint against Carlson, claiming he verbally accosted her downtown. An investigation by the Greene County Sheriff’s Office in August cleared Carlson of any wrongdoing. After the incident, Carlson petitioned a judge at the Greene County Court of Common Pleas for a civil protection order against Van Eaton-Meister, which was granted on a temporary basis, with a full hearing set for next month.
Salmerón said that the serious nature of the charges were another reason for an outside review.
“It would have been a particularly serious violation, including a criminal charge,” he said of the potential first-degree misdemeanor, whose penalties are on par with those from a DUI charge.
Because both the Greene County and Clark County Sheriff’s departments have previously investigated incidents for the YSPD involving Meister or Van Eaton-Meister, Salmerón selected an out-of-town law firm, he said.
In a Nov. 23 letter to Council members, Salmerón shared Schoolcraft’s conclusion that there was no evidence that Meister acted inappropriately or violated policies. He additionally wrote that “investigation has demonstrated that police employees in particular must reconcile their own personal interests with public perceptions of the department.”
Elaborating in an interview, Salmerón said that when officers are not “working toward the same goal, it creates conflict in the organization.”
“It erodes trust within the police department and erodes trust of our citizens in our police department,” he added.
In line with a recommendation from Schoolcraft, the Village will amend its personnel policies to include the requirement that police department employees “treat any knowledge or information acquired in the performance of their duties in confidentiality and such knowledge or information shall be disseminated only to those for whom it is intended,” Salmerón confirmed.
“We have to adopt what is a common professional norm in the workplace,” Salmerón said of the policy change, expected in 2021.
Ahead of that change, Salmerón wrote in the letter to Council that he has communicated the findings of the investigation to Village employees and “encouraged all employees to be mindful of the Village values when interacting with the public as we strive to improve our policies and procedures to reflect the values of the community we serve, particularly honesty and integrity.”
The investigation into Meister is only the latest official inquiry into his professional conduct in recent years. Previous disciplines were handed down in 2019, for failing to follow protocols on a domestic violence call, and in 2018, for not ensuring public safety, both after extensive reviews. After a 10-week investigation in early 2019, Meister was cleared of wrongdoing for not accompanying an officer on a call of a shooting soon after going off duty. His personnel file also contains several notes from citizens commending his police work.
Reached for comment this week, Meister’s lawyer, Dave Duwell, said he was happy with the report’s conclusion, but questioned whether an extensive investigation was warranted in this case. Yet another investigation into this client’s actions, he added, was “more of the same.”
“I sincerely doubt all of this effort and money would have been spent if another officer had been alleged to make the statement,” said Duwell, who was present during the investigator’s interviews with Meister.
Meister, who lives in Yellow Springs, started at the YSPD in 2010 and is the second-longest-serving full-time officer on the local force.
The lawn mower incident
The investigation centered on officer language following a heated interaction between some rally attendees and a man mowing the lawn of the Yellow Springs Presbyterian Church this fall.
Toward the end of the weekly anti-racism rally on Sept. 12, a contractor began to mow the lawn of the church, which is right across the street from where the rallies are held, according to several accounts of the incident. The loud noise was disruptive, and one rally attendee went over to ask him if he could wait for five minutes until the event concluded, according to Moyenda. When he continued to mow, several other rally attendees went over to speak with him. In a video from the event, a man can be heard yelling, but it is unclear who.
According to YSPD officer Dennis Nipper’s account, he noticed “a large group of people run across the street.” He stated they were yelling and that some had cell phones out, possibly recording. Nipper then intervened and asked the mower to stop. He “eventually complied,” according to Nipper’s account, and, when driving away, the mower yelled, “Blue Lives Matter!” and gave officer Nipper a “thumbs up.” Officer Burge was on duty during the protest and “observed some of the incident,” according to the investigation.
In his report on the incident, Carlson wrote that a witness who was with the group of people who approached the mower told him that one rally goer, a Black female, was “quite aggressive” and that when another, a Black male, came over, “the guy on the mower began yelling back.”
“The man on the mower did not violate any laws and complied with the officer’s instructions,” Carlson concluded. “The group of individuals did not violate any laws. Officer Nipper de-escalated the situation without incident.”
After reviewing several accounts of the incident, the First Presbyterian Church’s session, the church’s governing body, apologized for the actions of the mower in a letter to the editor of the News and wrote that they would no longer use the services of the mower. Meister is a member of the session, a position known as a church elder.
‘Angry mob’ comment
At the Sept. 15 meeting of the Justice System Collaborative Committee, Moyenda shared that he had learned that a female YSPD officer described the protest attendees as an “angry mob” to an elder at the church. In an email, Moyenda said he was concerned because the term “denigrates what has been a series of peaceful protests,” and was not an accurate description, as he saw rally goers speak with the mower individually, not surround him.
Carlson looked into the source of the comment, and found that Meister had told rally co-organizer Jen Boyer about the “angry mob” comment, who relayed it to Moyenda. When initially asked about it, Meister told Carlson the comment “didn’t come from me,” according to Carlson’s account of the meeting. However, Meister and another officer present at that meeting thought Meister was asked if he specifically told the comment to fellow church elders, not whether he told a community member.
A few days later, Meister told Carlson that he realized the statement did come from him. Meister said he mentioned it to a rally organizer who witnessed the event in order to “get information about the size of the group,” according to a recording of their meeting. Meister said he was looking into the matter as a church elder. Meister also admitted that he attributed the comment to Burge.
“It did come from me, I didn’t know it was going to get into the public arena. I apologize that it did,” he said.
In an interview with the investigator, Meister claimed that he heard Burge call the group a mob during a “pass along” of information between officers during a shift change on Sept. 12. Meister, who was coming on duty, said Burge used the word “mob” to refer to the protesters. Meister also told Carlson that he never said, “angry mob,” and that he used the word “mob” because he heard it was used by the mower.
“I don’t remember saying angry mob,” he said. “I did use the word mob, because that was also the term the man who was mowing the lawn used to others.”
Burge told the investigator that she didn’t recall using the term “mob” to describe protest attendees when describing the incident during the “pass along.” YSPD Cpls. Mark Charles and Jeff Beam were also present. Charles said he did not hear Burge use that language, while Beam said someone “may have used the term mob or mob-like,” according to the investigation.
Schoolcraft concluded in her 11-page report that the allegations against Meister were either unsubstantiated or that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate them. She wrote that she was investigating three allegations against Meister:
First, that Meister “falsely accused Officer Burge of calling the protest attendees who confronted the mower an ‘angry mob.’” Second, that Meister “falsely told fellow elders at the Presbyterian Church that Officer Burge called the protest attendees who confronted the mower an ‘angry mob.’” And third, that Meister lied to Chief Carlson when he “denied that he told a community member that Officer Burge called the protest attendees a ‘mob.’”
The first allegation, if true, would have constituted a Village personnel policy group III offense for “dishonesty or any dishonest action,” according to the investigation. But Schoolcraft found “insufficient evidence” to substantiate it. Meister’s claim that Burge called the group an “angry mob” was not necessarily false because of “conflicting evidence” from those at the “pass along.”
The second allegation, also a possible offense for “dishonesty,” was found to be “unsubstantiated,” as there was no evidence that Meister told the comment to church elders, Schoolcraft found.
The third allegation would have meant three group III offenses — dishonesty, “giving false information or withholding pertinent information in any investigation,” and “knowingly and intentionally giving false or misleading information on a work-related report.” But that allegation also lacked sufficient evidence, according to Schoolcraft. In short, Meister could not be found to have lied to Carlson because Meister thought Carlson was asking if he told the comment to the church elders, and there is no evidence that he told that group.
Schoolcraft’s report does not mention the potential misdemeanor that Sgt. Watson references in her report on the matter concerning “making false statements of police misconduct.”
“It is recommended that no discipline be issued to Officer Meister,” Schoolcraft concludes.