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Local police chiefs field community questions about controversial arrest

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Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle, Ohio University Police Department Chief Andrew Powers and Hocking College Police Chief Tiffany Tims answered community members’ questions Tuesday night at The Athena Cinema about a recent controversial arrest.

The event, titled “Ask the Chief,” occurred more than a week after a video circulated on Twitter, depicting the arrest of Ty Bealer, a young black man who was apprehended by Athens City Police Department (APD) officers in a way that some have characterized as excessive.

The forum was sponsored by a number of organizations including the NAACP and the Ohio University Black Student Union.

Here are six major takeaways from the event.

Was race a factor?

Pyle maintained throughout the night that he doesn’t think Bealer was singled out or treated differently because of his race. Police consider race when interacting with people of color, he said.

“I think people of color, when they encounter police officers, they’re thinking about everything they’ve experienced themselves, that they’ve watched happen, that they’ve seen happen, suspect has happened,” Pyle said. “And they’re bringing that to the contact — the interaction. And I think police officers do that as well.”

Both Pyle and Powers said they don’t think they could get rid of an officer’s deeply ingrained implicit biases through training, and they would rather fire these officers or not hire them in the first place.

How APD and OUPD use force:

There have been 269 uses of force at the APD since 2007, according to Pyle. Nearly 48% of these incidents involve three or more officers. It is common police practice to take a person to the ground and hold their head down if they are resisting arrest so that they don’t move around and hurt themselves or others, he said. 

When someone is not resisting arrest, Pyle said he expects no force to be used. However, when force is used, it can often look bad, he added.

“Use of force incidents look immoral sometimes. Maybe all of the time,” Pyle said.

Additionally, when reviewing use of force incidents, Powers looks at the suspect’s age, health, size and a number of other factors to decide if the force was justified.

Use of force complaints and Officer Ethan Doerr:

Multiple audience members raised concerns about Officer Ethan Doerr — one of three officers who arrested Bealer — and his history of excessive force lawsuits and incidents. One of these incidents happened while Doerr worked for the Logan Police Department.

APD knew about this incident when he was being screened for hiring, and they hired him despite this, Pyle said. One community member suggested that Doerr be suspended while Bealer’s arrest is being investigated, but Pyle and Powers did not get a chance to respond to this suggestion.

Pyle also said that Doerr has not been disciplined nor received extra training as a result of these incidents and lawsuits. He explained that nothing Doerr has done has been actionable. Additionally, Pyle said that Doerr’s history with using force is similar to most officers’ history with force.

Since Pyle joined APD in 2007, he has seen zero use of force complaints targeting officers on his staff. 

Makeup of APD and OUPD and recruiting minorities:

Currently, there are zero African American police officers working for APD or OUPD, the respective chiefs said. All three chiefs expressed a desire to recruit more minority officers, but they said it is often difficult to do so in this region. Police salaries are depressed by 10 to 15% in this region, leading many minority officers to work in affluent Columbus suburbs where they can be paid more, Powers said. 

Tims shared her own solution to recruiting minority officers. She currently offers minority applicants a scholarship to go through the Hocking College Police Academy. Once they pass, she gives them their “gun belt,” effectively hiring them into the force.

Audience reactions:

The audience had a variety of questions and comments for the chiefs. Many had to do with police training, procedure and responses, but some audience members shared their own experiences.

One member of the audience, who left before the end of the forum, said that he knew Bealer as a young man who doesn’t curse and who was involved in soccer. He also shared his concerns about how Bealer’s arrest will impact the young man’s life.

“There may have not been physical damage to this young man, alright,” he said. “But the mental damage of this incident is going to impact this young man for the rest of his life.”

At times, the forum became adversarial. When one audience member yelled “cops and klan go hand in hand,” Pyle responded: “OK, gotcha.”

Several black audience members also said they took issue with white activists attempting to speak for them instead of asking them how to be better allies.

Police-community relations:

Much of the evening was spent discussing how the police departments can improve their relationships with minority communities. All three chiefs expressed a willingness to get out into the community more and took suggestions from the audience about how to accomplish this. 

Some audience members suggested forming intimate, small groups to have a conversation with police officers. Another suggested bringing more police officers to outreach events like “Coffee With A Cop,” a program where officers provide free coffee and converse with students and Athens residents. 

Photos by Tim Zelina

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