Tuesday, January 03, 2017

In Yellow Springs, Ohio the police department has grown bigger. Has it also grown needlessly mean?

The current Yellow Springs police force. When too many cops
have too few problems to police, some of them might create
a few problems of their own.
Peaceful, pleasant Yellow Springs, Ohio is best known for its quirky character, for being the home of Antioch College, and for what passes, at least in southern Ohio, as a fairly vibrant and growing food scene.

At the college they grow much of their own food, organically of course, on their own farm. Downtown, the Winds CafĂ© has a kitchen so innovative, I'd bet it could survive even in fussy New York, and it also offers a respectable wine list. I hear other restaurants in town are pretty good, too, although, as an only rarely-visiting New Yorker, I haven’t had a chance to try them all.

As for the cops — well, out-of-control police in Yellow Springs were all but unheard of until recently. Note that I am familiar with some police matters in Yellow Springs stretching back to 1954, when the late Russ Bradley was police chief there. (Later he became county sheriff.) Sample 1954 police matter? 

One night, the burglar alarm began clanging at at the only drug store in town. Chief Bradley rolled out of bed, put  his police uniform on over his pajamas, phoned up the town’s other two cops, and got to the drug store just as a pair of escaped convicts from a West Virginia penitentiary, and the girlfriend of one of them, fled from the busted-into drug store with all the medicinal narcotics they could grab and carry. They headed south on Ohio Route 68, which also serves as the main drag of Yellow Springs, where it's called Xenia Avenue.

The Yellow Springs cops set out in hot pursuit, siren blaring. Only problem was, their rattle-trappy old police car couldn’t keep up with the souped-up vehicle the bad guys were driving. So the cops radioed ten miles down the road to the county sheriff’s office in Xenia, which set up a road block.

Meanwhile the  escaped con burglars,  correctly fearful that they were going to get caught, decided not to get caught while in possession of narcotics. So they began tossing the stuff out of the car windows. The following morning, the entire Yellow Springs Police Department (was it really only three people back then?) and the Greene County Sheriff’s officers, had to hike along the sides of the ten mile stretch of Route 68 from Yellow Springs to Xenia, policing up pill bottles. You can’t make this stuff up.

When all this happened, I was still a high school kid in Brooklyn. But some years later I was in college editing the Antioch College student newspaper, which was job printed each week by the Yellow Springs News. One day, while waiting for the press run to finish, I came across a bound volume of all 1954 issues of the Yellow Springs News, and it was there that I found the story of the escaped cons, and the girlfriend, and the pills. Enterprising hotshot boy reporter that I was, I decided to go looking for them and to write a story about them.

The story never got written. The reason why is a long story in itself. But I did actually find and have a chat with one of the perps, the girlfriend. Her name was Marjorie Liefbar, and when I found her her, she was running a brothel at the corner of Fourth and York Streets in Newport, Kentucky, about 75 miles away. The joint pretended to be a greasy spoon called The Fourth Street Grill. Starting early in the evening, the door was locked. Whenever somebody knocked at the door, Marge would open it and say, "Sorry, the grill's closed, honey, unless you want a woman."

“Russ Bradley?” she said to me. “Sure, I remember that sumnabitch hillbilly. I grew up with him. I can remember when he didn’t even know how to wear shoes!”

Bradley eventually became county sheriff and was replaced by one of the first black police chiefs in America, a kindly gentle man named Jim McKee. McKee dealt non-violently with some explosive issues in his time, including a large demonstration in front of a segregated barber shop in 1964 that led to the arrest of 106 demonstrators. 

You’d think that a small town police chief who managed to bring off an operation of that size might revel in it, but not McKee, who had some sympathy for the people he was arresting. “It was the worst day of my life,” he said. 

Even Bradley, redneck that he was, made sure that he and his department were peace officers, not disturbers of the peace.

Contrast that with the current Yellow Springs police department. If I counted the number of heads in their web page group photogaphs correctly, the department has grown to eleven officers and seven dispatchers although the population of the town has not appreciably increased. 

And now, when there’s trouble in tiny Yellow Springs, people are less and less surprised when the instigators turn out to be the cops. Or perhaps the Keystone Cops would be a better handle.

Earlier this year one officer was dismissed from the force after several incidents that were judged to be “appropriate” police behavior or “within Policy” but “not a good fit for the village.”  What happened during those incidents? Well, according to the Yellow Springs News, in one case
...in the parking lot behind the Gulch [a local bar], Officer Whittemore smashed the car window of a longtime local resident who had refused his requests to provide identification and open the car door. The woman, who had had too much to drink and decided to not drive home, was waiting in her car for a ride home, according to an interview with the woman, who asked not to be identified. However, according to Whittemore’s report of the incident, the woman’s car keys were within her reach, which is a violation of the Ohio Revised Code if a vehicle’s owner is intoxicated. After breaking the window, Officer Whittemore forced the woman, who continued to resist, out of the car, threatened her with a Taser, handcuffed her and charged her with disorderly conduct, obstructing official business and resisting arrest.
Of course, with the windows rolled up, one can question how the officer knew the sleeping woman was intoxicated.

In another incident
Officer Whittemore stopped a 22-year-old local man as the young man was walking on Xenia Avenue near downtown at about 9:30 p.m. on May 30. According to Whittemore’s written report on the incident, the man looked “agitated” and also walked too near the police cruiser as Whittemore was parked in the Speedway parking lot. Whittemore followed the man down the street, then pulled in front of him at the Mills Park Hotel, where the man refused to stop. Whittemore reported that the man smelled like alcohol and pulled away when Whittemore grabbed his wrist, resulting in a struggle and the young man being forced to the ground. When the man continued to resist, he was threatened with Tasing, handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
So the officer is off the force. Problem solved, right? 

Not so fast.
On New Year’s Eve this year, the villagers of Yellow Springs celebrated a “ball drop” — a small town version of what happens in Times Square. Shortly after midnight there was an incident. 

Precisely what happened was unclear but, according to newspaper reports, police drove their car into a crowd of revelers on a short commercial street, aptly named Short Street, that runs perpendicular to Route 68. Their sirens were howling.

What was their intent? To “disperse revelers,” according to the Yellow Springs News. Why disperse at only eight minutes after midnight during a New Year's Eve celebration? Not clear. Nobody was breaking any laws by celebrating the new year. Maybe the cops unilaterally decided that the crowd had stayed up past their bedtime. The police chief, at least initially, has failed to come up with an explanation. There is a town council meeting tonight and perhaps more will come out then.

Meanwhile, the cops pulled out their tasers and one, or possibly two people were tased, one of them possibly by accident. And one witness told the Yellow Springs News, “I told saw an officer grab the head of the man and throw him to the ground.” When the man on the ground attempted to get up, the cop tased him again, the witness said.

The Yellow Springs News also reported
Kurt Miyazaki, a co-owner of the Emporium, said he tried to talk to the three police officers in two squad cars as they moved slowly through the crowd. He was not sure of the identity of the officers, two men and one young woman/ 
Miyazaki said that in a peaceful way he asked police what they were doing, and warned that they could be provoking people. One officer responded that they were just doing their job, while the others did not respond. The police were not talking to people in the street, he said, but were simply driving their cars with the sirens blaring.
So I guess the intent of the police wasn’t noise control. And then this:
According to Berman, when she asked a local officer at the scene why police were attempting to clear the street so abruptly, the officer, whose name she didn’t know, said this was standard practice for the New Year’s event. However, Anita Brown, who has attended the event for about 25 years, said she has never witnessed it before.
And this:
According to Gardner, also a longtime attendee of the ball-drop who was in the crowd, one young man approached a local police car saying he wanted to help and was told to back off or he’d be arrested. Someone pushed against the police car door and the officer exited the car, after which several officers chased the man down the street.
Let me take a wild guess here as to what’s really going on. There are too many cops for a town the size of Yellow Springs, population under 5,000. They don’t have enough to do. And so, like a working dog left bored and alone at home for too many hours, they invent jobs for themselves.

Dogs invent jobs like chewing up the furniture and breaking things. Cops in Yellow Springs, it seems, find ways to create incidents that would be crimes, or at least misdemeanors, if it were ordinary citizens doing what the cops are doing to keep busy.

There has been talk that the local police force needs retraining. I would suggest that what they need is replacement. And that their ranks need to be thinned out. You can’t train people to have common sense.

P.S. The Yellow Springs News is now reporting that the village's police chief has resigned. An investigation concerning what happened is ongoing, with results expected to be reported on January 30th.

12 comments:

Elizabeth Price said...

I love your article . I was there and the police rode down Xenia Avenue through the crowd. It was so scary to me that I took off my sparkly heels and ran home barefooted, leaving my friends uptown. And one of our major landlords and a conservative gentleman who was sleeping at the time told his family that all the police sirens woke him up. It was chaos for an hour. The police tasered a young man who was asking how he could help and accidentally tasered another bystander. This is not the Yellow Springs I know about. What was a sweet and enchanting gathering of friends and family was tasered! P.S. The other restaurants are pretty good, actually The Sunrise is sweet for the cost and of course the Winds is stellar!

Anonymous said...

One of the things that is different is the number of tourists who come to the village. On a good weekend the population grows considerably. Also, Street Fairs (June and October) now attract thousands.

debtrout said...

The fact the YSO citizens didn't know the names of the officers speaks volumes. Back in the day they were as much a part of the community as anyone else. Yay Huey! Yay Chief McKee!

Alan said...

Aging boomers demand that the riff-raff be driven out, with prejudice!

Seriously, what we have here is the police state on action in sleepy Mayberry. Wait until they start enforcing the God Emperor's "No Muslims" edict.

Anonymous said...

I was also there and witnessed the events. I left shortly after the cop was driving too fast up and down 68 with his siren blurping. I have attended the ball drop over the past 16 years and it always dissipates naturally by 1230. Cops used to wish us well, walk among the crowd, never sirens, nor aggression as what we witnessed the other night... and never...ever...an issue. It scared and ruined alot of people's evening and seems to be a sign of the times in our country. This must end. It was completely instigated by the police officers.

Jonah Stein said...

I used to live in Yellow Springs from 1991-96 and I graduated from Antioch in 1986. After one encounter with YSPD (a long and ridiculous story, sadly too long ago to be in the online archive), I suggested in my letter to the editor of the Yellow Spring News (1994?) that instead of having 9 officers on the force they could have 5 or 6 and give everyone in the village free bicycles and some ear plugs.

Not everyone understood the suggestion but the police blotter was 90% noise complaints and stolen bicycles.

Anonymous said...

Whereas I find the police actions on New Year's Eve appalling (at least in the way I have heard said actions described), I think seriously reducing the size of the department is not necessarily the answer. Though Yellow Springs is hardly the world's most dangerous place and absolutely does not require a police force like we saw terrorizing the streets of Ferguson, Missouri (neither does Ferguson, Missouri, for that matter), serious things do transpire in Yellow Springs that require police intervention.

Remember the multitude of burglaries a few years back? What about the shootout that required officers from far & wide? We are becoming the town we claim we are not. Perhaps the days of Yellow Springs serving as an island of peace despite the chaotic real world surrounding us are coming to an end.

Erin Hankie said...

Shoot out you speak of was in reality just another example of a situition where police officers who were not appropriate for the community made a situation explode. When swat and multiple departments came rushing in that night the results were devestating. I have to wonder if you have many facts about that situation. Had police simply handed tyne bull horn to the man's mother or any other of the lice long friends or his daughter who were all begging to tall him down. ..Paul would still be here. He was one of us. He was a good man.

jackie mulhall said...

It seems to me that one of the differences about this year's ball drop is that there were A LOT more people. Where did they come from? Did folks partying at the new hotel play a part in this? Was our event advertised to communities outside Yellow Springs? The New Year's Ball drop really is for local folks to meet each other down town and wish each other a happy new year. That's all. We have a sweet tradition of dropping a disco ball down on a rope and then we wish all our friends and neighbors a happy new year. A half hour later we disperse because its cold and we did what we came together to do. This isn't a tourist event. Someone from another community attending would probably say, "Is that all? You count down and drop a disco ball down on a rope?" But its special to us because we are a community that is close. We are family. When it becomes another kind of event, that is way too big, things can get out of hand. One of the reasons we need a larger police force is because we have so many tourist events which we never had in the past. I am not excusing what the officer's did that night. I view it as an attack on something we hold precious. Events change when they become a tourist events. And why should this be a tourist event? We don't need stalls selling New Year's trinkets or food trucks on the street. Doing so would cheapen it. This is one of the few things left for us. Like the 4th of July parade or the fireworks show at Gaunt Park.

The New York Crank said...

Aw c'mon Jackie. How many people were there partying at the Mills Hotel? The hotel only has 28 guest rooms. But for the sake of argument say there were 100 partiers who weren't Yellow Springers. So what? It wasn't exactly rush hour on the Tokyo subway.

Whether there were a grand total of 150, or 500, or 5,000 people on the street, there was no reason for the police, only a few minutes after a public gathering, to treat anybody standing there as a criminal. Or to disperse a peaceful assembly without explanation but with glaring lights, loud sirens, and tasers.

For those rare moments when something, say a mass demonstration if there ever is one, gets so large and violent that the YS cops need backup, there's plenty of help available from the county and the state. That's what Jim McKee relied on for most days of his career with just his 5-person force. But cops don't need backup because people are standing around wishing one another happy new year.

Umm, and one other thing. If the citizens are worried about burglary, New Year's Eve, with considerable numbers of the population celebrating downtown, would be an ideal time for burglars to strike. So the police might have better been deployed driving around the residential parts of town looking for break-ins, rather than hanging out downtown looking for people who might be happy.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank

I'm sorry,

Ken11 said...

I agree, NYC, about the out-of-towners. We can hope that this years unwanted publicity will have slipped the memories of most non-locals. ...
Thank you so much for your historical commenrary and investgative report. Yours adds to a lot of good writing and thinking I've heard and read since Tuesday's council meeting was gaveled to order.
We've always known about the ongoing culture wars. Maybe the most disturbing revelation in this is the apparent collusion by local and surrounding LE agencies to pick our little soft target event, and use excessive force (and equipment), plausibly to stir the rable and justify the use of more force in the future. -Sort of an organizational development strategy.
-But our leftie, peacenik citizenry (including a councilperson) didn't take the bait. Now we are presented with a huge opportunity, to bend the arc of history back towards justice.
God help us to do that, as we attempt to refashion the PD along different lines. The predicted headwinds are about as high as our idealism, maybe higher

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Erin.
I was stunned at that comment.
I mean, I researched it for almost 2 years...
There is no doubt about it.
They escalated at every opportunity. The swat caused confusion, broke into 3 adjacent homes ON ACCIDENT (!?!?!?!?) thinking they were at his house. They fired dozens of rounds (then lied about it), contaminated the scene by stomping all over the property to retrieve casings, and on and on and on...
Paul was a good man.
They murdered him while playing g.i. Joe with their military 'toys'.
We don't need them.