A year after Dayton protests, reform efforts grab the spotlight

Dayton Police Major, Paul Saunders explains to Dayton city officials how the new internet tool will work. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Dayton Police Major, Paul Saunders explains to Dayton city officials how the new internet tool will work. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Dayton police reform efforts sparked by racial justice protests that broke out a year ago today resulted in 142 recommendations that many believe will significantly improve policing if implemented.

City and police leaders say they are making steady progress to make the proposed changes, but some people are skeptical that all of the recommendations will be put into practice and policy, including some of the most consequential ideas.

Reform group members like Ellis Jacobs say the reform process led to thoughtful and thorough recommendations, but they don’t mean much without action.

“With a new police chief and mayor on the way it will be critically important for community members to stay on top of this to make sure there is follow through by city leaders and staff,” said Jacobs, who was part of the recruitment and promotion committee.

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City of Dayton officials review a new internet portal that improve transparency and accountability in police reform. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
City of Dayton officials review a new internet portal that improve transparency and accountability in police reform. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Exactly one year ago, large crowds flooded downtown Dayton’s streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis.

Days later, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and other city leaders vowed to make changes to improve police accountability and community-police relations.

The mayor later that month announced she was creating five police reform working groups focused on oversight, use of force, training, community engagement and recruitment and promotion.

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A protest event that began at the federal building in downtown Dayton on Saturday, May 30, 2020, moved to the area of Jones Street and Wayne Avenue, where police stopped marchers from entering U.S. 35 by using pepper spray balls and a line of officers. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF
A protest event that began at the federal building in downtown Dayton on Saturday, May 30, 2020, moved to the area of Jones Street and Wayne Avenue, where police stopped marchers from entering U.S. 35 by using pepper spray balls and a line of officers. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF

More than 125 people took part in the process, and reform committees met 76 times and members also participated in 32 listening sessions and eight cross-committee discussions as well, city leaders said.

After analyzing data, talking with experts and studying current policies and best practices in communities across the nation, the reform groups issued 142 recommendations for policing changes.

The reform groups disbanded earlier this year, but some members joined a new committee tasked with monitoring and providing feedback as the city and police department work to implement the proposals.

A March survey of 49 people involved in the reform groups found that more than 90% of respondents were confident, somewhat confident or very confident in the process, said Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy aide to Mayor Whaley who was heavily involved in the reform work.

About 94% of survey-takers agreed, strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement, “I believe I will see positive changes in the future as a result of this work,” according to Hollingsworth.

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What participants thought

Reform committee members believe the reform initiative was an important step to improving the police department’s relationship with the Black community, according to a report from Ellen Belcher, an independent consultant who the city hired to gather feedback about the process.

Many members hope the recommendations will improve data collection, transparency, independent oversight, training and recruitment of diverse candidates, which could make the police department more racially and culturally sensitive, says Belcher’s report. It was based on interviews with 14 committee members.

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However, the report says, there is “deep-seated skepticism” among many committee members about how quickly and to what degree the recommendations will result in policing changes.

Some committee members fear the most significant recommendations will be rejected, ignored or “accepted on paper but not in practice,” Belcher wrote.

The Dayton Daily News reached out to many people involved in the reform process and more than a dozen responded to questions about their experiences and expectations.

Most respondents said they were impressed with the amount of work and deliberations that went into developing recommendations.

They said community members and police personnel involved in the process took it seriously and came up with good ideas.

Nicole Van Kirk, a member of the use-of-force committee, said she is highly optimistic that her group’s recommendations will be implemented.

Some recommendations already have been put into place, she said, and the reform process worked because the community had a voice and city and police officials listened.

“There was a lot of thought and discussion that went into each recommendation,” she said. “Hopefully the work we did will save lives.”

Protesters in downtown Dayton. BILL LACKEY\STAFF
Protesters in downtown Dayton. BILL LACKEY\STAFF

Some key recommendations included equipping officers with body cameras, changing policies to prohibit some types of force like chokeholds and an emphasis on de-escalation tactics and principles, she said.

While he doubts all 30 of his group’s recommendations will be implemented, David Fox says he’s very confident the most important ones will be.

Some top priorities include establishing a full-time recruitment unit, making changes to improve flexibility in hiring and setting annual hiring goals for Black police recruits, said Fox, with the recruitment and promotion committee.

The engagement committee’s most important recommendation was to create an alternative responders program, said Marcie Sherman, an assistant Montgomery County public defender and a member of the group.

The program would send social workers, mental health experts and other non-police personnel instead of cops to certain kinds of calls, possibly like mental health emergencies and crises involving drug addiction, homelessness and intoxication.

Dayton police officers talk to a panhandler at Wayne Avenue and South Keowee Street. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
Dayton police officers talk to a panhandler at Wayne Avenue and South Keowee Street. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Sherman said she doesn’t know if the proposal will be carried out because it will take significant planning and funding, even though it should be cheaper in the long run than arresting and jailing people and other criminal justice costs.

“I’m not sure if the city of Dayton will choose to invest fully in such a program because the initial costs are so great,” she said.

Other communities that have launched these programs have seen significant reductions in contact between police and civilians, leading to fewer opportunities for escalation and use of force, she said.

People dealing with mental health crises need professional help — not interactions with police officers, said Dormetria Robinson Thompson, another member of the engagement working group.

“We must keep our Dayton city elected officials and city employees held accountable to these recommendations,” she said, noting that the alternative responder program was “hands down” the most critical proposal.

Other committee members also said financial considerations may limit or slow down some desired reforms.

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Dayton police and EMS crews respond to an incident in downtown Dayton. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
Dayton police and EMS crews respond to an incident in downtown Dayton. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Optimistic about reforms

The training reform committee worked closely with training academy command staff as recommendations were developed, said Stacey Benson-Taylor, co-leader of the group.

This allowed the group to identify and work through potential implementation challenges before recommendations were approved, she said.

Benson-Taylor said her committee called for enhanced de-escalation and implicit bias training and a new focus on community engagement to improve cultural competency.

Many policing changes are already underway and many more are coming soon, said Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph, co-leader of the oversight committee.

“My colleagues and I fully agree on the urgency of implementing these recommendations, and I look forward to a flurry of action in the next few months as new processes and procedures get set up,” he said.

Joseph’s group has called for a new and improved system to submit complaints about police conduct, as well as a new independent auditor to monitor the complaint process and provide updates.

Joseph said the group also recommended the creation of a new and improved community appeals board to hear appeals when citizens’ complaints against officers are not sustained.

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Dayton police at a crime scene. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
Dayton police at a crime scene. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

One recommendation by the oversight committee calls for extending the retention schedule for police disciplinary records.

The recommendation says investigative and disciplinary records about sustained use of force violations against officers should be retained for 10 years ― more than double the length of time required by the current policy.

Tom Wahlrab, a member of the oversight committee, said the recommendation’s status is currently listed as a “delayed ruling,” and he believes it has to do with the police union contract.

Police officials said disciplinary record retention is part of the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, meaning changes cannot be made unilaterally.

Extending the retention period can help identify officers with a history of infractions and break an unwritten “code of silence” in police culture about bad cops, Wahlrab said.

“The individuals on this committee are capable of working with city staff and officials to adjust any of our recommendations in order to either make them workable or fit within the other parts or mechanisms of the city bureaucracy,” Wahlrab said.

Several reform committee members told this newspaper they worry some proposed reforms may be stymied by the Dayton police union.

Protesters hold signs and march Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Dayton, following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF
Protesters hold signs and march Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Dayton, following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF

Jerry Dix, president of the Dayton Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 44, said the reform process resulted in productive discussions about changes that could better serve Dayton citizens, and the police union supports the city’s efforts to enact most proposals.

But he said a recommendation to change the police department’s hiring rules to select from a larger pool of candidates will not help attract a more diverse field of recruits, as some people have claimed.

The real barrier to a more diverse force is the police department’s wages, which are among the lowest in the region, he said, and Dayton is losing qualified candidates to departments with better pay and less risk.

Dix also said police officers are open to new de-escalation training, but the union believes community members also need de-escalation training of their own because it is a “two-way street.”

Individual community members are responsible for making sure every officer-citizen interaction is safe and peaceful, he said.

Dix also said the police union wants people who are selected to serve on a reconstituted citizens’ review board to be impartial, fair and objective.

“We do not believe these values are currently reflected by some members of the board,” he said, in reference to the Citizens’ Appeal Board.

What some Dayton police reform committee members said about the process and their experiences

Scott Sliver, community engagement committee: There are many factors that could impact many of the recommendations, including budgetary issues. I believe this work is a priority for the city of Dayton, and I would like to think that every recommendation will be implemented and funded, but that may not be realistic. Some recommendations will cost very little, other than the police officers’ time. Others could take a lot of money and may require legal consideration to implement them. I am hopeful that at least a majority of the recommendations from all five groups will be implemented. Even the implementation of a handful of the right recommendations could make a huge impact.

Tom Wahlrab, oversight committee: All of the oversight recommendations should be implemented. This committee discussed and vetted all of these recommendations and approved the ones we sent to the commission. If we didn’t intend or expect them to be implemented, we wouldn’t have sent them to the commission. It is important to me to understand why a recommendation is not being adopted and implemented or delayed – if such is the case. The individuals on this committee are capable of working with city staff and officials to adjust any of our recommendations in order to either make them workable or fit within the other parts or mechanisms of the city bureaucracy.

Angelina Jackson, use-of-force group: ”(It was) pretty significant — the recommendation to consider the brandishing of a firearm to be considered a use of force. ... When we’re talking about force —that’s one of the most important parts of reform.“

”At times, the meetings did get tense. ... But I don’t think there was ever a point when people weren’t able to be heard.

“”It (use of force, police reform) is a lot to wrap your head around if this is not the work you do. There is a huge learning curve. The group was great.”

Cornell Trammell, recruitment group: “(I supported) offering incentives to police officers who help with recruitment (of persons of color). ... We know it’s going to take 15 years (to have a representative police department).“

”There were certain things you could tell they (the officers) weren’t keen on changing, ... but most of the time they were very insightful.“

”If there’s never a George Floyd in Dayton, that’s, in part, because of this process.”

Mike Deffet, oversight group: “I wonder if the political will is there (to implement the recommendations), and there are going to be financial issues.”

“If those two recommendations (hiring an independent accountability auditor and retention of records documenting use-of-force violations) don’t happen, not much is going to happen.”

“I feel like I learned a lot from the different people involved and that includes having the officers there.”

SOURCE: Dayton Daily News interviews and city of Dayton report

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