Clash at last New Year celebration ‘a fluke,’ says Yellow Springs police chief

Firefighters will serve up hot chocolate at tonight’s first-ever officially sanctioned ball drop event in Yellow Springs. It’s one small change that officials hope will lead to a celebration that ends more peacefully than last year’s event.

Miami Twp. Fire and Rescue is officially sponsoring the long-running event. Their equipment, along with the village’s public works truck, will be used to block traffic on U.S. 68 as 2017 comes to an end. In years’ past, a barricade or two blocked the street.

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Last year as people continued to celebrate after the ball drop, a near riot ensued as police attempted to clear the streets using cruisers, sirens and Tasers.

The officers’ actions drew national attention and were harshly criticized by residents, including comedian Dave Chappelle, who addressed village council during one of the heavily-attended meetings.

This year the fire equipment will provide a more secure blockade to motorized traffic, and the hope is the event will be as fun and “family-friendly” as it always has been, said Police Chief Brian Carlson.

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“We want to bring back the way it used to feel for everybody,” Carlson said. “Last year was kind of a fluke.”

The village hired attorneys to investigate what happened, and changes being implemented are based on their report.

The report concluded in-part that police should never use their cruisers or Tasers to disperse a crowd, that the use of high-decibel sirens was inappropriate, and that a police supervisor should have been present during the event.

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The fallout from the New Year’s incident was swift. Former Police Chief David Hale resigned from his position in an effort to “heal the rift” that developed between the community and police.

Two police officers who were working that night are no longer employed by the village. Officer Allison Saurber resigned her position in February, citing differences of opinion on police procedures, and Officer R.J. Hawley’s employment was ended by a separation agreement in May.

Carlson was subsequently named interim chief and was made permanent for the position months later.

Carlson said working to regain the community’s trust was a high priority when village council voted unanimously to make him the permanent police chief in June.

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Carlson said “the biggest tangible change is mindset” in his department since Jan. 1.

“I suggest officers approach things with options,” he said. “If it’s a serious crime, we have to deal with it. But most encounters aren’t, and we do have options.”

Carlson said he tells his officers that it’s OK to be polite at a traffic stop and to ask “Is everything OK?”

“We want to de-escalate,” he said. “When you get pulled over, your rights are taken away momentarily. An officer can help ease that while keeping safety in check.”

Miami Twp. Fire Chief Colin Altman said the plan this year is “to bring safety, garbage bags and a friendly attitude.”

Altman said emergency planning for public events is important these days, and the village needed to adopt a more formal approach to accommodating the decades-long ball drop celebration.

Altman said it’s always been a fun event, and he hopes this year to see police mingling in the crowd, similar to what he saw one year when he was in Times Square in New York City.

“What impressed me among the millions of people who were there, was just how fun and community-focused the police department was,” he said. “These men and women were laughing and talking with the crowd and posing for pictures … It’s always nice to see police mingling in the crowd.”

Village Council Vice President Brian Housh said the leadership change in the police department was among the critical steps that needed to happen after last year’s incident. Otherwise, there was “not a major fix that needed to happen,” he said.

“(The ball drop) sort of highlights what the village is all about,” Housh said. “You see all the people that you live and play with. Literally, everybody starts to get chilly around 12:30 and mosey on back home.”

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