Kasich forms task force to improve police-community relations

At the end of another week of unraveling trust between minority communities and local police, Gov. John Kasich announced plans Friday to create a new task force that will “make an honest effort to bring Ohio together.

“Ohio cannot afford to be fractured,” he said. “America cannot afford to be fractured.”

This week alone, the Montgomery County sheriff suspended two white deputies who “tarnished the office” by allegedly sending out racially-insensitive text messages. On Wednesday, a grand jury in New York declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, 29, a white officer, in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, 43, an unarmed black man. Following that, United States Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Cleveland to hand-deliver a Department of Justice report chronicling poor training, reckless behavior, and “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by the city’s police department. Criticism of police abuse came again last month to the department after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy with a pellet gun, was killed in a Cleveland park within two seconds of arrival by Officer Tim Loehmann, 26, a white officer.

“With the forming of this task force we say we hear your cries,” said Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, one of the three black state lawmakers Kasich credited with pushing the Ohio Task Force on Community and Police Relations forward so quickly. The other two are Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, and Rep. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, who also joined Kasich at a Statehouse news conference along with Attorney General Mike DeWine.

DeWine said he’s calling a special meeting Thursday of the Peace Officer Training Commission at the training academy in London to look at whether changes are needed in the way police are trained to respond to calls. The training commission sets training curriculum and requirements for the state’s law officers.

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DeWine said the Cleveland killing of Rice and the Aug. 5 police shooting of John Crawford III, 22, in the Beavercreek Walmart were both tragedies, DeWine said. Crawford, of Fairfield, died after being shot by Beavercreek officer Sean Williams who responded to the store on a report of a man waving a rifle. A special Greene County grand jury later cleared Williams of criminal charges.

National and state experts will be brought in to testify to determine if any procedural changes are needed, he said. Police response to both actions has come under sharp criticism for the short span the subjects were given to comply with officer warnings.

Turner and Williams sent a letter to Kasich early this week urging the governor use his executive authority to form the commission.

“These events demand our attention as we work to create safer communities and effective law enforcement strategies. We must not be complacent in addressing these issues, as every large metropolitan area of the state has experienced civil unrest centering on police conduct within the past half century, most recently in Cincinnati in 2001,” wrote Turner and Williams.

Though members of the commission have not been named, it will likely comprise representatives from the Ohio legislature and academia, as well as local law enforcement, community civil rights leaders, and Hispanic, Muslim and LGBT organizations. Turner and Williams urged the governor to also include members from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and NAACP to the Ohio State Highway Patrol and Department of Public Safety.

The new task force will bring different voices and varied stakeholders to the table to renew confidence in the justice system, said Reece, who was Cincinnati’s vice mayor when racially-charged riots hit the city in 2001.

“Too many of our citizens, not only here in Ohio but around this country, have lost or are losing faith in the system,” Reece said.

The commission would be a promising and proactive initiative, said Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl, who was a Cincinnati assistant chief during the same 2001 riots. Afterward the city embraced a concept called “mutual accountability.”

“On a very fundamental level community policing means communities are participants – co-creators of safety, and that communities have voice and say into what police do and how they do it.”

Biehl said if both police and citizens fail to perform their civic duties in tandem, “any improvements will be minimal.”

The approach used in Cincinnati may very well be the model for the new state program when fully formed, Kasich said.

“It wasn’t that long ago when things were exploding in Cincinnati and there have been many steps taken that we’re going to learn a lot from that can be used not only in Ohio but perhaps around the country,” he said.

A teach-in Friday at the University of Dayton was an opportunity for about 200 to understand how the events of Michael Brown’s death have changed the discourse in the country. Five faculty members and two rights group representatives addressed the issue over about four hours, said Joel Pruce, assistant professor of human rights studies.

“We’re having a national conversation because of the things that have been going on in communities of color for a long time and regularly,” Pruce said. “There have been dozens if not hundreds of Michael Browns over the years.”

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer on Monday suspended Capt. Thomas Flanders and Detective Michael Sollenberger for allegedly sending the text messages on their personal cell phones containing racially insensitive jokes — some of which mentioned two black deputies. Three other deputies are involved, but they have not been suspended pending the outcome of an internal investigation, the sheriff said earlier this week.

Kasich will issue an Executive Order that outlines the commission’s members and mission. It will begin its work in early 2015 and start with a series of meetings across the state.

“This has been an excruciatingly difficult time for members of the minority community, particularly the African-American community,” Kasich said. “They want somebody to hear about their concerns. They want to be able to see constructive improvements in our system… They want a voice.”

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