Delaware county, city lawmen field questions on training, use of force in town hall

PAUL COMSTOCK
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin speaks during an online town-hall meeting held June 11 and arranged by the Delaware African American Heritage Council and other groups and churches.

Law-enforcement priorities, training, funding and use of force were among the topics Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin and Delaware police Chief Bruce Pijanowski addressed in a timely online town-hall session June 11.

The nearly 90-minute event, called "Erasing the Line, Establishing the Trust Community Conversation," was held via Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook by the Delaware African American Heritage Council and other groups and churches.

Moderators Adonis Bolden and Carlos Crawford presented questions to Martin, Pijanowski and sheriff's deputy Brian Carter.

Crawford is a Delaware attorney. Bolden is an assistant principal at Delaware Hayes High School.

Pijanowski said Martin was his superior at the police department before he became sheriff, and both men share the same concept of community service.

"This is a calling for me," Pijanowski said. "This is my city, and I care about this city and I pass that down to everyone at the Delaware Police Department. ... We are not an occupying force in Delaware. We are partners and resources for this community, and so I welcome this conversation."

"One of the things everyone (in the sheriff's office) is told is that regardless of your seniority -- whether you have three months on or 13 years -- if you see (a deputy's action) that's inappropriate, wrong, illegal, unethical, immoral, you need to intervene and step in," Martin said. "That's integrated in our policies, as well."

Both men were asked how police officials could reach marginalized communities or those distrustful of law enforcement.

Pijanowski said the police department has conducted outreach programs to interact and create dialogue with people who might not otherwise have contact with officers.

They have included the Coffee with Cops program; outreach with youngsters, such as a youth basketball program held around the city; participation in such community events as the Unity Festival and Ohio Wesleyan University's Community Day; and bicycle and foot patrols that allow officers to talk to residents, he said.

The goal is to be accessible and build relationships, Pijanowski said, that "allow me to have tough conversations with people I consider friends."

When Martin was police chief, the department began contacts with mental-health providers, designed to help their clients avoid hospitalization or criminal behavior, Pijanowski said. Similar contacts were initiated with the Maryhaven substance-abuse treatment facility to reach out to those abusing opioids, he said.

The police department also has a social worker on staff, he said.

School-resource officers perform a similar role by interacting with students in their own environment, Martin said.

Excessive force

Martin was asked if deputies use body cameras and how excessive force is defined, identified and addressed.

Martin said he was an advocate of body cameras, which the sheriff's office began to use in 2017 after county commissioners approved funding.

Deputies made 1,130 arrests in 2019, Martin said, and only 38 times did deputies have to go "hands on ... and by that I mean somebody didn't comply with a lawful order."

When force is used, he said, body-camera footage is viewed, and the incident is reviewed at the supervisory level by members of several divisions in the department, Martin said.

A comprehensive form is completed, a determination is made if the action was in compliance with the law and Martin makes the final review, he said.

Pijanowski was asked if the department has a policy on racial profiling and how complaints are handled.

Department policy prohibits bias-based policing and makes it an officer's duty to report any bias-based action by another officer, Pijanowski said.

Everyone in the department has received such training, and he said he is open to more training about bias.

An internal review begins if an incident is reported, and a formal complaint is investigated as a significant event, he said.

"The outcome we want is a great relationship with all members of our community," Pijanowski said.

Carter, a member of the sheriff's recruitment committee and an instructor for about 15 years, was asked if training avoids promoting a "combat culture" in the sheriff's office.

The sheriff's office will not tolerate an "us-against-them" mentality, Carter said, and he believes the department has done a good job emphasizing that.

The department has mandatory annual training, and Carter said he takes pride in the training and "trying to convey through my actions, and the way I conduct myself with my co-workers, to reflect what it takes to do the job properly."

Accountability is emphasized on a daily basis with new hires, he said.

In response to another question, Martin said almost every deputy has gone through crisis-intervention training to deescalate potentially volatile situations, and more anti-bias training is planned this year.

Carter said communication skills are helpful. As a crisis-intervention instructor, he described himself as "a strong advocate for displaying calm and being open to understanding" people from different backgrounds.

"We need to show empathy and concern when dealing with crisis," he said.

Carter also said Martin has been proactive and supportive in hiring minorities and women, with "great strides the past five years" and nine members of minority groups employed.

Martin and Pijanowski were asked if choke holds -- blamed for fatalities at the hands of police in multiple instances nationwide -- are accepted in Delaware County and, if so, whether plans are to eliminate them.

Pijanowski said the primary focus of all city police training is deescalation, employing time, distance and calmness so officers won't have to use force.

Choke holds aren't a part of the training for use of force, he said, adding he can't recall a choke hold ever being used by city police.

"We do not train in it. We do not promote it," he said. "But if you're in a fight for your life and your only option is a choke hold and you ban it, you're really setting your officers up for failure.

"If we come together as a community and look at that, and we need to change the language to make it more last-resort-ish, we can have that conversation," he said.

Use of a choke hold would require mandatory reporting, medical care for the suspect and an investigation, he said.

Martin said the expectation across the board is that deputies will treat people with respect, and that message is reinforced early in training.

He agreed with Pijanowski that an officer fighting for his or her life won't know what he or she will have to rely on.

Role of unions

Martin and Pijanowski were asked about police unions affecting disciplinary practices and potential state laws to effectively reform policing.

Pijanowski said they are concerns, but the city has a good relationship with the police union. He said state law requires an outside arbitrator for disputes with the union, and he believes local arbitration can be more effective. Only the state legislature can change that, he said.

Martin said unions have increased wages significantly, improving personnel hiring and retention, and that previously, police were at the mercy of political bodies.

"I'm for local control," he said, agreeing with Pijanowski about the disadvantages of outside arbitrators.

Carter said police unions do more than keep officers out of trouble, and sometimes union members lose their jobs. Unions are "no automatic stronghold," he said.

Asked about large budgets for law enforcement, Pijanowski said 85% to 90% of the police budget is for personnel the department needs to answer service calls.

"We run pretty lean for the volume of calls we have," he said.

The budget covers training and provides time for traffic enforcement and contacts with the community, he said. The department's investigative division is busy and hasn't been expanded for years, he said.

Martin said the sheriff's budget reflects the fact that Ohio law requires it to run the county jail and provide support to the court system in terms of security, transferring inmates and serving legal documents. Orange, Liberty and Concord townships want a higher level of service and engagement from the sheriff's office, which covers 450 square miles, Martin said.

The department's percentage of the county budget is comparable to or less than similar counties, he said, and both the sheriff's office and city police are good stewards of taxpayers' money.

Wrapping up the town hall, Crawford thanked Martin, Pijanowski and Carter for their honest answers and said the event is the first in what will be a series of conversations with corresponding action steps.

"The (Delaware African American Heritage Council) and partnering organizations will commit to reform and change in the way policing (happens) in Delaware and Delaware County," he said.

The town-hall video can be viewed at tinyurl.com/daahctownhall.

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