Emotions ran raw at the Athena Cinema Tuesday evening during a two-and-a-half-hour “Ask the Chiefs” forum where three local police chiefs responded to issues brought up by the recent forceful and controversial arrest of a young African-American man on Court Street by three white Athens Police officers.
The event – sponsored by Ohio University’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion as well as multiple African-American student organizations – served as a way for students and the community to express concerns and ask questions about that incident, and about police relations with the African-American community in general. Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle, OU Police Chief Andrew Powers and Hocking College Police Chief Tiffany Tims sat on the theater stage during the event.
Pyle began with some remarks about the way he and his department have handled the aforementioned so far. He offered an apology for some remarks he made during a Sept. 30 press conference responding to a viral video of the arrest on North Court Street the preceding Saturday night.
“I’m well aware that I further marginalized people and upset people with certain things that I said,” Pyle said. “…My intent was to try to stop what I saw as fear and panic that something that was reported to have happened could have happened in our community.”
During that press conference, Pyle defended the actions of the APD officers after a video was shared thousands of times on Twitter of the officers shoving Ty Bealer, 21, an African-American University of Cincinnati student, into the bricks of North Court Street late Saturday night, Sept. 28, then forcefully subduing him. That sparked local outrage over the officers’ actions, as well as accusations of racism and excessive force used against the young man.
During the event Tuesday, Pyle mainly avoided retelling the incident in question, noting that he did not want to bias any jury against Bealer, who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and obstructing official business in Athens County Municipal Court.
Pyle previously recounted that two officers arrived outside the J-Bar on North Court Street around midnight Saturday in response to a person – identified as Bealer – being “ejected” from the bar, who then returned and was causing “staff issues” outside.
“Officers were advised this person may have assaulted other patrons in the bar,” Pyle added in a follow-up press release issued Sept. 30 after the press conference.
The officers approached Bealer, Pyle recounted of the officers’ story, who tried to “resist officers” and “run away.”
Pyle said that alleged resistance resulted in an “altercation” that went to the ground.
“The person was arrested and… taken into custody and was offered EMS treatment for a small abrasion to the right hand and a Taser barb wound, which is standard operating procedure when a Taser is deployed,” the chief previously said.
Pyle explained during Tuesday’s forum that the Police Department has documented 269 “use of force” incidents by police officers since 2007 (described as anything more forceful than handcuffing somebody). Of those 269 incidents, he added, the APD hasn’t received a single complaint about those uses of force. The department also only found a single violation of departmental policy after reviewing those use of force reports, Pyle said, and that was only for an officer inaccurately reporting an incident.
However, one forum participant was quick to point out that Athens Police officer Ethan Doerr – one of the three officers involved in the arrest of Bealer – has been sued twice for alleged use of excessive force. The first time occurred when Doerr – then a patrol officer with the Logan Police Department – was sued in the Federal District Court of Southern Ohio by Sugar Grove resident Michael Moe, who was arrested by Doerr in a 2015 traffic stop while Moe was a passenger. The suit alleged that Moe was arrested using excessive force, causing him to “suffer great physical pain and agony and economic loss, suffered bruises, and contusions over the upper portion of his body, pain, dizziness and fear.” The suit was dismissed, and was reportedly settled out of court (Moe pleaded guilty to a single fifth-degree felony charge of trafficking in drugs in 2016).
Meanwhile, Doerr is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit claiming excessive force by plaintiff Jacob Francis, who alleges that in an incident in late April 2018 he was “violently grabbed” by APD officer Doerr, then hit by a Taser when he tried to walk away from Doerr, “mysteriously travel(ing)” 15-20 feet away from where he was hit with the Taser, falling down three stairs, and striking a wall with his head. Doerr has denied that he used excessive force in that incident, and Pyle said during Tuesday’s forum that the officer was not found to have used excessive force upon an APD review of the incident.
Pyle made a distinction between lawsuits and any violation of departmental policy, arguing that “anybody can file a lawsuit,” and noting that Doerr has not been found to have violated departmental policy previously. He acknowledged that his agency knew of the Logan PD lawsuit when it hired Doerr, and hired him anyway.
ACCORDING TO THE CHARGING documents filed against Bealer in Municipal Court last Monday, he allegedly “pulled away from Police Officer (Ethan) Doerr and grabbed Police Officer (AJ) Spear while they were investigating the defendant for disorderly conduct.”
The other charging document alleges that Bealer “did fight with officers, grabbing ahold of Police Officer (AJ) Spear and kicking Police Officer (Ethan) Doerr.”
However, OU student Ajiyah Brooks – who shared the initial video of Bealer’s arrest that went viral on Twitter – attended Tuesday’s forum, and said she did not see Bealer resisting arrest. “I didn’t see any resistance,” she said. “It didn’t take three strong, grown men to do what they did to this boy.”
Brooks noted that racist ideology persists in society suggesting that black men are “thugs,” and asked Pyle what the APD will do to combat those stereotypes.
Pyle responded that the department is constantly updating its use-of-force policies to be in line with court decisions, and has “ongoing conversations” about race and policing. In about 48 percent of the APD’s use-of-force incidents, he said, three or more officers are involved in the arrest. He added that he does not believe Bealer was seriously injured in the arrest.
One forum participant responded to that claim, describing himself as an OU employee and former Columbus resident who knows Bealer well (he did not identify himself). He said that Bealer “grew up” in one of the YMCAs that he helped run in Columbus, and described him as a mechanical engineering major and student senator at the University of Cincinnati. While Bealer might not have been seriously injured (Bealer’s friend, Zachary Davis, has said he suffered some “bumps and bruising”), the participant said, the impact of the incident will have a lasting psychological impact on him.
“Regardless of what happens with this, as an African-American male… I want you to understand that the impact of what happened is going to affect him (Bealer) mentally, how he perceives the world, how he perceives interacting with individuals, for the rest of his life,” the man said.
Several forum attendees testified that they have seen plenty of fights and other misbehavior inside bars on Court Street, but had never witnessed the level of force used in arresting those suspects that was used on Bealer.
Both Pyle and OU Police Chief Powers responded that the use of force is something that is “fluid,” and depends on multiple factors, including how big the arrestee is versus the officer(s), how much the person is resisting arrest, and environmental factors present during the arrest.
Pyle maintained that three officers was an appropriate number to use in the arrest of Bealer in order to keep him and others “safe.” He also reiterated that the APD has video evidence that has not been released that will be used in the court case against Bealer.
DURING THE FORUM – upon being asked by a forum participant – both Pyle and Powers confirmed that neither the OUPD nor APD have any African-American officers, something that both chiefs said they want to change.
Powers noted that in a majority-white area that is “economically depressed” such as Athens County, it can be difficult to recruit African-American candidates, especially when police salaries are consistently “10 to 15 percent lower” than the salaries offered in urban and suburban areas of Ohio.
Hocking College Police Chief Tims, who was recruited to work at the college, said she was attracted to the area after speaking with former Hocking Police Chief Al Matthews. She said that she’s been able to recruit several African-American officers, including a young man recently hired as an Athens County sheriff’s deputy, by forming connections with them early in their police training at the college.
Asked about his contention during the press conference last week that race had “nothing to do” with the arrest of Bealer, Pyle explained that he meant that he believes the officers did not arrest Bealer “solely” because of his race. However, he said he does think racism exists in law enforcement, and wants it to be stamped out.
He added that his department trains officers on racial bias. However, he admitted that the last department-wide training directly on that topic took place 2012. It’s time to do another training again on that topic, he said.
According to training records for officers Doerr and Spear, Spear did receive that training in 2012. Doerr did not (he was not employed by the APD at the time).
Destiniee Jaram, an OU junior, noted at the event Tuesday that racism can be “very subtle”; it’s not just something as obvious as a white officer “going around and saying the N-word.” She added that having officers take a test when they’re hired and receiving training on the topic is not the same thing as having officers interacting with people of color regularly.
“By saying we don’t hire any racist cops, they’re not even allowed on the force, is naïve because you really don’t know that,” she said, “especially you being a white man having no people of color on the force.”
The forum became more contentious when two women – holding a large Black Lives Matter banner on the edge of the theater – offered several radical comments. One of the women advocated for disarming the police and "making them obsolete" by creating community-based alternatives. The other suggested Pyle and Powers should "resign as police officers," calling the event a "spectacle."
"I hope you don't feel good or comfortable or pleased with yourself after doing this," she said. "This is literally nothing."
OU student Nia Dumas, VP of the Black Student Communication Caucus, took umbrage with those statements in a comment soon after.
"I honestly sincerely think you guys are coming from a genuine place of love, but holding a Black Lives Matter sign, making it seem like it (anti-police comments) is coming from the black community, that doesn't help our relations with the community," she said. "You need to learn to... ask before speaking on our behalf because you guys are not black."
There were several takeaways from the event, including several suggestions for changes to the APD and OUPD. They included: more attempts by police to do community outreach to people of color in Athens and at OU; creating a list of areas where the police agencies need more funding in order to do more outreach and improve hiring practices for people of color; and more robust training on community policing and racial bias.