With incidents involving certain police actions sparking national protests recently, local lawmen note the unfairness of how they are sometimes portrayed, particularly in the national news media.
They do not defend the actions of bad police officers, but believe most do good work all the while serving in a continuously dangerous profession.
Defiance County Sheriff Doug Engel, for example, said there’s a perception that “all law enforcement are bad, and that’s a poor assumption. Are there bad cops in the world? Yes, there are, just like they’re bad people.”
“We’re always battling that perception,” said Defiance Police Chief Todd Shafer. “Just as soon as we think the perception is turning around, one or two bad officers make a bad choice, and that winds up tarnishing the profession for everyone.”
Paulding County Sheriff Jason Landers noted that local law enforcement officers are “blessed to be doing police work” in an area where “the community respects us and trusts us.” He noted that his department treats people “fairly,” but acknowledges that “bad police work” sometimes grabs headlines.
“It’s a shame,” he said, noting that it drags everyone in the law enforcement profession down, creating an impression of widespread wrongdoing that isn’t accurate.
Speaking with The Crescent-News last week on a day when he attended a Buckeye Sheriffs’ Association event in Columbus while in uniform, Landers said he noticed that “there’s a different vibe out their right now” about law enforcement officers. “I don’t feel that way back home.”
Napoleon Police Chief David Mack added that “it’s disheartening” that police are sometimes painted with a broad brush following an incident that draws attention, “because there are so many good cops out there trying to their job every single day.”
Law enforcement reform — including better training — is sometimes suggested or demanded in the wake of cases like George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn.
Landers noted that this is not always uniform, especially given what an officer may be doing. For example, a K9 handler will get more than most.
“I know I have some people who have been trained more than others,” Landers said. “A K9 handler will get more training because it’s a different assignment. I by far get the most training. I try to get as much training as I can to manage the office.”
Mack explained that officers do receive many hours of instruction before they become officers.
“I don’t know if the general public knows they’re going through hundreds and hundreds of hours before they even hit the street,” said Mack, who is a peace officer academy instructor at Northwest State Community College. “A psychological exam is already required. We’ve made some major strides in Ohio in the last several years.”
Engel indicated that officer training and education changes, given that the law and procedures often are tweaked.
“The law’s ever-changing and we have to keep up with the new rules,” said Engel, who noted that his department is “constantly” reviewing procedures.
When it comes to arrests, he said training tries to recreate as many situations as possible, and where these concern an aggressive or violent scenario, “you’re trying to de-escalate using the least amount of force possible.”
In attempting to ensure the proper response in any given situation, Engel’s office and other law enforcement agencies partner with the Ohio Collaborative. This panel — composed of a broad cross section of persons from a pastor to a police officer, prosecutor and police chief, and college professors — helps establish standards for police agencies, but these are recommendations and not mandates.
With law enforcement training and perception changing all the time, local officers note recent difficulties in attracting new officers to the fold.
For example, Mack noted last week that only three candidates have applied for Napoleon’s police officer opening. In the past, his department might interview 10 people, with 15-20 on a possible list of qualified candidates.
“When I took our exam, it was a roomful of people 25 years ago,” said Mack. “... The challenge is we all want good employees. You try to get the best people for your community.”
“Our recruiting and hiring is a very difficult process anymore,” said Engel. “We’re not getting the perspective candidates that we have in the past. So, it makes hiring a very difficult process, and by adding more and more stipulations it’s becoming very difficult.”
Landers related a similar concern, noting that Paulding County’s jail had a corrections officer opening recently, but had only two candidates.
“When we opened the jail in 2017, I would get 10 applicants,” added Landers. Right now it’s already hard enough to find people who want to be police officers, especially if we don’t have the public backing nationwide,” said Shafer. “It’s going to really have an effect on whether someone really wants to be a public servant. Ninety-nine percent want to be a public servant to take the job to make a difference in our communities and make as a much of a positive impact as we can. That’s why most of us became police officers.”
Out of the recent protests about police actions across the nation has come a proposal that is especially puzzling for many law enforcement officers — reduce or eliminate police funding for certain departments and use the money for social programs.
“I don’t get the logic behind that,” said Landers. “I don’t think when we have violent crimes (social workers) are going to be the person (to respond). I don’t get that thought process.”
Meanwhile, some local officers report that crimes are becoming more violent and/or dangerous.
At least in Defiance, defendants have been indicted with some frequency in recent years for disobeying an officer’s order to stop, thus leading to police pursuits.
In one case in November 2018, a Defiance County sheriff’s deputy shot out the back window of a vehicle whose driver refused to stop and crashed into other uninvolved vehicles on a Defiance street.
”Our local crimes are becoming more and more violent,” said Engel. “That’s very evident. The whole dynamics of the criminal atmosphere has changed in the last four years. It’s becoming more violent.”