After the recent death of George Perry Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the protests that erupted across the country calling for social justice, some Northeast Ohio police departments are taking a look at their own policies. Mr. Floyd died on May 25 after a police officer held his knee on the man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Many chiefs said that their policies are reviewed annually or every few years, but with a spotlight on law enforcement and increased tensions between the public and the police, now is a good time to make any needed revisions.

“Individual officers can make mistakes, there’s no doubt,” Bainbridge Police Chief Jon Bokovitz said. “Departments try to do the best we can, but we get judged on one officer’s particular actions. We don’t want a physical confrontation.”

Body cameras

Police officers and deputies in Gates Mills, Orange Village, Bainbridge, Geauga County, Pepper Pike, Solon and Woodmere use dash cameras in police cars. Not all law enforcement agencies, however, use body cameras.

Gates Mills Police Chief Gregg Minichello said that his department does not use body cameras, but that could change soon. The possibility of body cameras was discussed in the village about four years ago, he said, when the use was less common nationwide. Since then, Chief Minichello said that the increased use of body cameras is likely to make them standard equipment soon.

“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” he said. “‘What would the reason not to have them be?’ I ask myself that and I don’t think there is a reason. It allows for transparency and protects the officers and the public.”

Orange Village police do not use body cameras. At the June 10 council meeting, Police Chief Chris Kostura said that the village has discussed it for years and there are positives and negatives. He gave an example of when officers “blade” themselves, meaning that they are standing in a sideways position. Since the body camera is worn on the chest, much of the incident may not be caught on video.

“You could very easily be involved in any type of either physical fight or unfortunately a gun fight and not even see anything that occurred,” he said.

Lt. Gary Gribbons with the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office said that the deputies do not use body cameras. Though the county prosecutor’s office was consulted, discussions went by the wayside because of the price. One body camera could be around $1,000 to $1,500, he said, and cloud storage is even more costly. Lt. Gribbons said the sheriff’s department will revisit the issue soon.

Chief Joe Mariola of Pepper Pike said that officers do use body cameras, activating them during traffic stops and law enforcement calls. In other situations, such as when police go to a residence to assist EMTs in a medical call, body cameras are not turned on.

Woodmere police officers have used body cameras since 2012, according to Chief Sheila Mason. The cameras are turned on during traffic stops and other situations, including domestic incidents. The department uses discretion when reviewing the footage, she said.

“It helps with the incident out there, it helps with transparency, it helps if someone said the officer did something and it keeps that officer honest,” she said. “They know that they will be brought up on disciplinary charges.”

Chief Bokovitz said that Bainbridge police do not use body cameras.

Privacy concerns

Invasion of privacy was a primary concern for police departments that do not use body cameras.

Chiefs said that the video footage would be a public record, meaning that it could be accessed by the media and citizens. Police sometimes respond to calls that do not need to be available to the public, some chiefs said, such as calls involving domestic disturbances and mental health situations.

Solon Police Chief Richard Tonelli said that even though his department uses body cameras, there are laws that govern what footage is a public record.

According to Public Information Officer China Dodley of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, the Ohio Revised Code allows departments to withhold certain incidents captured on body cameras.

One of the exemptions includes “the interior of a residence, unless the interior of a residence is the location of an adversarial encounter with, or a use of force by, a peace officer,” according to state law.

Chief Tonelli said that policies protect the residents and the officers, making it a “win-win.” Wearing body cameras keeps the officers “professional and polite,” Chief Tonelli said, adding that if an officer is falsely accused of something, the evidence would be on the video.

Use of force policy

At the Gates Mills Village Council meeting on June 9, Chief Minichello said that Law Director Todd Hunt will review policies for the police department, including use of force and vehicular pursuit. The chief said that he planned to review these policies for several years, but now is a good time to move forward.

Lt. Patrick O’Callahan of Orange Village said that department policies are looked at annually, but “in light of circumstances across the country,” Law Director Steve Byron will likely review theirs, as well. Chief Kostura can review the policies and submit recommendations for changes to Mr. Byron.

“We’re pretty pleased with where we are, but we’re always looking to review if we can,” Lt. O’Callahan said.

Chief Bokovitz said Bainbridge Township already reviewed and updated policies over the past 18 months prior to the George Floyd death, so another look is not needed right now. The review included prioritizing the use of force and pursuit policies, he said.

The department typically reviews policies every five years, Chief Bokovitz said, and if there is a change in state law to ensure compliance. Officers have recently switched from using a stun gun to a Taser. Stun guns require more physical contact with the person to be apprehended, Chief Bokovitz explained, while a Taser does not require any contact between the officer and other person.

“We do use our Tasers once in a while, but not very often,” he said. “If you can verbalize your way out of a situation, that’s what we prefer. We try to settle everything without the use of force.”

Chief Bokovitz also emphasized the importance of community policing. He said that it is beneficial for officers to spend time in the community, such as helping someone fix a flat tire or playing basketball with children, to get to know the residents that they serve.

Lt. Gribbons said the sheriff’s department reviews policies annually and everything is “up to date” at this time. The sheriff’s office is involved in the Ohio Collaborative, which is a panel of law enforcement experts and community leaders, to ensure that agencies are following standards.

“We send them our policies and there are guidelines that we have to follow, there are procedures we have to do to get certified and there are review boards after an incident has happened,” Lt. Gribbons said. “It’s a good checks and balances [system.]”

Deputies can take part in six to eight firearm training sessions per year, he said. Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz reviews the law enforcement policies.

Many agencies also work with Lexipol, which provides public safety policy and training solutions. Chief Mariola said the Pepper Pike’s department uses Lexipol and will again review the city’s policies, which is done on a regular basis.

Chief Tonelli said Solon is involved in the Ohio Collaborative and his department is up to standard with state mandates. No changes are anticipated now, he said. The chief is, however, expecting to see a new policy from Gov. Mike DeWine about procedures for mass protests.

When Chief Mason became the head of Woodmere police, she switched the department to Lexipol and is collaborating with them to update policies. She said that a committee has been working to review the Woodmere police policy manual since January. Whenever an officer pulls a Taser or a weapon, a report must be written and it is reviewed by the chief and lieutenant.

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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