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NEWTON FALLS Civil service panel restates overruling of cop's suspension



Published: Fri, May 31, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A civil service commission member said they found that the officer 'did nothing wrong.'

By STEPHEN SIFFand PEGGY SINKOVICH

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

NEWTON FALLS -- Without having been in that dark alley, it is impossible to judge Sgt. James Zimomra, his colleagues and superiors say.

"He was trying to make a decision in eight seconds that judges, juries and the media haven't been able to make in two weeks," said Howard Allen, a part-time officer with the Newton Falls department.

Zimomra pleaded innocent Thursday to two charges of felonious assault and one charge of misdemeanor assault.

He is accused of assaulting Connie Casseday, 22, and John Lusher, 23, both of Garrettsville, on April 2 during an arrest.

At a press conference preceding the arraignment, Sheriff Thomas Altiere said Zimomra could be seen on a videotape, which was recorded by a camera in another police officer's cruiser, hitting Casseday. She received seven stitches.

The other felonious assault charge deals with Lusher. Altiere said Zimomra is accused of hitting the man with his cruiser.

Suspension overruled

The same day Zimomra was criminally charged, the Newton Falls Civil Service Commission overruled a 30-day suspension of the officer for violating department rules during the matter.

"We found he did nothing wrong," said Barbara Jenkins, a commission member.

The commission was forced to meet Thursday after the city law director informed them that a meeting May 14 was invalid because the public was not informed.

Commission members did not discuss the case, and read a motion overruling the suspension by Police Chief Bob Carlson directly from the minutes of the illegal meeting.

The commission based its decision on the opinion of an Akron police sergeant, who said that he thought Zimomra acted appropriately.

"Through his explanation of the way everything went down, we didn't think it was excessive force," said Tom Bordas, commission president.

Failure to handcuff suspects

Neither did Carlson blame Zimomra for using excessive force. Rather, he charged the sergeant violated department policy by not handcuffing Casseday or Lusher, failing to secure the scene, and not having an operating video camera in his car.

Casseday, who had been kicked out of two bars on the night of the incident, was drunk and attacked the officer.

"She created the situation, and he is being punished," said Shirley Peacock, another commission member.

Many in Newton Falls say there is more to the videotape than what has been shown on the news.

Gathered around a television monitor in the police department's dispatch room, officers pointed out frames at the very beginning of the videotape that they say show Casseday standing over or attacking Zimomra.

She comes from his right side, the side where he wears his gun.

"You are taught at the [police] academy when that happens you have to get in control of the situation," Allen said. "The thing that he was doing was trying to get her to stay down."

Police department employees also wonder why prosecutors don't believe the police officers' versions of events.

"I consider Sgt. Zimomra a personal friend, and the whole department is behind him," said Gordon Grimm, a Newton Falls dispatcher.

Lower bond

The county prosecutors' decision to seek a $50,000 bond for Zimomra added insult to injury in the eyes of the sergeant's colleagues. Lawyers and others who get in trouble often don't have to post any bond at all, Grimm said.

At Zimomra's arraignment, his lawyers Maridee Costanzo and Greg Robey persuaded Judge John Stuard of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to lower the bond to $25,000.

"The purpose of bond is to make sure the defendant will appear, and this is a man who has been a cop for 21 years and lives in the community; he'll be here," Costanzo said.

Zimomra posted the bond minutes after he left court. A pretrial has been scheduled for June 26 in the courtroom of Judge W. Wyatt McKay.

Zimomra declined to comment. Three friends of Zimomra's who accompanied him to court, and police officers from Newton Falls, Newton Township and the city of Warren also declined to comment.

"The blue line is thick, and he has a lot of support," Costanzo said. She said her client didn't say much Thursday morning except, "Get me out."

Chief's opinion

Carlson, who had suspended Zimomra for 30 days without pay, said he felt the grand jury "went overboard" with the criminal charges.

"I put this all on the county prosecutors office," Carlson said. "They knew this would happen. They had Casseday's case set for the grand jury to hear the same time they had Zimomra's case set. So Zimomra couldn't testify; he had to take the Fifth [Amendment]. This is probably why the grand jury indicted him and no-billed Casseday."

A defendant has a constitutional right to invoke the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, court officials said.

On Wednesday, a grand jury declined to indict Casseday, who was arrested on charges of assault on a peace officer and obstructing official business.

Lusher, Casseday's companion whom she married earlier this month, has pleaded innocent to charges of resisting arrest, vandalism, drunkenness and disorderly conduct. His case was set for a pretrial Thursday but was postponed. A new date has not been set.

Job duties

Atty. Richard Schwartz, the city's law director, said since Zimomra was indicted on a crime of violence he cannot possess a gun. Carlson said Zimomra is going to work as an administrative aide. He said Zimomra will continue to get his $15 an hour and will answer telephones and do paperwork.

"He knows how to dispatch; there are a number of things he can do," Carlson said.

Schwartz said he is researching the law to find out if Zimomra can still work while he is under indictment.




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