By Ashley Luthern
An outside investigator’s report on a complaint of excessive force against Boardman police led Police Chief Jack Nichols to determine the complaint is “unfounded” — but that does not satisfy the man who filed the complaint.
The township hired Larry Forletta of Forletta Consulting & Investigative Services of New Castle, Pa., to conduct the outside investigation at cost of $1,500 and Forletta’s report was released to the public this week.
The complaint was filed Feb. 13 by Leonard Sliwinski Sr. and rose out of a Dec. 24, 2011, traffic stop in which Sliwinski alleges an officer used an expletive toward his son, Leonard Sliwinski Jr., 25, of Texas, who was wearing a medical boot from a recent surgery, and then “with two hands shoved my son in his chest. This strike was hard enough to knock [my son] backwards landing at a minimum of 6 feet beyond the trunk of the cruiser.”
The traffic stop was made on Western Reserve Road in Springfield Township for violations alleged to have occurred in Boardman. The car’s driver, Dale Golden, 26, of Colorado, was cited for an improper turn.
During the course of the stop, Sliwinski Jr. was charged with obstructing official business and being an intoxicated pedestrian and will appear in court on those misdemeanor charges next month in Struthers Municipal Court. He declined medical attention throughout the incident.
At some point, Sliwinski Sr. was called to pick up his son and said when he was on the scene he “witnessed a push. I witnessed [my son] falling.”
In a police report narrative, an officer wrote that after being told to stay in the car, Sliwinski’s son instead placed his head in the cruiser window and yelled at his friend not to take a portable Breathalyzer test.
Officer Stephen Dubos wrote, “I again ordered him to back up. Simultaneously, I raised my right hand and attempted to push [him] out from between [his friend] and I. He stumbled a few steps back and then fell to the ground on his butt.”
It was then that Sliwinski Sr. left his truck to calm the situation and identified himself as a major with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, according to his complaint.
“I felt it was necessary at this time to identify myself, so that the officers on scene did not mistake my concern for [my son] as aggression. I then stated, ‘can I have a little professional courtesy?’ in an attempt to de-escalate any future assault on [my son],” he wrote.
In his last paragraph, Sliwinski Sr. wrote “I want to be clear, that I am not happy about filing this internal affairs report against a fellow law enforcement officer, although make no mistake of my passion toward pursuing this matter through your agency.”
He said this week that the outside investigation of the complaint merely asked the people involved about their recollections, but didn’t ask questions.
“There’s no question and answer. I don’t know how anybody could call it an investigation,” he said. “... I don’t want anybody to lose their jobs. I just want people to be truthful.”
He declined to say if he would continue to pursue the complaint further.
In his findings report, police Chief Jack Nichols wrote “admittedly some amount of force was used by Dubos at the time [Sliwinski’s son] approached him at the rear car door while he was administering the PBT ...
“At question is what the level of force was: incidental contact as Dubos says, or an inappropriate push as Sliwinski Sr. says. ...At this time sufficient evidence does not exist to substantiate a complaint of excessive force.”
Dubos, one of three Boardman officers at the traffic stop, has been in the department eight years and has no prior history of complaints such as this, Nichols said. None of the officers is or has been on any type of leave because of the investigation, he said.
In a letter dated March 8, Atty. Kevin Powers, who represents the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, filed a formal complaint against Nichols over the handling of the excessive force complaint. Powers wrote that he was “troubled” by the hiring of a private investigator to examine the complaint.
“While policy generally dictates that internal investigations will normally be conducted within the chain of command, ‘in unusual circumstances, the chief of police may request the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (Ohio BCI) or other appropriate outside agency conduct the investigation,” wrote Powers, quoting from Boardman police policies.
“We do not view a private investigator as an ‘appropriate outside agency.’ We do believe this matter should be referred to BCI, but their investigation should include all the actors including Deputy Sliwinski and Chief Nichols,” Powers wrote.
Powers was unavailable to comment Friday, but another attorney at the OPBA said the final outside excessive force report was received this week and is being reviewed.
Township Administrator Jason Loree said his office approved spending $1,500 on the investigator’s services; he has the authority to authorize purchases up to $2,500. Once that limit is reached, the purchase requires approval from the board of trustees, Loree said.
BCI “was not used in this instance given the relationship both the Boardman Police Department and the county sheriff’s office have with this agency. ...The decision to use the investigator is sound and has the support of the board as well as myself,” Loree wrote to Powers on March 20.
Nichols said this week that an outside investigator was used “to eliminate claims of impropriety.”
The union also has questioned the chief’s handling of the case by citing the time frame between the December arrest and charges not being formally filed until February.
“The way it was handled, the charges weren’t filed right away because we were gathering more information. That’s it,” Nichols said this week.
Asked his response to the allegation that he handled the investigation inappropriately, Nichols said: “I would dispute that.”