SEE ALSO: Details revealed in Girard police killing
By Samantha Phillips
Girard officials are strengthening safety procedures, including the policy for officers wearing bulletproof vests, now that the facts of officer Justin Leo’s death are known.
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins’ report revealed that Leo wasn’t wearing his bulletproof vest Oct. 21, 2017, when shot point-blank by an “unhinged,” gun-obsessed Jason Marble at 408 Indiana Ave.
Police Chief John Norman said he was shocked to hear that, because Leo was normally seen wearing his vest.
The city’s policy states officers are provided a bulletproof vest and “any employee not wearing or having said vest readily available while on duty shall be subject to disciplinary action.”
Shortly after the shooting, police Norman made it mandatory for all officers to wear their vest, even for side jobs, and he said officers have complied with no complaints.
“We understand the consequences of him not wearing a vest that night,” Mayor James Melfi said.
The mandatory order is not in writing, however.
With upcoming police contract negotiations, the language on the vest policy could change, Melfi said. He maintains the policy never came up before the fatal shooting because officers, including Leo, tended to wear their vests on duty.
“Times change. We have to change with it,” Norman said.
A survey of Mahoning Valley police departments showed varied policies for wearing a vest. Some communities are implementing a mandatory rule for wearing vests in light of Leo’s death.
The Bulletproof Vest Partnership grant provides funding for vests but communities receiving it must require officers to wear them, and the policy must be attached to the grant application. Liberty Township, for example, benefits from this grant. Norman and Melfi said they need to check on whether Girard received such a grant; no one from the U.S. Department of Justice returned a call to The Vindicator.
The last time someone attempted to shoot an officer in Girard was 1962, but that officer was unharmed, Melfi said.
Leo’s killing impacted Melfi and Norman on a personal level. They knew Leo as he was growing up, and golfed with him and his father David over the years.The mayor said he thinks about the fatal night every day, and can’t wrap his mind around it.
“They walked up on that property – something they have done many times before, even on calls that are similar where nothing has occurred. On that evening, two trusting, professional young men went to that address and saw something entirely different that veterans who start and end on the police force, with or without a vest, for decades never experienced, especially in the city of Girard,” Melfi said.
Melfi said he wonders how things could have played out differently: If Leo had worn a vest, if the call had come during daylight hours when the officers could have better assessed the situation, if Leo had stood at a different angle.
Norman agreed a fatal officer shooting is something veteran Girard officers haven’t faced before, but said police are facing more threats due to higher rates of drug use and untreated mental health problems.
Officers Leo and Mathew Jamison had responded to several domestic violence calls over the years.
After a 911 call from Marble’s girlfriend Angela Diana, the officers became aware that Marble had been drinking and shots had been fired earlier. But it was treated as a routine call, where at least two officers are required to assess the scene.
“Apparently there were no gunshots fired when our officers arrived, they didn’t hear any or they would have reported it and acted accordingly. They met him at the door,” Norman said. More police would have been called before their arrival if it had been an active shooting scene, he added.
The procedure to answer domestic violence calls hasn’t changed, but Leo’s death has made officers more aware of the danger, Norman said.
“At that point, all we knew was that the man was shooting in the house, so they went there to assess the situation, and it was quiet. They did the right thing, they were talking to [Marble] and for whatever reason this suspect decides to shoot somebody. I can’t make sense of it,” Norman said.
The mayor and police chief praised Jamison for immediately shooting and killing Marble on what Melfi called “the saddest day” of his own life, and the lives of others who loved Leo.
A fully loaded AR-15 rifle was just 15 feet away from Marble. In the prosecutor’s report, Jamison is also praised for stopping Marble, who could have posed a threat to others.
Neighbors would have nowhere to take cover, as Marble’s guns had a velocity that could pierce walls, Melfi said.
“That neighborhood was so endangered that evening,” Melfi said. “That tells you the heroic efforts of Mat Jamison and what he did that evening, the neighbors and emergency responders would have all been in danger if Mat didn’t take the action he did.”
“We’re so proud of him,” Norman added.