Kent apologizes; judge gives him one-year stint in prison
By ED RUNYAN
YOUNGSTOWN — Steve Kent, the fired former Poland Township police officer and ex-Poland schools resource officer, who was removed as an Austintown Township trustee after he was convicted of felony tampering with evidence, was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison.
A deputy put handcuffs on Kent as Judge John Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court completed his sentencing discussion, saying he “could not think of a case where a defendant was convicted of tampering with evidence where the defendant was a police officer. That makes this case different.”
He said he agreed with Kara Keating, an assistant Ohio attorney general, who was among the special prosecutors in the case, when Keating said that “as public officials, as police officers, we are — and we should be — held to higher standards.”
The judge said: “We take an oath. Where our actions impact public trust, you’ve got a problem. I believe that your position of trust as a school resource officer for Poland put you in a very unique position to impact lives. And unfortunately a poor decision as to a factory (cell phone) reset unfortunately impacted the ability of law enforcement to conduct its full investigation,” he said.
At the point where Kent was allowed to speak to the judge, he said: “I am very embarrassed for my family. I embarrassed the uniform.” He ended with “I apologize. It will never happen again.”
Kent, 54, of Starwick Drive, was convicted Aug. 14 of the tampering charge, which related to activating the factory reset on his cellphone. Prosecutors said Kent did so June 6, 2021, one day after Poland parent Carla Bobbey told Kent a student at the school had made sexual-battery claims against Kent — and that Bobbey intended to notify the authorities and the girl’s father. The allegations were that he committed the offenses in connection to his position as school resource officer.
At Kent’s trial, a jury found him not guilty of three counts of sexual battery that came out of the allegations.
Kent testified that he activated the factory reset to protect his daughter, Christina, from seeing things she shouldn’t — related to his affair with Bobbey. Prosecutors maintained that Kent wiped the phone to protect himself from the blooming investigation into the sexual battery charges.
OUT AS TRUSTEE
The day after Kent was convicted of tampering with evidence, Gina DeGenova, Mahoning County prosecutor, informed Austintown Township officials that the conviction immediately rendered Kent ineligible to keep his seat as township trustee.
On Aug. 16, trustees Robert Santos and Monica Deavers appointed former township Administrator Mike Dockry to fill Kent’s unexpired term as trustee.
The jury in Kent’s trial found Kent not guilty of the three sexual battery counts after prosecutors failed to persuade them that Kent coerced a student at Poland Seminary High School to perform sex acts with him on three occasions in 2021 while he was the school resource officer.
Durkin could have given Kent as many as three years in prison on the third-degree felony conviction.
As Kent was taken away by sheriff’s deputies, the family of the girl who made the sexual allegations against Kent joined arms emotionally in a circle in the back of the courtroom. The girl’s father asked that no photos be taken of them and said they would have no comment on the sentence.
Much of the hearing involved legal arguments given by Kent’s attorney, John Juhasz, and Keating as to what precedents were available to suggest the proper punishment for a police officer who tampered with evidence.
Early in the hearing, prosecutors attempted to read a letter from the girl, but the defense objected, saying that she did not qualify as a victim of the tampering. The judge did not allow the reading of the letter but acknowledged that the ruling potentially could result in an appeal.
ARGUED FOR PRISON
Keating argued for a prison sentence, saying Kent testified at a hearing that he would regularly collect cellphones from suspects in criminal cases, “and he knew to put it in airplane mode to protect it from being tampered with.
“He was responsible for arresting people charged with these offenses, helping to investigate these types of things. So for a police officer, knowing that an investigation was going on because he’s been told she’s going to call police, to then do a factory reset? He knew exactly what he was doing.
“As a police officer, he swore to uphold the law, and he did not follow that law.” She said his “occupation is likely to affect others’ conduct. That is another factor that makes this more serious,” Keating said.
“A police officer tampering with evidence, I can’t think of anything that takes a police officer less trustworthy than tampering with evidence,” she said. “It needs to be clear to other police officers that if you engage in this type of behavior, it’s not OK. And those types of officers who commit crimes like tampering with evidence that undermine the entire profession, they should be incarcerated.”
Kent’s lawyer John Juhasz asked for Kent to get no prison sentence, saying the judge should not consider anything but the tampering conviction, a “nonviolent offense,” and it involves “a 54-year-old man with no prior record.”
He said Kent has been punished “outside of the law” because of the publicity the case has gotten. He is “likely to follow” the rules for a defendant on probation.
During Kent’s trial, the student, 20, testified that her relationship with Kent began in 2020 when she expressed her sympathy for the death of Kent’s son. She told him her mother had died of breast cancer when she was 7, and she said Kent wanted her to talk to his daughter, who was struggling with her brother’s death.
The student said she often would sign out of classes to talk to Kent while he was performing his duties as school resource officer. She said the relationship became physical in 2021.
Kent testified at the trial, saying he maintained multiple social media accounts that helped him in his duties as school resource officer, including Instagram and Snapchat. Kent said it was the student who used the apps to check his whereabouts and carry on conversations.
Kent said the girl regularly pulled up next to his police cruiser to talk to him and signed out of classes to talk to him while he was patrolling the hallways. He said he told her to go back to class. He added he maintained contact with the student even after he felt she was crossing a line because of “empathy.”
“Her mom had passed away; my son had passed away. She was always upset, and we were kind of on the same wavelength,” he said. Kent denied the student’s claim that he asked her to reach out to his daughter to help her cope with grief over Kent’s son Kyle’s death in a 2018 car crash.