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Openness and police dialogue must continue

A town hall forum earlier this week allowing more than 100 community members to ask timely questions of area police chiefs was an excellent way to improve lines of communication and, hopefully, trust.

Topics raised by community members and directed at 11 participating police chiefs during the two-hour session inside a Youngstown church included hot topics such as excessive use of force, racial profiling, body cameras and even a binding citizens review board.

The logical questions and willingness of area police to participate in the session represented a big step in the right direction of curtailing civil unrest. While our area, fortunately, experienced no violence or substantial damage during protests in recent weeks, concerns raised about racial discrimination, profiling or use of force are just as real here as elsewhere in America.

We were pleased to see the willingness of law enforcement leaders, including Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene and chiefs Robin Lees of Youngstown, Todd Werth of Boardman, Bob Gavalier of Austintown, Toby Meloro of Liberty and others, to participate. The event was coordinated after the tragic public death of George Floyd, 46, while in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day. Floyd, who is black, died when former white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 44, knelt on his neck to restrain him.

In the weeks following Floyd’s death, nationwide protests erupted, coupled with calls by some to defund police.

While we don’t agree with that stance, we do believe in holding police accountable and ensuring full transparency exists among police, including unfettered access to investigations or disciplinary action taken against officers, along with access to records of commendations and honors.

This information should be open and accessible in order to guarantee continued vigilance in weeding out habitual problems involving particular departments or specific officers. Likewise, we believe in public access and transparency involving police dash-camera and body-camera videos.

The irony of police officer comments made during this week’s town hall about the high cost of body cameras was not lost on us, especially considering calls for defunding police departments.

Chiefs Lees and Werth explained that Youngstown and Boardman police departments, for instance, do not use body cameras, largely due to the high costs associated with them. Those include initial purchase, software and maintenance, video storage costs and clerical costs associated with editing the videos pursuant to Ohio open records laws when the video is requested in a public record request.

Austintown, for instance, spent $90,000 to purchase body cameras. The cost would likely quadruple in Youngstown because there are four times as many officers in Youngstown as Austintown.

Those calling for more transparency, especially via use of police body cameras, therefore, should not also call for reduced police funding. Those arguments, it appears, cannot co-exist.

We applaud the community members raising good questions and listening, and we applaud the frankness of the police officers providing the answers.

Canfield police Chief Chuck Colucci, for example, acknowledged the existence of racism as well as profiling.

“It’s up to us to make sure we hold each other accountable,” he said.

To do that, he said his department has been recording all traffic stops since 1996.

“And our officers must walk up to that car and identify themselves” and explain the reason the person was stopped. “We will give them the legal reason we stopped them. It’s recorded. It’s on tape.”

Bravo!

Indeed, this week’s town hall meeting was a wonderful step. Now, we urge those involved — and others — to keep going with this dialogue.

editorial@tribtoday.com

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