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Ashland council scrutinizes police use of force policy

An Ashland City Council study session Monday on changes to the police department policy manual tapped into a groundswell of local and national issues, with topics ranging from the outcome of a wrongful arrest in 2018 and ways the police department keeps tabs on officers who’ve been disciplined to meeting training requirements on a slashed budget.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara addressed questions from the mayor and council for more than an hour in a session that went far beyond recent changes to the police department’s use of force policy after George Floyd’s death May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

In June, O’Meara revised the police department’s policy manual with changes to policy 300.1 “Use of Force,” which included a sentence ordering officers to deescalate situations “whenever possible.”

Aside from Councilor Tonya Graham’s suggestion to change the word “should” to the legally stronger “shall” — which O’Meara said would be changed effective Tuesday — the policy revisions were otherwise unchanged.

During the session, Mayor John Stromberg and the council discussed several topics, including the aftermath of a wrongful arrest of a Black man in 2018, and a private law enforcement contractor who develops and revises the police policy manual.

An Ashland officer was demoted from sergeant to officer and others were disciplined for the arrest of a 20-year-old man in November 2018 because the man fit a witness description of “African-American male wearing a dark sweatshirt.”

“It remains an embarrassment to our department,” O’Meara said.

The man, who the Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings have not named because he didn’t commit a crime, spent more than 10 hours overnight in the Jackson County Jail, according to news reports at the time. Had an officer reviewed store security footage, it would have clearly ruled out the man as a suspect.

“I have admitted and continue to admit it was really shoddy police work,” O’Meara said.

The policy manual states officers have a duty to intercede, which calls on officers to step in if they see another officer using excessive force, and to report the excessive force they observed “promptly to a supervisor.”

O’Meara told the council that two officers were reprimanded in 2018 for failing to report an incident of officer misconduct. He later said the incident involved “off-duty behavior” and had nothing to do with the wrongful arrest in November of that year.(Corrected)

The council also questioned O’Meara on the police department’s use of a private law enforcement contractor for its policy manual.

The bulk of Ashland police’s manual comes from Lexipol, a private company headquartered in Aliso Viejo, California, which focuses on policy manuals and training services for law enforcement agencies, fire departments and local governments. Medford police and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office also have manuals developed by Lexipol.

Stromberg asked whether Ashland is free to revise its training manual, and O’Meara said the agency is able to “tweak them a little” but the department “needs to be careful” to ensure the department adheres to law enforcement industry best practices.

Lexipol will accommodate revisions, O’Meara said, describing how the company worked with him a few years ago to add protections for LGBTQ people by adapting a Seattle police policy to Ashland’s manual.

“We can request stuff from them, and they are responsive to those requests,” O’Meara said.

When Assistant City Administrator Adam Hanks asked how commonly used Lexipol is by law enforcement, O’Meara acknowledged that he hadn’t heard of the West Coast company before he transferred to Ashland from Michigan in 2010, but the company’s policy manuals are widely used at police departments in Oregon.

“I think this is the best way to do it,” O’Meara said of Lexipol’s manual, adding that it was first used by police chief Terry Holderness, who led the police department from 2007 to 2015.

“He did a lot of things to professionalize the department, and I believe that was one of them,” O’Meara added.

Graham asked whether officer trainings focus on one tool at a time, or if there are trainings where officers are prompted to consider the necessary amount of force.

“I think probably not enough,” O’Meara said. “Your point is well taken and there’s room for improvement.”

One issue, O’Meara said, is that while officers are currently up on their training requirements, belt-tightening at the city is putting future training sessions, which can cost upward of $20,000, on hold.

“We’re good for now, but it’s not sustainable,” O’Meara said.

Graham also asked how use of force is tracked when officers have their performance review.

O’Meara said the department uses the online platform Guardian Tracking, which logs each officer’s discipline record, along with peer recognition and “attaboys and attagirls.”

Councilor Stephanie Seffinger asked whether local police use pepper spray. O’Meara said each officer is required to have two “less-lethal options” on them, one almost universally being a Taser and the other nonlethal weapon often being pepper spray.

“When we do use pepper spray it is not a grenade delivery system,” O’Meara said, but a “small stream” that hits one person and one person only, and is never used on a group.

According to Ashland’s latest use of force report presented to the council May 19, 31 incidents of force were reported in 2019, including two Taser deployments and three uses of pepper spray. Ashland police officers did not use shot guns or batons in 2019, according to the report. None of the other incidents involved weapons.

The report showed 17 incidents that resulted in people who were arrested complaining of an injury, but all injuries were classified as “minor” with none requiring medical care.

About 20 of the 31 incidents involved a suspect under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and about 20 of the incidents last year occurred at night.

In future reports, O’Meara said he hopes to have use of force broken down by race and whether or not someone is experiencing homelessness.

O’Meara told the council he’s trying to operate transparently by making the policy manual available online, and making it simple to submit a complaint through Ashland’s website.

“We’ll take every complaint seriously,” O’Meara said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Correction: A version of this story that ran in the print edition of the July 9 Ashland Tidings incorrectly stated that two officers were reprimanded in 2018 for an incident of excessive force. Ashland’s police chief said the officers were reprimanded for an off-duty incident of officer misconduct that did not involve force.

file photoAshland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara shows how onboard computers help officers in the field.