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Survey shows Ashland residents want more help, less force

Feeling the current nationwide upheaval for racial justice, the Ashland Police Department did an online survey asking how it can “better understand how to engage with often marginalized members of the community.”

From 258 responses, Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said people want more mental health and addiction resources, more de-escalating of potentially violent situations and more people of color in police ranks.

“There was a lot of positive feedback about getting more implicit bias training, and from outside people, not from me,” said O’Meara. Such training pulls unconscious, automatic attitudes and stereotypes to the conscious level where they can be studied and changed.

The survey, done on the city’s “Engage Ashland” page and completed Aug. 5, “will take a while to digest,” as it was done in essay form. However, results and inputs will be posted on that page later this week, he said.

“Sure, there was some aggravation and anger. One said police should quit and do anything else,” said O’Meara, in a phone interview. “There was a lot of emotion-based, unreasonable comment, and also one said police treat everyone reasonably and respectfully. One noted that because we’re mostly white here, police notice people of color more.”

O’Meara agreed there is a need for greater mental health and addiction treatment, but there’s so much crowding, people “get cycled in and out of jail so quickly, they can’t hook up with recovery resources.”

In addition, he added, enhanced mental health and addiction recovery programs “are not something Ashland, as a city, can stand up to. It’s got to be county-wide, using a lot of resources we already have, but using them better, bolstering them.”

Ashland’s priorities for racial justice were exacerbated in recent weeks with release of body-cam video showing police handcuffing a very drunk man — a person of color — on Main Street, after he declined to give his address or name a responsible party to get him home. O’Meara defended the actions of his officers, noting police “did exceedingly well, a professional job. Communication could have been better. I have no problem with what they did, trying to get him home sober, in responsible hands.”

State law says if intoxicated people can’t take care of themselves, they “shall” be put in protective custody, he said, and if they had let him go and he got hit by a car, police could be liable. So “I have no problem with the way they handled it.”

The suspect was taken to Jackson County Jail, where video of alleged mistreatment in a cell was shot, forming the basis for a lawsuit against the county, and, said O’Meara, having nothing to do with Ashland police.

O’Meara said he can envision trained social services personnel taking care of such situations, “but we have no resources to have trained people on call 24 hours a day, especially now with the city in more extreme financial straits because of the pandemic.”

All Ashland police, including O’Meara, have had much training on de-escalation of “volatile situations” at the police academy and since. It’s about “calming things down and using as little force as possible.”

O’Meara branded the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police as “indefensible, outrageous, criminal. The officer maintained restraint for a time that was deliberate and murderous.”

Ashland police, he added, ban a knee on the neck, restricting airflow, unless lives are in danger, and then “it’s only acceptable for a short time. There’s never enough hours and dollars in the budget for officers to keep revisiting on de-escalation and mental health training.”

On staffing, O’Meara noted the Ashland Police Department has three BIPOC (Black, Indian, People of Color) employees — and two of them are sworn officers. One of them, Evan Anderson, grew up in Ashland. The number, O’Meara said, is close to a representative percentage of the community.

“How are we doing? I think we’re doing fairly well, ahead of the curve for national best practices,” said O’Meara. “Our practices are graded by the Oregon Accreditation Alliance (and others). We’re not flying by the seat of our pants and defining ourselves. We’re very proud of what we’re doing here.”

O’Meara is collaborating with area police chiefs and the county sheriff, hoping to have an in-person town hall where they “just listen” about how to best serve, but it may have to be a virtual gathering.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara