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Ashland police use of force declined in 2020

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMatt Carpenter, Ashland Police Department, left and Cooper Kamps, Talent Police Department, walk through downtown Ashland on Wednesday.
Police chief dissatisfied with low part-one crime clearance rate

The number of incidents in which Ashland police officers used force declined by nearly one-third in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a report released Tuesday. All use of force incidents involved suspects whom APD officers identified as white.

Calls for service increased while case numbers decreased — of 2,831 cases created throughout the year, force was used in 21 instances. A TASER was deployed three times and used twice, pepper spray was used twice, and the remaining incidents involved takedowns, joint locks, control holds and empty-hand strikes, according to the report.

More than half of the incidents were related to alcohol and/or drugs and five involved a suspect in a mental health crisis.

In 2020, APD officers underwent 621 hours of use of force training — less than half the hours dedicated in the previous year, “owing to the pandemic and limiting training opportunities,” Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara reported to Ashland City Council.

“We always want to minimize uses of force, and hopefully we can continue a downward trend, but some amount of this was because of our decreased case load due to COVID,” he said.

O’Meara said use of force training remains imperative as a way for officers to feel more comfortable and less likely to employ more force than necessary. No displays of an officer’s firearm were documented in 2020.

According to a memo written by Deputy Chief Art LeCours, the 2020 Use of Force Review Board concluded Ashland police officers acted appropriately in all cases. The board also recommended APD acquire protective headgear for suspects who attempt to harm themselves by banging their head in police vehicles.

“I have generally been comfortable with our use of force incidents,” O’Meara said in an email. “Sometimes the officers involved need some corrective coaching, but I have never seen anything done maliciously by an Ashland officer.”

Twenty-two violent crimes — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were reported to APD in 2020. A total of 452 “part one” crimes, which include violent crimes and burglary, vehicle theft, arson and larceny, were reported in Ashland through Nov. 3, 2020, representing a continued decline from 2018’s 743 reported part-one crimes. The clearance rate for those crimes was 24%.

“I’m not satisfied with this,” O’Meara said. “One of the things that I attribute this to is that we’re trying to handle a lot of business over the phone, and we probably weren’t doing as deep a dive as we could have into investigating property crimes. I’m going to actively work on trying to get that number back up to something that is more acceptable.”

O’Meara said he is satisfied with a violent crime clearance rate of 63%, but the department is pursuing ways to keep the number “as high as possible.”

A total of 109 convictions in Municipal Court were tied to the city’s Enhanced Law Enforcement Area downtown. Four people were expelled from the area in 2020. Calls for service downtown related to disorderly conduct have continued to drop from a high of 360 in 2017, down to 126 in 2020, according to the report. APD received about 33,000 calls for service overall.

From July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, 86.1% of officer-initiated stops involved suspects whom officers identified as white, followed by 6.5% Latino, 3.6% Black, 2.7% Asian or Pacific Islander, 1.1% Middle Eastern and 0.1% Native American.

APD began gathering demographic data for officer-initiated stops before it became required by the state, as a tool for ensuring equitable community representation in policing, O’Meara said. Officers input data by observation — they do not ask a suspect to define their ethnicity or indicate whether they identify as multiracial, he said.

Apart from incidents involving Black suspects, the demographic data for officer-initiated stops roughly mirrors Ashland’s overall demographics, based on U.S. Census Bureau metrics. About 1.4% of the Ashland population is Black, according to estimates for 2019.

“Ashland police officers are not only going to encounter people who have been census identified and self-described as living in Ashland,” O’Meara said. “It’s a tourist town, we’re on I-5, it’s a college town. We can’t expect the numbers to perfectly match up.”

Emily Simon, a defense lawyer who regularly “holds space” for issues of race during City Council meetings, highlighted the accessibility of officer stop data on the APD website and O’Meara’s efforts to strengthen community partnerships, including a liaison program with Black Alliance and Social Empowerment.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.