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Ashland police use of force stays constant

Ashland police in 2021 used force about the same number of times as in 2020, despite the city’s overall downward trend in crime.

The department also wrestles with issues of race and equitable treatment in policing, according to a report Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara gave to City Council Tuesday.

Officers in Ashland used force 22 times in 2021, as opposed to 21 times in 2020, O’Meara said in his annual presentation on the police department’s use of force.

All incidents were reviewed by a use of force board and were found to be within the department’s use of force policy, he said.

The 22 people against whom force was employed were all white, and 21 were men, the report said. In the majority of incidents, officers used open-hand techniques, such as wrestling. The second most common tactic for Ashland police was displaying a Taser.

“The Taser was used but not deployed in six situations. The Taser can be displayed, and the electrical arc demonstrated as a means of gaining compliance,” O’Meara said.

A gun was pointed at a suspect in one instance, he said, while pepper spray was used twice.

In 2021, Ashland saw 421 crimes O’Meara called “part one crimes” — homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft, arson and larceny. The previous year saw 452 such crimes.

Downtown Ashland continues to be a point of focus for the department.

“Downtown is ... a focal point of lots of behavior, good and bad, in the city of Ashland,” O’Meara said.

Disorderly behavior, he said, such as drinking or urinating in inappropriate places, has decreased in downtown Ashland. In 2021, there were 137 calls for this kind of behavior, which O’Meara balanced against a peak in 2017 of 360 calls.

Decreases in overall crimes reported can be compared, O’Meara said, with the department’s clearance rate — the measure of how often a police department solves reported crimes. Ashland’s clearance rate for violent crimes, the report said, was 63% last year.

Discussion of the report focused on the police department’s work on equity and inclusion with testimony from Ashland resident Emily Simon, a defense lawyer.

Simon said she has been working with O’Meara for years on racial disparity in Ashland’s policing. Simon thanked O’Meara for his open and transparent work and for establishing a department liaison with the Black Alliance and Social Empowerment group known as BASE.

But, she said, she and O’Meara still have a “philosophical disagreement” over the 5% rate of Black people stopped by police in the city of Ashland, a number Simon believes is too high. O’Meara argues the number is a statistical overrepresentation.

“Very few Black people live in Ashland, there’s no doubt about that,” O’Meara said, citing a statistic that 1%-2% of the city’s population is Black.

O’Meara reminded City Council of an Oregon State Police mandate that Oregon police departments report all traffic stops, and track the race of the citizens involved. This is where the overrepresentation occurs, he argued.

“When police officers initiate an enforcement stop, when they’re done with that stop, they have to record several things. Among them, what the perceived — and that’s an important piece of this — what the perceived race and the perceived gender of the person stopped is,” O’Meara said.

In his opinion, he said, because an officer’s data collection leaves room for only one race, while many people identify as two or more races, and officers are expected to guess the race of the person rather than inquire, the number is a statistical overrepresentation, O’Meara said.

Also, Ashland is a college town, a tourist town and a town on the Interstate 5 corridor, the chief said, creating constant turbulence among who is in town and who is being stopped.

O’Meara stated a personal commitment and a focus for his department on treating everyone in Ashland equitably to the best of officers’ abilities.

“I believe Chief O’Meara will do anything he can within his capacity to reduce needless stops of Black people in the city of Ashland,” Simon said, “whether this number is a statistical overrepresentation or not.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.