LIMA — With the passing earlier this week of the 10-year anniversary of the shooting death of a black Lima woman by a white city police officer — an event that pushed racial tensions to the brink in Lima — Police Chief Kevin Martin believes the current relationship between law enforcement and the local community “is something that still needs improvement.”
And the onus to facilitate the necessary improvements rests largely on the shoulders of those in police leadership roles, the chief believes.
On Jan. 4, 2008, Lima police Sgt. Joe Chavalia shot and killed Tarika Wilson during a drug raid at Wilson’s home. Chavalia also injured a small child Wilson was holding but was later acquitted of criminal charges related to the shooting.
Martin, a street cop at that time, took over as Lima’s chief of police some three years later. During a telephone interview Friday, Martin said that during his career he has “seen some things happen that have definitely not helped strengthen the relationship” between police and the community as a whole.
But substantial efforts have been undertaken to close the cultural and racial divide in the 10 years since the Wilson shooting incident, the chief said. Not the least of those efforts has been the rejuvenation of the community-oriented policing program that had fallen victim to budget cuts around 2002. It would be more than a decade later before the program gained new and much-needed life.
“There were no neighborhood stations in operation at the time of the Tarika Wilson shooting,” Martin recalled. “Due to budget cuts and staffing shortages, the substations went away. The first community policing substation reopened in 2015 and today we have five neighborhood stations in operation.”
But staffing for those five substations is limited to just three officers, reinforcing the need for additions to the police force. Martin said the force hit its peak employment around 1998 with 98 officers. Today the force numbers 81. But this year’s budget, Martin said, includes a request to hire an additional six police officers, three of which will be funded by the city’s general fund. A grant has been secured to cover the cost of the other new hires.
Martin said his officers “do a lot of relationship-building in the community” but noted that the very nature of police work often leaves residents upset.
“The objective of the officers is to try and make the community safer, but we will never reach perfection in the public’s eyes,” Martin said. “We need to continually look for ways to improve that relationship.”
And most of the responsibility in cultivating that relationship, Martin believes, rests on the shoulders of himself and other law enforcement leaders.
“That’s the biggest challenge for police leadership. The officers on the street will follow that leadership, so we’ve got to find out what we can do to improve those relations.”
Citizens Review Board
In response to the 2008 tragedy that resulted in the shooting death of Wilson at the hands of a police officer, city leaders determined there needed to be a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of confidence and accountability between the Lima community and law enforcement.
Out of that effort, the Lima Allen County Citizens Review Board was created. The goal of the board was to investigate complaints concerning police officers and take action to rectify the situation. But the review board, while perhaps not technically extinct, has been dormant in recent years.
One-time board chairman Mike Hayden said in a telephone interview Friday that while the board may still exist on paper, “we haven’t been active and we certainly haven’t met” in several years.
The reasons for the demise of the board are many and varied, said Hayden, an employee of the United Way of Greater Lima. He said the structure of the Citizen Review Board was, in the eyes of some, doomed to fail from the outset.
“We had been told by people in other communities who had set up similar types of groups that ours wasn’t likely to work,” said Hayden. “The board had no real teeth, and therefore it was very easy to ignore. And there also wasn’t a lot of ‘give’ by other community groups who needed to work with the board.”
By the end of 2015 the board and its apparent lack of effectiveness was the focus of a discussion by Lima City Council’s Safety Services Committee. First Ward Councilman and committee chairman Todd Gordon at that time said the discussion was important in the signal it could send to the community.
“The whole purpose of this was to be proactive,” Gordon told The Lima News in November of 2015. “The community needs to know that we’re working to try to have peace. That was the whole purpose of starting this conversation.”
Asked on Friday if the need still exists for some type of independent community group or board to attempt to facilitate a relationship between police and community members, Hayden said he was uncertain.
“There are some sectors of the community that would probably say yes,” he said. “But if the board is reformed, there certainly has to be a different structure to it.”
A Collaborative Effort
Last month members of the Lima Area Black Ministerial Alliance met to discuss the most recent incident of violence that alliance members said demonstrates the need for the community to “come together to reach the younger generation.” The religious leaders focused on the role of the church and families in halting violence.
Two young Lima women were charged in late December with disorderly conduct after a physical altercation at the Waffle House on Neubrecht Road in Lima that left one female severely injured. A black male in also wanted by authorities after being captured on video striking a female patron at the restaurant.
“It starts at home, the training of a child. All of these things start at home,” Pastor Dennis Ward said a few days after the Waffle House incident. “From a community standpoint, even if this wasn’t our children, we all should be involved. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to get involved with it.”
Ward also said it’s an opportunity for Lima’s churches to step forward.”We shouldn’t hide behind the stained glass windows. Getting kids involved, pointing them in the right direction, and so it’s really a village mentality that we’re trying to advocate, so that others, not just the church, not just the pastors, getting involved, but parents, politicians, teachers and neighbors. It’s a community issue,” said Ward. “This is an opportunity for everybody to work together in a collaborative effort.”