LIMA — When former Allen County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Mohler was convicted this month of assaulting another deputy in an off-duty incident, the judge made it clear police officers are held to a higher standard.
“Our legal system, to be effective, has to rely on the people’s trust,” visiting Judge Kevin Smith said. “People have the right to expect that those folks who represent the law are not going to be the ones who violate the law.”
Mohler was sentenced to 30 days in jail for his crime, and he lost his deputy’s job before that. He’s just one officer to find himself on the other side of the law lately. Others have been fired as well, especially those who committed felonies, an automatic disqualifier from being a police officer.
Still, some officers are working despite brushes with the law in their pasts.
By the numbers
Criminal cases such as Mohler’s and other officers recently in the news shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment against police officers in general. The vast majority of officers have no criminal history in area courts.
The Lima News reviewed the local court records of 450 police officers working in Allen, Auglaize and Putnam counties:
• 28 officers faced charges with crimes that could have sent them to jail.
• 21 of the 28 were convicted of at least one crime after being charged.
• The crimes for 22 of the officers occurred before they were hired as law enforcement officers.
• Nine were charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.
• Three more had other alcohol charges.
• Of the nine with charges completely dismissed, eight of those were cases that occurred before they were hired as officers.
• Numerous charges were found, including failing to stop after an accident, reckless operation, domestic violence and littering.
A higher standard
Leaders of law enforcement agencies press one idea on their officers: Police are held to a higher standard.
Lima police Maj. Kevin Martin said any time an officer is charged or arrested, it affects the officer’s credibility.
“It comes down to an issue of public trust. The public has to be able to trust the people who enforce the law and know there is a high level of integrity,” he said.
Allen County Sheriff Sam Crish agreed. Breaking the law does not go over well for officers who enforce the laws. Any time it does happen, it makes it harder to do the job, he said.
“We just need to step up and take it one step higher for us,” Crish said.
Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon tells deputies to be prepared to explain any mistakes in their pasts that could, through whatever circumstances, resurface during their careers.
Solomon said officers owe it to the public to stay out of trouble since they are paid by the same public they protect.
Sometimes officers receive second chances. It can depend on their record — both good and bad — or the policies established by their chiefs.
Allen County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Clyde Breitigan caught a break in 2002 from then-Sheriff Dan Beck when he was not fired after being arrested twice in the same day on drunken driving charges. Breitigan later pleaded to one of the charges.
Before becoming a police officer, Ottoville’s Daniel R. Purdy was given a chance at a law enforcement career even though he was arrested for drunken driving twice. He pleaded to reduced charges in both instances.
Twelve of the officers with criminal run-ins in the investigation had alcohol-related offenses.
A drunken-driving conviction does not automatically ban someone from being a police officer, as a felony or domestic violence conviction would. For some agencies, it’s too much for a chief or sheriff to allow.
Shawnee Township Police Chief Mike Keith said he would have a hard time not firing an officer convicted of drunken driving and would be hard pressed to hire someone with that on his record.
“We have to enforce that, and the reason’s the carnage that goes with it,” Keith said. “We’re supposed to set an example that we don’t encourage that.”
Putnam County Sheriff Jim Beutler said a drunken driving conviction likely would end an officer’s career with his department. Not only is drunken driving a crime, but it also affects the way an officer performs his duties. Someone with a suspended driver’s license cannot drive and cannot patrol the county, he said.
“Everybody understands what I feel a DUI means to the integrity of the office,” Solomon said. “There’s a strong possibility they would be looking for another job.”
Solomon has made it clear to all the deputies in his department that he expects them to stay out of trouble. A single mistake by one deputy can give the entire department a black eye, he said.
Young and dumb
Nearly three-fourths of the officers found with criminal records had cases before they ever were hired. Many of those cases occurred when they were young adults.
Many of the chiefs and agency leaders tell their officers they want to know about any encounters with other agencies, regardless of whether there were charges filed.
Delphos Police Chief Kyle Fittro made mistakes that resulted in several convictions as a young adult. As a 20-year-old, he was convicted of underage possession or consumption of alcohol and a year later disorderly conduct.
“I did what most people do. You go out and you occasionally drink underage,” Fittro said. “I was caught.”
The 35-year-old Fittro does not advocate underage drinking by any means, and today he arrests people for it. Still, he realizes people are humans and make mistakes, just as he did.
“I was just young and dumb, and it happens,” he said.
American Township Police Chief Larry Kunkleman said he hired Brad Settlage onto his department despite a conviction in 1992 for drunken driving as a 25-year-old.
“I was aware of it. He has had a clean record ever since,” Kunkleman said. “It’s been so long ago. He made a mistake. If everybody who made a mistake wasn’t allowed to do something, we wouldn’t have anybody hired. And I’m not talking police officers (but) any line of work.”
Purdy, who works for the Ottoville Police Department, said he has changed his ways since his two drunken-driving arrests. Today, he is a family man with children, unlike how he was in his early 20s in 1999 and 2001 when he was arrested.
“The second one is where I learned my lesson, and that put me on the straight and narrow. I was young and made mistakes,” Purdy said. “That was before I was a cop.”
Purdy said the arrests have made him a better officer.
“I know what to look for,” he said.
Fort Shawnee Lt. Robert Bender, who also works part time as a Delphos officer, has several misdemeanors on his record, including a conviction for failing to stop after an accident when he was 19, two years before he joined the department. Since that time, he has not had so much as a traffic ticket in any of the three counties.
While Bender offers explanations for his mistakes, he also takes ownership.
“I was a good kid, I just did a couple ridiculous things,” he said.
Stand by your officer
Perry Township Police Chief Tom Staup faced a number of charges, including one that could’ve ended his career if it hadn’t been reduced. Staup has faced charges of domestic violence, drunken driving and failing to control his vehicle. He also has a pending case that accuses him of criminal trespass and persistent disorderly conduct.
Staup has been suspended from his job, pending the outcome of his case. Township trustees aren’t saying much about the matter, but in the past they have stood by their officer.
Trustee Norm Capps was even aware of the drunken driving conviction that occurred in Franklin County.
“We knew that before we hired him (as chief),” Capps said. “We were aware of his record.”
While Capps carefully chose his words, he did say he was concerned about the public’s perception on how the matter is handled and that it could reflect poorly on trustees, the chief and Perry Township.
“It does give you something to ponder,” he said.
Fort Shawnee Mayor Dennis Shaffer is a big supporter of Bender’s, saying the lieutenant is one of the agency’s best officers.
While Shaffer prefers to back his officers, he still has made some tough decisions. Last year, he fired Officer Cliff Brenneman, a new part-time officer who was charged numerous times with jailable misdemeanors, including domestic violence and persistent disorderly conduct, although he rarely was convicted.
Shaffer said public pressure left him with no choice but to fire Brenneman despite wanting to give him a chance.
“Yes, he made some mistakes, and he admitted to them, and they were in his younger years. We have all made mistakes,” Shaffer said.
The hiring process varies by agency, with some departments carefully checking candidates for any problems. Departments, at the minimum, ask some type of question on applications about criminal history and perform a background check that looks for convictions across the country.
The Auglaize County Sheriff’s Office includes a criminal background check, a driver’s license check and a psychological evaluation. The Lima Police Department takes it a step further, talking to neighbors of applicants, including asking questions on how the applicant keeps up his property.
Background checks don’t always catch everything. For example, someone charged with a crime but never arrested or convicted might never appear in those searches.
Even if someone were convicted, it’s not always entered properly in the database. That happened with an Auglaize County sheriff’s officer convicted of failing to stop after an accident and reasonable control before he was hired. Solomon, however, said he still would hire Deputy Justin K. Chisholm, adding that he’s a good officer.
Some chiefs were surprised when certain names were brought up as having a record. In some cases, the officers were hired before the chief joined the agency. It’s also not uncommon for a chief to be unaware an officer was charged with a crime if the officer never was convicted.
When making a decision whether to hire, the Lima police look beyond a person’s criminal history into what happened after the crimes. Police want to know whether the candidate has learned from the mistakes and, equally important, taken ownership, Martin said.
Still, a mark on a candidate’s past in a tight job market could be all it takes to exclude someone, Martin said.
“That’s something to obviously be considered,” he said.
Martin said the results of the investigation show police are human and get charged with crimes like anyone else. While a charge may embarrass an officer and the department, it often can serve as a learning tool, he said.
“The greatest lesson doesn’t come from me, as an administrator, talking to the other officers. It comes when the officer talks to his peers and says, ‘Don’t make my mistakes,’ ” Martin said.
Many agencies run criminal background and driver’s license checks on officers annually. Many ask their officers to report such offenses even if it does not end in a conviction.
The bottom line, Solomon said, is police are held to a higher standard, and officers must accept that.
“We should be held to a higher standard,” he said. “What I won’t understand is something that damages the colors of this office.”