On Jan. 4, 2008, David Berger faced the beginning of what would be his toughest year in office.
In the confusion of an ill-planned drug raid, a group of Lima police officers who entered a home were confronted with attack dogs, firing shots to stop them. At that same time, Sgt. Joe Chavalia saw someone peeking in and out of a doorway as he ascended a stairway. He mistakenly thought he was being fired upon and shot and killed an unarmed Tarika Wilson, who was holding her 1-year-old baby.
Community anger boiled. Race was immediately injected into the situation, with Chavalia being a white officer who killed an unarmed biracial woman. The city was polarized, with some rallying around Chavalia and others calling him a murderer. Ministers and African-American leaders walked a line between pleading for calm and asking for answers, which were in short supply for most of the year because of ongoing investigations.
That lack of information fueled rumors, led to protests and brought national attention to Lima, including a visit by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. He spent the day in Lima, supporting pastors, registering high school students to vote, meeting behind closed doors with city officials and preaching at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church about Wilson’s death. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton and nationally syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine called for a 50,000-person march, but it never materialized.
“The mistake we made was not speaking quickly with what we knew,” Berger recalled. “The night of the shooting, Chief (Greg) Garlock asked for an outside investigation from BCI, and while that was fine, the problem it entailed then was that we were bound by their rules on confidentiality. And so for about eight months, we could not speak about what transpired. And that vacuum created an enormous opportunity for lots and lots of rumors to develop.”
Berger said he has since supported a change in policy with the Lima police to get information out “as soon as we can make sense of it.”
He pointed to body and cruiser camera policies enacted by Lima Police Chief Kevin Martin as a tool for getting out information more quickly to the public.
“That’s the single most important thing we can do,” he said.
Crime and critics
The drug problem that led to Tarika Wilson’s death is one the city has wrestled with for decades. In that sense, Lima’s crime problems are no different than those of much larger cities. Drug abuse has gone beyond crack cocaine and meth to heroin. Disputes are settled with shootings. And juvenile crime is on an upswing.
The two people who came the closest at election time to ending Berger’s reign as mayor were Keith Cheney in 2017 and Dan Beck in 2009. Both ran campaigns deeply rooted in law-and-order issues.
Beck, a popular Allen County sheriff in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a constant critic of Berger’s, chiding the city administration for being soft on crime.
“Dave Berger is good at bricks and mortar. You can look at what’s been done in Town Square and the downtown area, and it’s much better there. But from a quality of life issues, the culture of law enforcement did not change under Dave Berger,” Beck said last month.
He sees a police department that is entrenched in past practices.
“We keep doing things the same old way. It’s like the old saying: ‘We don’t know what we don’t know.’ We’re good at doing the feel-good things like community policing and neighborhood substations, but you cannot just go in a neighborhood two to four days during the daytime and expect things will change. From 6 o’clock at night until 4 in the morning, we need to be embedded in the high-crime areas,” Beck said.
Cheney took it a step further during his campaign.
“With crime, you either pay on the front side or pay on the back side. This administration has decided to pay on the back side by the loss of businesses and by individuals who have moved out of this city because they no longer want to be a part of a crime-ridden city. The population has dropped nearly 8,000 individuals,” he told The Lima News at the time.
Berger has countered those arguments with statistics showing a drop in violent crime. As for utilizing non-traditional methods, he says look no further than what’s happening on the juvenile crime front.
“The general focus that I brought to the issue of juvenile crime has been to be supportive of education and supportive of the kinds of opportunities that education can provide the kids, both in terms of the academic as well as the non-academic opportunities. The best way to keep kids out of trouble is to keep them busy,” Berger said.
He pointed to a youth commission that has been formed.
”We’re focusing on after-school programming. We want to see that expanded. You know, as Judge (Glenn) Derryberry told us many years ago, the most dangerous time for children is from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., every day, when many of them go home to houses that are unsupervised. The intent is to make certain that we try to develop and deploy programming to occupy kids in that time.”
If Berger did one thing especially well, it was recruiting and retaining a talented staff, people who he said were “willing to spend much of their professional lives teaming with me to solve difficult problems.”
They perhaps were at their best in guiding Lima through the Great Recession of 2008. It was a period that saw double-digit unemployment and a gallon of gasoline cross the $4 mark. The revenue streams of cities across the nation dried up.
Ben Rose, the former Republican state representative, called it one of Berger’s finer moments.
“Berger did a better job in running the fiscal side of government than anyone in the state,” Rose said. “Berger saw the recession coming and made cuts early rather than later. It took guts to do that. His performance as a budget person in terms of his own decision-making was just superb and got through better than anybody else.”