IDEAS & VOICES ROUNDTABLE: A closer look at gun crime, police solutions

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer. Sheriff Plummer visited Cox Media Group to speak with news editors and producers about crime trends. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer. Sheriff Plummer visited Cox Media Group to speak with news editors and producers about crime trends. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Our community board of Cox Media Group Ohio editors and news managers met recently to discuss crime and policing issues with three top local law-enforcement leaders — Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, and Kettering Police Chief Christopher Protsman. Since this conversation, Biehl has announced the formation of a new Violent Crimes Bureau in his department, and Protsman has talked publicly about youth-gang activity in his city and how the police are pursuing it. Here is an edited, condensed version of our meeting. — Ron Rollins

Q: We’ve reported a lot in recent months on what seems to be a real increase in street-level and gun violence here.

Biehl: No question we've seen it. For us in Dayton, it began in May 2015. It was stark. The violence shifted rather dramatically. Up to that point, May 2, the scale shifted from a year of decreasing gun violence to an increase by year's end – in that eight-month period we saw a 32 percent increase in gun crime and a 17 percent increase in crimes with injuries. I was stunned. We saw another another spike in 2016, with a significant jump in August. So in the short term of the last two years, there's no doubt it hasn't been going in a good direction. We've seen this to a similar degree with public safety in auto accidents, where we've seen a 40 percent increase and a doubling of fatalities. And then there's the situation that knows no bounds of suffering – the opiate epidemic. We've doubled our Narcan treatments for overdoses. We share the epidemic to varying degrees with other municipalities, of course – last year 47 percent of deaths were in Dayton, so 53 percent were in other communities – usually, Dayton has 50 percent, so we've seen an outmigration of the problem into other parts of the county.

RELATED: 3 things to know about the deadly opioid epidemic.

So those are the three big things we’re seeing. Now, you may think from the last two years that means we’re far less safe, but the data shows a different picture – if you take the long-term view back to 2008, my first year as chief, we’ve had a significant decline overall in Part 1 Violent Crimes, which are aggravated murder, assault, the most serious. So the 10-year story is generally good in Dayton proper, even if the last two years are not.

Q: Sheriff Plummer, Chief Protsman – does that follow what you've seen?

Plummer: Harrison Twp. had two homicides in 2015, and last year had four. So there's definitely been an increase for everybody. Our numbers of auto crashes hasn't been as bad. The problem everywhere, though, is money and drugs on the streets.

RELATED: Violent Dayton gun crimes prompt police changes.

Protsman: The opiate situation has been hitting outlying communities, but gun violence not as much. The Ronnie Bowers shooting last fall got a lot of attention, of course. Since I got here, we've been very proactive and so we've seen significant increase in drug arrests – those are up 119 percent, and we've finding more guns, too. It's because we're looking for them more now – making traffic stops, focusing on apartment complexes that we think are having an issue, working with apartment managers. Our Part 1 crimes dropped from 2015 to '16, but Part 2 crimes – simple assault, drug crimes, lesser offenses – are up. Also, an increase in traffic accidents.

Q: Chief Biehl, you focused on that particular date in May 2015 as significant. Do you know why?

Biehl: No. We really studied it, though, we looked at about 100 gun crimes during the uptick and there was no single simple explanation. The only thing that stood out was that more were related to drug trafficking and to robbery offenses. But we also had a number that were justifiable, under the Castle Doctrine – probably more than we'd seen previously.

Q: Is any of this due to a decrease in manpower?

Biehl: No. staffing has really been static the last few years. Each year we were at 345 officers; this year we had 350 and then in January lost three. But we've been at that level the last few years, so that's not really an explanation.

Protsman: We're staffed where we should be, at 83 sworn officers. That hasn't affected us.

Q: So, has the spike in numbers been happening in particular areas, or is it more widespread?

Biehl: Generally speaking, violent crime tends to happen in urban areas. In our case, it's highly concentrated in a small amount of geography. It's not broad-based. True of property crimes, too. That means you can concentrate resources toward it. If it was dispersed, where would you put your officers? Consider the power of place – we often pay attention to the what, but ignore the where. Place is important because it gives us the ability to focus resources, do environmental intervention, crime prevention through environmental design.

Q: Sheriff, you’ve talked previously about the amount and ferocity of some of the street violence your office has seen.

Plummer: Sure – there've been car-to-car battles down some streets, down Main and Salem. You had a rolling gun battle. There's been an increase. It's drug-related, gangs and crews with beefs against each other.

Biehl: Or shots at a habitation. There've been children shot at a house. Multiple incidents over the years.

Q: Over gang turf?

Biehl: Some of that, but I wish it was really as simple as that, and it's not. With the dozens of cases we looked at in 2015, we couldn't come up with an explantion that you could attribute the largest portion to. There was no consistent theme. Some robberies, some drug-related, some personal beefs, some friend and family disputes. But it was it was across the board. If there was as simple answer we could be a lot more efficient and know what strategy to use. We could spend time in the places were crimes occur, we could have officer do meaningful engagement, focused engagement – we know what works.

Q: Is there a difference in the sort of guns you’re seeing?

Plummer: There are lot of assault weapons, they've got a lot of good stuff out there. But that's been true since I've been here, it's not a new phenomenon.

Q: Do any of the incidents involve concealed-carry license holders?

Biehl: No, this isn't CCW holders. We do see people on disability carrying a firearm as a problem, though – people who have a previous crime on their record. That's a red flag, when you've got a previous record that prohibits you having a gun, and then you have one. I see those as very serious. We should look at how those cases are addressed in our court system, how they're treated in the state hierarchy of crimes.

RELATED: Do concealed-carry laws make us safer?

Protsman: We aren't looking for guns, per se – we're looking for drugs and finding guns. Our numbers are low, and I'm thankful for that. But in 2015, we arrested 14 people with concealed weapons, under disability or some combination – in 1026, we arrested 60. This year so far, 24. So we're getting better at looking for drugs, where to do it, who to stop, and those numbers will keep growing. People may get the impression that means crime in Kettering is getting worse, but it really was always there – we're getting better now at looking for it. We're ahead of the curve on violence now, our community is not as bad as some other areas – and we want to stay in front of it and stop it, if we can. Hot spots, crime mapping – the days are over when you just have a patrol car out for eight hours just driving a beat. Now you put the officers where they need to be, where the crime is occurring.

Plummer: If I had the officers, I could build specialty units. There are very few people on my drug task force.

Biehl: As I said before, the reason for the increase isn't because staffing is down – it's really about being focused on policing. That said, there is clearly a recognition that more staff are needed, and I think the commission has agreed and shown a commitment to it – the recent levy that was passed would add 20 officers, for instance.

Q: Is diversity of your officers an issue?

Biehl: We're still at about 10 percent minority staffing.

Q: What would the goal be?

Biehl: Well, it will be difficult for the Dayton Police Department to ever have diversity that is larger than the county, which is roughly 20 percent, any time soon. Our labor force comes from the surrounding eight- or 10-county area, and outside Montgomery County, you're no longer in double digits. In Cincinnati, it took a quarter of a century to get there, it took consent decrees to do it.

Q: What’s the local gang situation?

Biehl: You'll see 14-, 15-year-olds get involved — it's often generational, their dads were in a gang. Youth gang stuff has slowed down somewhat. But we also lack personnel for that stuff, because we're not in the schools as much. In the 2000s, all our special units went away — community engagement, mounted patrol, DARE, crime prevention officers. I brought back crime prevention; there are functions you need to improve overall policing beyond patrol, to be effective.

RELATED: Guns at work: New law allows handguns on private property.

Q: Is that deterrent function in an officer’s power?

Biehl: Sure it is. There's an entire body of police science developed on preventive policing. Look at the evolution of policing in this nation, you see two trends — one is community policing, which was an epiphany from the riots of the 1960s, realizing police had lost legitimacy in the communities they served. The other is problem-oriented policing, trying to understand crime through specific processes — why here, and not there? The crime triangle — victim, offender, location. Say you have a child victimized at a bus stop — you need to put a guardian there. You need an adult. Not many, just one is enough. That's where the community comes in.

Q: Is there enough sharing between your departments?

Biehl: We share intelligence, and on the ground there are very close relationships on the boundaries of our jurisdictions.

Plummer: We work together on CIRGV (the Community Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence), and it's better than in the past.

Q: Why?

Plummer: Police departments are territorial. They think they can do it better.

Biehl: Street-leval policing has always been highly localized, and that won't change.

Q: Have you seen any changes in trends in domestic violence? Warren County, for one, has seen some recent high-profile cases.

Protsman: It's not on our radar as being something that's up.

Biehl: It seems concentrated in some areas more than others, but that's not necessarily a prevalence — it's often because of certain living arrangements. Thin apartment walls allow people to hear what's not heard in another kind of neighborhood. So you can't say it just happens in public housing, it's that we're often called because of close living proximity. And a lot of times, you can't get a can't get a case that's successfully pursued in the justice system. What can we do to change that?

Protsman: A lot of people are stuck in a bad situation, with no place to go, and so they end up back into a hostile situation, truly stuck. It's a sad situation.

RELATED: Kettering police chief opens up about gangs, related crimes.

Q: There’s been a lot of recent publicity about the Montgomery County Jail. Thoughts?

Biehl: When did the jail become the default server for the detox population? For people with mental health problems? Broken people, broken lives – that's become Sheriff Plummer's population. Where are we in solving these issues? Where is that transparency? We clean up the streets, so what do you think happens at the jail? We take high-needs people with significant problems and aggregate in one intensive environment — what do you think will happen? Yet I don't hear any conversation in the community about how to deal with the problems that end up on the doorstep of the sheriff. We ask too much of cops, and too little of ourselves.

Protsman: The jail is obviously where officers are dealing with mental health situations, people that society has thrown to the police and sheriff's departments. We need to get better trained on dealing with the mentally ill. We'll be there to deal with it, but it can't just be our problem — there should be others involved.

Q: So, what do you think the media is missing in all these issues of crime, policing?

Biehl: Well, I honestly don't consume a lot of news because I'm going through it every day. But that said, I think we just lose the humanity of our shared experience. I think that human dimension is lost, another horrible story of pain, crime, suffering — not knowing we do a lot to generate a sense of hope, or gratitude for what is good about our community, our lives. And I think at the end of day, people may be attracted to "negative news," if you will, or to harmful events, for an evolutional reason – namely, to be aware of the things that can hurt us. And good things aren't a threat, so we focus on what's harmful and threatening. But still, I just don't feel we do a lot to celebrate the deeply personal. To bring this down to earth, I was at a law enforcement conference in St. Louis and went through active shooter training based on actual events, and I felt like somebody had carved out my soul by the end of the day. I felt so depleted and demoralized by these real events that had caused so much pain to so many people who did not deserve it.

Then we had a workshop with an independent film producer I know personally, who did a story about the Oak Creek, Wisc., Sikh temple shooting in 2012, and I could’ve cried after that. It was the most horrible event but one of the most uplifting stories — how the Sikh community responded to the event and to the police officer who who was almost killed. They wanted to express their gratitude to him, how he shot the attacker and kept more people from dying. They said they forgave the shooter, too, and did not carry hatred in their hearts. But the officer’s picture was in Sikh temples around the world; they considered him a saint. I thought, maybe there is hope, and humanity. We’ve seen an escalation of hate crimes — what is a more compassionate, thoughtful way to respond to them? Horrible things happen, but there are different ways to respond.

“We clean up the streets, so what do you think happens at the jail? We take high-needs people with significant problems and aggregate in one intensive environment — what do you think will happen? Yet I don’t hear any conversation in the community about how to deal with the problems that end up on the doorstep of the sheriff. We ask too much of cops, and too little of ourselves.” — Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl

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