Butler County officials reflect on police-community relations a year after protests

Butler County officials are continuing to work on police and community relations nearly a year after a nearly unprecedented number of protests broke out nationwide following the death of a Minneapolis man caused by a police officer.

Generally peaceful protests emerged in many Butler County communities last year after former Minneapolis police officer Derick Chauvin knelt on the neck of an unarmed black man George Floyd for nine minutes and killing him. Chauvin was found guilty of murder after a 10-hour jury deliberation last month. Protests elsewhere were more intense.

A year later, Celeste Didlick-Davis, president of the Middletown chapter of the NAACP, told the Journal-News “there are still issues going on all over Butler County” but there has been progress in trying to heal the divide. She said police targeting minorities hasn’t gone away.

“Physical abuse or physical misconduct is not the only way that someone can have their foot on someone’s neck,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with the local police department and I believe they are beginning to hear me, that you can be oppressive and not have touched someone physically.”

In the weeks after Floyd’s death, protests were organized in Hamilton, Middletown, Fairfield, West Chester Twp. and elsewhere in Butler County. One of the first was a march in Hamilton that started at The Fringe Coffee House and traveled to the Butler County courthouse.

“This is a peaceful, non-violent march and protest,” the Rev. Patrick Davis cautioned before the walk began. “I’m speaking for myself and some of my friends: Some of us grew up in the ‘hood, OK? We see you getting out of pocket, trying to take away from the meaning of this thing, hey, it’s not going to be good, man. I’m just going to say that. It’s all love, but don’t try to subvert this man’s memory.”

In West Chester, a June 3 protest organized by a community member was joined by protestors who had been in downtown Cincinnati because there was no curfew in West Chester at that time. Township trustees set a curfew later that evening.

During the event at the West Chester Clock Tower, members of the peaceful gathering took turns speaking as police police officers took knees with the crowd.

West Chester Police Chief Joel Herzog and others in his department participated in several “courageous conversations” organized by Yasmen Brown-Jones of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance.

She said her three sons were protesting in Black Lives Matter events in Cincinnati but meeting with their own police helped.

“Coming out of that meeting with the young folks several of them said I’m not where I need to be but I’m better for being part of a conversation with our local police,” Brown-Jones said. “I’m in a better place in my level of respect for them.”

Herzog and some other chiefs say while many residents have been very supportive, the national sentiment is hard to ignore and “it weighs on everybody.”

“Recently with all the events going on and when there is perceived by the majority of law enforcement as a justifiable shooting that is just attacked and taken apart,” Herzog told the Journal-News. “Officers are being demonized regardless of how much support you have locally in your community your family, you, everybody is seeing this on the news and feeling it. So you feel those pressures and those tensions.”

Butler County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said there is no denying there are bad officers who have given the entire profession a bad name, but it is difficult for deputies to be lumped in with them.

“What we have went through in the last year or so has been difficult,” Dwyer said. “You have a lot of officers that are doing the right thing and they get caught up in the wash with people that aren’t doing the right thing... It is very trying very difficult when you have staff that are out there busting their butts everyday and everybody gets lumped into the same category.”

Given the current atmosphere and even before, Herzog and other chiefs said they have taken their officers and department members through extensive de-escalation and other training.

“We do everything we can, we’re transparent, I started a community oriented policing unit this year. We’re working with mental health and substance abuse to help with the homeless, so we’re being really proactive when it comes to training, recruiting...,” Middletown Police Chief David Birk said. “I just think being open to dialogue and speaking to everybody is the key.”

In Hamilton, police Chief Craig Bucheit said he doesn’t have the sense his residents are anti-law enforcement.

“It’s amazing to me when you sit down and we have candid conversations, at the end of the day the divide that we’re told is so big, when you get people, neighbors in the room, face-to-face, that divide is much smaller that what we’re lead to believe,” Bucheit said.

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