Butler County police departments still dealing with pandemic’s effects on their work

Ever imagined a pink and green jail? The COVID-19 pandemic tossed the world into a panic in 2020 and forced police agencies in Butler County to drastically change the way they did business, and some of the repercussions are long-lasting.

At the outset of the emergency when people were largely sequestered in their homes police activity and arrests were cut as evidenced by records obtained by the Journal-News. Not all agencies were able to provide service calls dating back to 2019, but in West Chester Twp. they dropped 9,206 from 49,701 to 40,495. Calls in Middletown dropped 6,141 from 52,776 to 46,635.

Middletown Police Chief David Birk said they had to adjust their arrest protocols because of social distancing requirements at the jail. Middletown is the only jurisdiction with their own jail, everyone else goes to the Butler County Jail in Hamilton.

“We couldn’t put them in the jail unless it was a felony and then we also reduced the traffic stops so we really limited our contact with individuals,” Birk said. “Even the self-initiated activities dropped greatly during the pandemic. We were responsive instead of proactive.”

As a further COVID-19 precaution, they used federal funding to upgrade the ventilation system and painted the jail with antibacterial “Pepto Bismol” pink and green paint. They picked pink because it is considered calming — he wanted Green Bay Packers colors.

Butler County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said in the heat of the outbreak when everyone was masked, their deputies didn’t allow flagrant traffic violations, but since they were usually not masked — it impaired their peripheral vision and gave scofflaws something to potentially choke them with — stops were infrequent.

“People weren’t stopping cars, there wasn’t any traffic stops, we literally had people running lights and then we’d pull them over and they’re like ‘we didn’t think you were stopping anybody’,” Dwyer recalled. “It was widely known because people were wanting to limit contact with each other, it was just crazy.”

It wasn’t only traffic stops, Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit said pre-pandemic their calls for service totaled 86,789. The number dropped 16,911 when the pandemic hit in March 2020. He said their normal visits to the schools, businesses and other community policing activities were curtailed which reflect in the service call numbers.

“Our snapshot is we saw a pretty substantial dip in calls for service,” Bucheit said. “Obviously we took some precautions for our people, but there were prior things we were doing, we would normally maybe stop into a business to check in on them and the business was closed during the pandemic.”

Dwyer said normal police activities slowed but his figures show they went from 52,229 calls in 2019 to 57,479 in 2020.

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“In 2020 we had people calling us and saying there’s kids in the park gathering, you need to go tell them to stop,” Dwyer said. “As ridiculous as that sounds you normally wouldn’t get a lot of that, you’d get a lot of party complaints but not the neighbor’s got too many people at his house.”

West Chester Twp. Police Chief Joel Herzog said they got calls like that as well but he instructed his staff — in most instances — to disregard.

“We weren’t responding to those calls if there was not a criminal violation, we weren’t responding to youth are gathering at the basketball courts, they (dispatchers) weren’t even entering it, they might advise officers to be aware but no entry was made,” Herzog said.

“Because there was no violation of state law as far as congregation, it’s something that was hard to prove. We were getting into the Department of Health’s area of authority versus law enforcement’s area of authority.”

He said obviously if they received credible calls that indicated trouble might be brewing they responded.

Oxford Police Chief John Jones said he can’t access 2019 numbers, but when Miami University shut down and it’s 20,000-something students went home, “a large portion of our population left, so we got bored at times.”

Early in the pandemic, some prisoners were released from the main Butler County Jail on Hanover Street in Hamilton due to COVID-19 concerns. Felons were still jailed but, for example, in Monroe criminal arrests dropped by 100 to 352 between 2019 and 2020.

Jones said they were in unfamiliar territory since their whole goal is stopping the bad guys and “there was kind of degradation of society.”

“When the public expects you to control crime and then you’re main tool for controlling crime is taken away from you, which is typically the jail and you can’t through your normal process, these petty thieves who steal from you, break into cars, they just keep getting re-cited and there’s no ramifications,” Jones said. “It’s just a perpetual cycle, so the pressure comes on those local agencies, ‘why aren’t you doing anything’ and there’s not much you can do.”

The Butler County Common Pleas Court, unlike many, did not close its doors during the pandemic. Judge Keith Spaeth said the fact Clerk of Courts Mary Swain instituted online case filing in the beginning of 2020 allowed them to continue to operate, although at the very beginning they were not holding court in-person for a few weeks.

“At least for the last year we’ve been more than back to normal,” Spaeth said. “It never really got too bad around here because of the filing system and because we made a conscious decision that we were not going to announce to the world that we weren’t trying cases. Were we trying cases during the first, second maybe even third quarter of 2020, no we avoided bringing juries in here but we didn’t make that a court order and I think that helped us keep our cases moving along through the normal plea bargaining processes.”

Ross Twp. Police Chief Burt Roberts told the Journal-New recently the impact of the pandemic continues to take it’s toll, violent crimes escalated from 82 in 2020 to 150 last year and domestic violence incidents jumped from 63 to 107 over the same period.

“We’ve had a few shootings in the past couple years, our calls for domestics have gone up, mental, overdoses all those, those have tripled at least in the past two years since the pandemic,” Roberts said. “All of our statistics have doubled or tripled in the past two years.”

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In Hamilton, calls involving violent incidents have actually fallen off, statistics show there were 4,362 reports in the first half of last year compared to 4,090 this year. A year-to-date comparison for domestic violence shows incidents went from 739 to 627 this year.

In West Chester, violent crimes dropped from 48 in 2021 for the first seven months to 19 this year. Domestic violence calls increased slightly from 120 to 137. There were 65 violent incidents — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault fall into that category — in 2019 and 198 domestic violence complaints pre-pandemic.

So are things back to normal? Herzog says “absolutely not.”

“It’s really a multitude of things, we did not just deal with COVID, there is a whole culture issue with the public’s view of policing, and de-policing and defunding the police and scrutiny and wanting reforms that has forever changed policing,” Herzog said.

That is reflected in staffing nationally, “we are going to be at a critical need level here shortly across the country and now we’re starting to see that where I don’t know of any agency that is at full strength right now.”

Protests broke out nationally in the summer of 2020 after former Minneapolis police officer Derick Chauvin knelt on the neck of an unarmed black man George Floyd for nine minutes, killing him. Chauvin was found guilty of murder and is serving a 21-year prison sentence on state and federal charges. Peaceful protests were staged in many Butler County communities but gatherings elsewhere were more intense.

There have been several incidents involving police and the public during the pandemic, sparking outrage and an anti-police sentiment. It has caused many veteran cops to leave their beats and stifled recruitment efforts.

“It seems like some of these states are going after officers that made a mistake or their judgement at the time, it’s not being evaluated the way the Supreme Court said it should be. Instead it’s being judged by hindsight, instead of what a reasonable officer felt at the time,” Herzog said.

“That’s hanging these officers out where they’re not looking at just being disciplined or losing their job, they’re looking at going to prison. Who wants to have job like that, if I make a mistake someone’s going to go after me and take me from my family. It doesn’t excuse actions, because there’s some people that needed that indictment or that charge, but too many times I think officers are feeling it’s a witch hunt.”

Bucheit said he is trying to solve the problem of a dwindling crop of recruits by resurrecting the practice of years ago when there was a police cadet program. He is hiring young people, 19 and 20-year-olds — who are too young to be sworn officers — getting them in the door to do civilian tasks and hopefully convince them police work is their calling.

Fairfield Twp. is one of those jurisdictions trying to hire, Police Chief Bob Chabali said he needs seven officers — he is hoping the trustees approve hiring two at their next meeting — and the vacancies are taking their toll.

“It adds more work to the folks that we have here and increased overtime, probably the same thing as anybody else, so you worry about officer wellness, their fatigue,” Chabali said. “So we kind of check up on them and also working on a wellness program to help everybody out.”

He said their residents probably aren’t noticing the void but “I’d only be able to answer that question if I had a whole bunch of complaints and I really don’t, it’s actually the opposite we get a lot compliments from the citizens.”

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