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Carthage Town Council, Public Discuss Various Police Issues
April 16, 2008 - Issues involving the town's police department have dominated much of the Carthage Town Council's attention over the past month.
More than a dozen area residents attended a special meeting March 20, held to address concerns about the Carthage Police Department. Several attendees voiced complaints and concerns on a variety of issues.
Local business owner Chris Ebbert told the council he felt his business, The Pit Stop Pizza & Pub, and its customers were being harassed by local officers. He said it seemed to him that local police officers were against the town's citizens and that he thought the whole department should be fired.
"I've been in business nine years and I feel like I've been harassed nine years," Ebbert said.
Tom Tucker voiced concern about the training the town's officers, including unpaid reserves, have had. He also questioned whether the reserves are covered under the town's insurance policy.
"I've watched them," Tucker said of the town's reserve officers. "I don't think they're trained. I don't think they're up to par. I think it's unprofessional."
Cheryl Sullivan complained to the council about a department officer showing his Taser and the laser site on his pistol to kids in town. She also complained about being pulled over late at night on her way home from work and being questioned about where she is heading.
"I don't have to answer that question," Sullivan said. "I can go anywhere I want in this town." She also said she didn't feel it was appropriate for officer to question her about where she works.
Dan Cullison said he had been unjustly pulled over for a traffic violation a week earlier.
"If you guys are going to harass people and follow people and give out tickets like they're candy, that's BS," Cullison said. "… This is getting to be crazy."
A monthly report Carthage Town Marshal Mike Onkst presented at the council's April 2 meeting showed 39 tickets issued for various traffic infractions between March 1 and March 22. Seventeen of those tickets were written by reserve officer Brad Rogers.
At the March 20 meeting, Onkst revealed that the CPD had been participating in an Indiana Criminal Justice Institute-sponsored program aimed at enforcement of the state's seatbelt law. Seventeen of the tickets issued in March were for seatbelt violations. Council President Rick Bush, who used to be a CPD deputy but is now a reserve officer, said he did not agree with writing a lot of tickets. He called the practice "horses**t" and said, "Our town standard doesn't support that type of law enforcement." He added, however, that management of the police department was Onkst's job, not his.
"Me and Mike disagree on all these tickets," Bush said. He added, however, that he thought the CPD's enforcement of traffic laws had been "legal and just."
Onkst said the pull over program was zero-tolerance. If someone was pulled over for a violation, he said officers were not permitted to give warnings, but had to issue citations.
Council member Doris Wyatt, who works at Pavy's Grocery in town, said she had "never been so bombarded with complaints" than she had with respect to recent ones about the CPD's ticket writing. She said she had encouraged people to file written complaints with the town.
Dallas Harris said his daughter had been pulled over for a seatbelt violation. He said that after items were removed from the car so the officer could search it, the officer departed, leaving his daughter's belongings just sitting on the side of the road. The officer who handled that stop, Deputy Richard Stern, disputed Harris' account. He said he had not done anything illegal or out of line with respect to the search and Harris was told he could review the department's video of the stop, taken from a camera in Stern's car.
Other department officers also attended the March 20 meeting. Brandon Cross, a reserve deputy for the past two-and-a-half years, said he thought he treated citizens fairly.
"I don't feel I'm a bad person," Cross said. "I don't pull people over unjustly. … I treat everyone else how I want to be treated." While he said believes citizens have a right to complain when mistreated, he said complaints should be directed at specific officers, not the whole department.
Rogers, the reserve officer who wrote the most tickets in March, said, "I don't have any desire when I go on duty just to write tickets." He said he has better things to do than harass citizens.
"We are not robots," Onkst, who is also a member of the town council, said. "If you come to us and approach us, we'll tell you why we do what we do. … We don't make the laws, we just enforce them."
As the March 20 meeting was ending, council member Bill Armstrong said, "There's some changes that need to be made in the police department as far as I'm concerned."
Onkst told The Banner afterward that he initially had not felt the March 20 meeting had been very productive. However, after giving the matter more thought, he said there were some positives that came out of it.
"It started out very bad, but ended up good," Onkst said. "It was an opportunity for a lot of people to have Q and A with the officers, and they were able to introduce themselves and get that perception out of some people's heads that they're mechanical robots who don't think and feel."
Carthage resident Doris Moss, who attended the March 20 meeting, said she had doubts about whether citizens' complaints will be adequately addressed. She also said she thought Bush had treated Ebbert rudely.
"I personally thought it was unacceptable the way the Rick Bush spoke to Chris," Moss said. "Chris had a chance to talk, but Rick wouldn't keep quiet long enough for him to say anything."
In response to citizen complaints, the council is going to have two of its members, Wyatt and Vice President Wanda Henderson, join with three town citizens to form a committee that will review complaints against the CPD. Citizens who agreed to serve include Tom Tucker, Bob Sullivan and Bryan McMahan.
The council has also used special meetings over the past couple of weeks, on April 9 and 14, to review a proposed policy manual for the CPD. At the April 14 meeting, the council passed resolutions setting regular hours for Onkst and his deputies, and requiring an inventory to be made of all CPD equipment.
The Carthage Town Council has scheduled another special meeting for Monday, April 21, to further consider the proposed CPD policy manual. That meeting, held at 5:30 p.m. at Cathage Town Hall, 6 W. First St., is open to the public.
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