Section: News

As Sheriff contract renewal looms, students make their voices heard

As Sheriff contract renewal looms, students make their voices heard

With just over five weeks until the Village’s contract with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) goes up for renewal, Gambier community and Council members alike are working hard to ensure that the renegotiation process aligns with the needs of its residents. 

This much was apparent on Monday night, as the Council chambers filled with students, staff and Gambier residents anxiously awaiting the Village’s meeting of its Police and Personnel Committee. The majority of students in attendance were members of the Black Student Union’s (BSU) Sheriff Committee there to present suggested edits to the contract, which they requested from the Council during its Feb. 3 general meeting. 

As mandated by the contract, which expires on April 4, the Village pays $157,000 yearly to KCSO for its services. Village Administrator R.C. Wise says the interest and investment among students in reevaluating the terms of the contract has set a new precedent for the Council on examining the Village’s relationship with KCSO.

“The Village has historically paid for the additional coverage for having deputies here — 80 hours out of 168 in a week — and we still want that to continue, but [we] also want to work on different terms as well,” Wise said. “I don’t think it’s been looked at very carefully in the past; I think the agreement was set a long time ago and they just renewed it every four years.”

Wise was one of four committee members present at Monday’s meeting, along with Mayor Leeman Kessler ’04 and Council members Ben Nutter ’21 and Phil Brooks. Also in attendance was Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer.

While Shaffer was at the meeting to give the Council a routine presentation of annual reports and statistics, his presence did not go unnoticed by those in attendance, and he quickly became the focus of the meeting.

Student interest in the Village’s relationship (and, by extension, its contract) with KCSO intensified after an incident last September that involved a confrontation between KCSO Deputy Kevin Williams and a group of BSU students and alumni riding a golf cart during the group’s 50th anniversary reunion.

After a brief presentation from Shaffer that included data on calls for service in Gambier and Knox County, the Council opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience.

As a first course of action, Audrey Mueller ’22, speaking on behalf of the recently formed Sheriff Committee, asked the Council if they had any changes they were considering making to the contract. While Wise said that he could not yet publicly discuss the Council’s thoughts on the matter, he encouraged Mueller to express any concerns that she and others might have about the contract, at which point Mueller briefly summarized the Committee’s revisions to the contract.

The Committee’s first revision had to do with a clause in the contract stating that the “Sheriff shall determine which personnel shall be assigned to the Village of Gambier.” Mueller suggested that “determine” be replaced with “recommend,” thereby giving the Village more agency in determining the deputies assigned to patrol Gambier. Mueller also suggested that “there could be comment and review from Village residents and potentially also College residents” in the choice of KCSO personnel.

However, the crux of the Committee’s focus revolved around one sentence in the contract, which seemed to get at the heart of their concerns: “The Village shall have the right to refuse for a cause any person the Sheriff desires to place in the Village.”

“We were wondering if the ‘for cause,’ such causes could be specified or made a bit more clear,” Mueller said. “So such cause for reassignment may include, but is not limited to—and of course this is not necessarily things that have happened but just examples of potential causes—discriminatory enforcement practices … excessive use of force and/or failure to comply with the Village’s enforcement priorities.”

While the Village said they were limited in their influence over personnel matters due to the contract being under the jurisdiction of the Fraternal Order of Police, which generally determines officer assignment based on seniority, rank and bids by individual deputies, they discussed at some length the Committee’s concerns about just cause. Kessler stressed how relativity may come into play.

“I do think it is more of a case by case situation,” Kessler said. “What you don’t want to happen is have it so specific that someone can’t be removed if there’s a problem because they don’t meet the lever of that, or have it so that if they are removed they can point to the language and bring a lawyer and you’re liable because you didn’t follow that very specific [language].”

The meeting also included a discussion of Shaffer’s previous responses to informal complaints from community members about Deputy Williams. Following the golf cart incident, Kenyon organized a series of meetings with Shaffer and other representatives from KCSO intended to relay concerns over the incident and start a dialogue on how to move forward. Last month, the College put out an FAQ in response to questions from community members about the jurisdiction of KCSO in Gambier. President Sean Decatur also said that he had asked Civil Rights/Title IX Deputy Coordinator Kevin Peterson to review documentation of the incident as part of the College’s efforts towards bettering its relationship with KCSO.   

While Decatur has said that that the College conducted “no formal investigation” of KCSO following the Sept. 28 incident, and that Peterson’s report was solely intended to grant additional context to internal College leadership, Shaffer claims that the the Office for Civil Rights’ report constitutes proof that the College found “no wrongdoing” on Williams’ part, according to a Feb. 13 article in the Mount Vernon News entitled “Sheriff’s Deputy Williams speaks out about his Gambier patrols.”

When the Collegian inquired on the nature of this investigation at Monday’s meeting, Shaffer reaffirmed his stance, saying that the two meetings he had with College representatives in October amounted to an investigation of his office. He also restated that the College had recently reached out to him saying they found no fault in Williams’ actions, though he offered no proof of the matter.

“Now, I don’t know what terminology the College deems that meeting, but they were asking questions, answering questions, I would take it as an investigation,” Shaffer said. “I was contacted by personnel from the College later on that said they found no wrongdoing on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office — that’s what I’m basing that information on.”

Following the Monday meeting, Wise, Village solicitor Clint Bailey, Council member Nutter and the mayor met with Shaffer, Captain Sheffer and Lieutenant Light on Wednesday to further discuss details of the upcoming contract renewal. Wise said the meeting was short, but productive. The Village and KCSO discussed a time last summer when both deputies assigned to Gambier were on leave, which led to concerns about the use of the Village’s spending towards  full-time coverage from the Sheriff’s Office. They also discussed the Committee’s concerns about just cause, and what that would mean in terms of legal language for an updated contract.

“Our solicitor’s going to work on some draft language to give to the prosecutor,” Wise said. “The county prosecutor’s also the legal representative for the Sheriff, so those two attorneys will look at the draft language. It’s possible we may have to live with the current terms for a little bit of time until we get the new language.”

Shaffer also supplied the Council with documentation of Williams’ training, and the parties discussed the opportunity for further training of deputies if the Village requested it. Wise said there will be at least another meeting before the contract’s renewal on April 4.

The position of Knox County Sheriff is open for reelection in November, and the seat will be one of several included in the Ohio primary on March 17.

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