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Steubenville City Council discusses police policy

MEETING — City Attorney Costa Mastros, standing, huddles with City Manager Jim Mavromatis before the start of council’s meeting Tuesday, the first since mid-March to be held in council chambers. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — City officials said Tuesday they don’t need to spell out rules for the use of force because the U.S. Department of Justice took care of that more than 20 years ago.

At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Jim Mavromatis reminded council how a 1997 consent decree had changed the way the police department works. That document stemmed from a year-long DOJ investigation into an alleged pattern of misconduct by police, spelling out policy changes that had to be made in use of force, training requirements, internal affairs investigations, detention and arrest of suspects and how information is collected and retained.

“The Department of Justice comes in, reviews everything, looks at all the policies in place and if they’re not sufficient, replaces them,” Mavromatis said. “On March 4, 2005, we came out of the consent decree with all those policies set in place.”

As a result, Mavromatis said the city has a use-of-force report covering roughly 14 different items that must be filled out every time an officer has to use force, which can be anything from chasing a suspect down, using pepper spray or a taser to pointing a gun.

“It’s dictated by necessity…and the individuals they’re dealing with,” Mavromatis said. “It can be as simple as a command presence, giving a direction, all the way up to using a firearm.”

He said in 2019 city police made 1,430 arrests, and only 69 of them required officers to fill out use-of-force forms. So far this year officers have made 503 arrests, with only 33 use-of-force forms needed, he said.

“To give you an idea, if they have to chase an individual down that they’re going to arrest, that is (considered) use of force and a report has to be filled out,” he said. “We had 23 of those last year, that was the highest of the numbers.”

During the past 19 months he said officers had filed use of force forms because they had to draw guns on 25 occasions. But he pointed out if officers pull a vehicle over suspected of involvement in a shots fired call, for instance, “they’re not going to walk up to that vehicle with their gun holstered.”

“Any time their gun is drawn, it’s mandatory that they report it and it’s reviewed by a supervisor,” he added. “If something is not done according to policy, then it’s dealt with.”

Likewise, he said there’s no record of an officer having to use a choke hold to subdue a prisoner since Chief Bill McCafferty took the reigns in 2003.

“(This is) one of the finest departments,” he said. “If we have a problem, it will be looked into. If we get complaints, they will be looked into.”

He said cruisers are equipped with recording devices the officer controls from their belts. “What they don’t have is body cameras, and I’ve asked the chief to bring me bids from at least two companies.”

Cameras “protect the individuals being arrested and they protect our officers,” he said. “Those body cameras have protected officers more than they’ve every hurt them.”

Mavromatis’ comments were in response to a request by 4th Ward Councilman Scott Dressel that he clarify that city police “do not and will not use choke holds or knees/legs on necks” of suspects.

After the meeting, Dressel said he was “very satisfied” with what he heard.

“I don’t have a problem with Steubenville Police at all,” he emphasized. “But I wanted people to know what they do all the time.”

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella said a system of checks and balances was put in place when the consent decree was implemented, particularly with enhanced training for police as well as an internal affairs officer.

“I think Steubenville was 30 years earlier than the rest of the world, they’re just catching up to us now,” he said.

“We need to support these guys, we need to stand behind them,” 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna, a former police officer, said, adding that there are times when it’s a life and death battle for police. “When you’re fighting for your life, on the ground trying to hold on to a pistol…you’ll do what you have to” to keep that gun out of their hand. “That’s how it is.”

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