Sandusky police Lt. John Orzech said the past couple of weeks haven’t been easy.
He’s become increasingly worried about patrol officer safety — to the point he’s had trouble sleeping.
With the term racial profiling and the name Trayvon Martin being chanted almost daily by groups protesting the killing of a black teenager in Florida — and the media coverage of it — his department was recently accused of arresting two black men based on race.
But Orzech is confident that assessment is inaccurate.
The on-duty officers who responded to an incident involving an off-duty officer were spot on and professional when they stopped two black men walking along Columbus Avenue on Feb. 18, and their actions had nothing to do with race.
They had everything to do with protecting the community and themselves from being shot.
“I don’t want (SPD officers) to be second-guessing themselves when they have to make split-second decisions with limited information,” Orzech said. “In Sandusky, officers don’t have a lot of time to think about what their next course of action is going to be. They’re usually only a matter of blocks from the scene.”
He said he’s worried patrol officers, in a conscious effort to be politically correct, might hesitate in the line of duty. Second-guessing, he said, could lead to dangerous situations and the possibility of another officer being shot.
Orzech said he’s also worried about the perception some residents might have of the police department.
“One of my concerns is officer safety, and the other is leaving a racial issue lingering out there in the community,” Orzech said. “I don’t believe that’s what happened, and (the subject is) volatile because of the Trayvon Martin incident.”
Just after midnight, while revelers were still celebrating St. Patrick’s Day downtown, officers raced to Washington Street and Columbus Avenue. A black man allegedly pulled a gun on off-duty Sandusky police Officer Jody Showalter.
Showalter, who resigned three days after the incident, allegedly got into several scuffles and had words with the man moments before having the gun pulled on him. A Perkins police officer, who was with Showalter, and another black man who was with the man who pulled the gun, diffused the situation.
Showalter called SPD dispatch and reported the incident, describing two suspects as black males walking south on Columbus Avenue near Adams Street. That information was relayed by a dispatcher to officers en route. About a minute later officers spotted two black men near Columbus Avenue and Madison Street — just two blocks away and less than two minutes after the gun was pulled.
Officers stopped, pulled their weapons and ordered the two men to the ground. They handcuffed and searched both men but failed to find a gun. The officers apologized to the men, removed the handcuffs and sent them on their way, according to a police report.
The entire incident was recorded by a cruiser camera.
Orzech said he’s reviewed the video carefully, and the officers were professional and correct in stopping the men.
“They did an excellent job,” he said. “They explained what was going on. The two individuals understood, and they moved on from there.”
But some residents believe it was a race-based stop, and that misconception has stirred anti-police sentiment, Orzech said.
“We don’t want people to be inflamed thinking that race was an issue,” Orzech said. “It shouldn’t be a black and white issue because in this particular situation it wasn’t.”
The officers didn’t just stop two random black men on the street, they stopped two black men who were two blocks from a crime scene less than two minutes from when it happened. There was no racial profiling there, Orzech said.
“They handled that call just like they would any other weapons complaint.”