MATT WESTERHOLD: Without benefit of a law degree

Managing editor, Sandusky Register The disconnect between local police and the people they're sworn
Matt Westerhold
Mar 23, 2010

Managing editor, Sandusky Register

The disconnect between local police and the people they're sworn to protect and serve shows up with raw intensity in some communities. That breakdown seems pretty evident in a video of an arrest by Akron police last year. The woman who recorded the incident in the troubled city neighborhood was not involved in the arrest until an Akron police officer on the scene demanded she immediately turn over the camera.

"We appreciate you getting that on video for us. What's your name?" the officer says to the woman as he walks toward her from where the arrest was happening about 50 feet away.

"You don't need to know my name," the woman responds.

"Yes I do, and I need to seize the camera," the officer tells her. "That is now evidence. You will give me the tape."

The officer persisted, demanding she surrender the camera or be arrested for obstruction. Without the benefit of a law degree, there seems to be some basic malfunction here on the part of the police officer, and the story went south from there. Americans have the right to own property and not have it seized by the government.

A police supervisor intervened and ordered the officer, Don Schismenos, to back off, but he continued sparring with the woman, disobeyed the order and arrested her. Sarah Watkins, 48, spent 18 hours in a jail cell over two days before making bail on charges that were eventually dropped.

Without benefit of a law degree, it seems that all law-abiding citizens have the right to maintain their freedoms without the threat of an unlawful incarceration. That right applies to every citizen regardless of whether they live in a sweet, gated community or a very troubled neighborhood.

Watch the video (CLICK HERE). Judge for yourself. But remember, Watkins did nothing wrong or illegal, yet she was taken from her home and incarcerated for 18 hours. Imagine if it happened to you, or someone you love, how you would feel.

Officer Schismenos was initially suspended from the police force for 15 days after an internal investigation showed he disobeyed his supervisor's direct order. But Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic took it a step further.

''Your actions have brought disrepute to the Akron Police Department and yourself by causing both to be cast in a negative light to the public,'' Plusquellic wrote in a letter earlier this month to Schismenos, adding 30 days to his suspension from the force. ''Additionally, you have been counseled previously about your interactions with citizens.''

The decision by the police supervisor, and the response by the police department and Mayor Plusquellic represent the "good news" part of this story. A citizen -- it could be you next time -- was still arrested and held without a lawful charge, but at least corrective action is being attempted.

There's a chance the only reason that is happening is the fact it was all captured on video. But what difference does it make? At least something good might arise from a bad situation, and a citizen's right to property and freedom was restored.

The Akron Police Department is a mess, but it is not unlike other departments where a police-baton approach is preferred over a community-oriented approach that values the rights of all individuals, not just some. But here at least, is one example, thanks to the citizen reporting by the Sarah Watkins using her video camera, where an egregious violation of basic rights happened, and was subsequently addressed.

Let's hope a statewide trend begins. Keep those cameras rolling.