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'Critical' Ohio LE annual training consistently underfunded, not reimbursed

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John Caniglia and Rachel Dissell
The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio — For years, law enforcement officials and Ohio policymakers have argued that annual training for police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers is critical.

It keeps officers and residents safe, shields cities and counties from litigation, and raises statewide standards of professionalism.

Calls for such training have increased, in Ohio and nationally, mostly in response to high-profile incidents involving police use of force, response to mental health crises and concerns about racial stereotyping.

Despite that, Ohio has failed to provide a steady stream of funding to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for annual training.

The state budgeted nothing to pay back departments for annual training in fiscal year 2019. Nothing for 2020. And nothing for 2021.

Why is that money essential? Without it, most of the training the state mandates becomes voluntary.

In addition, the current patchwork tracking process allows departments to self-report officer training information to the state, making it nearly impossible to measure how many of the 33,000 officers fail to complete annual training. And under Ohio law, an officer who lacks the training can’t patrol the streets.

“People want us to shoot like John Wayne, fight like Wyatt Earp and counsel others like Dr. Phil, but the state doesn’t give us enough resources,” said Tim Barfield, the chief of the Wellington Police Department in Lorain County.

Gov. Mike DeWine has strongly recommended raising the bar to 40 hours of mandated annual training, a change he pushed for during his tenure as attorney general. The current requirement is up to 24 hours.

DeWine’s first executive budget, however, did not include funding for training reimbursements, and none was added during the Ohio legislature’s budget process.

The governor plans to address the issue in the next biennial budget bill, spokesman Dan Tierney said. DeWine also supports finding a dedicated funding source to make the training reimbursements more reliable for local law enforcement agencies, he said.

Multiple statewide task forces, commissions and advisory boards, dating back at least to 2014, have urged lawmakers and elected officials to pay for annual training — and to increase training requirements.

One of those task forces resulted in the formation of the Ohio Collaborative, which in 2015 established — for the first time — statewide professional standards for officer recruitment, hiring, and departmental policies for use of force, vehicle pursuits and community engagement.

For officers to “do their jobs safely and effectively, and to protect the public,” the state should invest in training, particularly for “critical” topics such as de-escalation and cultural competency, the 2015 task force report said.

Critical, maybe. But still voluntary.

In Ohio, the training of police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers falls under the Attorney General’s office and its Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, or OPOTC.

The training commission has 10 members, all but one of whom are in law enforcement. The panel, appointed by the governor to three-year terms, oversees the state’s police academy and the curriculum and training programs that can be used in the state’s more than 950 police departments.

That includes the two types of training spelled out in Ohio law: Continued professional training and statutorily mandated training.

Continued professional training or CPT is set as a certain number of hours annually, but it is only mandatory in years where reimbursement is available.

Lawmakers placed the second type, statutorily mandated training, on the books over the course of several years. It prescribes updates for veteran officers in specific categories, such as human trafficking, crisis intervention and domestic violence and is mandated regardless of funding.

In the last year, the training commission has had three different executive directors overseeing in-service work and its costs: Mary Davis, who held the job since 2014 before leaving in July to run the state prison system’s training academy; Jeff Scott, the former Notre Dame College police chief who resigned after five months because of family reasons; and Dwight Holcomb, the current leader.

Davis did not return messages. Scott declined to comment.

Expenses for training are twofold: paying for certified instructors and replacing officers who are away from the job.

That makes steady funding important but extremely expensive, Holcomb said.

It costs the state about $660,000 to fully reimburse law enforcement agencies for each hour of required training at the current rate of $20, Holcomb said.

To fully reimburse for the currently required hours would cost the state more than $15 million each year.

Ohio ended up with its reimbursement system because mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs balked at the idea of the state creating an unfunded mandate by requiring a certain number training hours for officers to retain their certifications.

For small departments, in particular, reimbursement is important because chiefs often have to pay overtime for officers to cover the shifts of colleagues in training.

The training commission suggests that departments continue to train, even when there isn’t any money available.

In a Plain Dealer survey filled out by nearly 70 police chiefs and sheriffs, most said annual training is vital to prepare officers for what they will face on patrol. Many argued, however, that “one-size-fits-all” requirement doesn’t make sense because needs differ based on the size, location and communities departments serve.

Nearly all of the chiefs and sheriffs, however, called for reliable funding.

Since fiscal year 2004, the state has spent more than $26 million to reimburse departments and administer the program, but the funds have been cobbled together from civil settlements, attorney general funds or one-time budget allocations, and they have not been doled out consistently.

Five times since fiscal 2004, no state money was paid to law enforcement agencies for training, according to a review of Legislative Service Commission documents.

Compare that to Illinois, which has consistently spent more than $5 million a year since 2014 on mobile facilities to teach officers. The state uses money from fees on traffic tickets to pay for it.

When money is not available, many departments still try and provide some training for officers, according to The Plain Dealer survey. For others, the training becomes bare bones, limited to classes that provide updates on new laws. A few said they skip training altogether.

Jeff Ehasz, the director of the Ohio Small Police Department Association, said he fears that could become common for some departments. He said about 3 of every 4 departments in Ohio are made up of 25 officers or less, and finding money for training often becomes a major issue.

“It’s a huge problem,” Ehasz said. “We see it every day. Every day.’’

Twinsburg Police Chief Chris Noga said an officer who completes the police academy and begins working at a department could go years without receiving additional training under the current system.

“Failure to train is one of the greatest areas of liability in law enforcement,” Noga wrote in his survey response. “If an entity cannot afford to continuously train its officers, it opens itself to potential litigation and settlements that would have been better spent on continuing training for their officers.’’

Authorities from across the country agree.

“All it takes is one lawsuit, one smart attorney to wipe [an agency] out,’’ said Bob Wertz, the training administrator for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement. “Who wants to lose lawsuits because someone dropped the ball?’’

The landmark case involving police training stems from the 1978 arrest of Geraldine Harris, a woman Canton police brought to the police station following a dispute during a traffic stop, according to legal briefs.

At the station, Harris slumped over and became incoherent. Officers failed to help her, and they later released her, allowing her family to take her in a private ambulance to a hospital. She stayed there for a week.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can be held liable for constitutional violations if the failure to train officers amounts to the “deliberate indifference” of residents’ civil rights.

David Malik, an attorney from Chesterland who has sued several police departments, said the issue of training, or the lack of it, has come up in each of his cases against departments.

The state and law enforcement departments need a series of checks and balances to monitor officers’ in-service work, he said.

“Training is so fundamental to good police work, but it is well-known in the police community and the community officers serve that there isn’t enough of it,’’ Malik said. “Police officers themselves will tell you that they can always use more training, but it comes down to the need for money.’’

Across the state, it’s hard to get a clear picture of the amount of training officers receive. The training commission relies on police departments to self-report officers’ training hours and provide the agency’s executive director and staff in London, Ohio, with an annual spreadsheet.

The commission takes the spreadsheets, which the chiefs and sheriffs must vow are accurate, and enters the information for each individual officer into a database.

The training commission’s staff then sends letters to police chiefs, sheriffs and county prosecutors notifying them of officers who are in what the state calls “cease-function” status; they cannot legally perform any duties of a police officer — including carrying a firearm — until the state has certified that they are back in compliance.

In 2017, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office received at least 55 letters from the training commission about officers in cease-function status. The office provided the letters to The Plain Dealer in response to a public record request but a spokesman said the office couldn’t be sure that was the total number of letters for that year.

All of the letters stemmed from officers who failed to meet the hours for continued professional training, the records show. At least 23 of the officers also failed to get the statutorily mandatory training.

The officers worked in large departments — Cleveland police and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department — and suburban offices such as Linndale, North Royalton and Mayfield Village.

In some cities, the lack of required training has caused legal problems.

In East Cleveland, the matter spilled into court in August. That’s when activist Mariah Crenshaw demanded action against dozens of police officers who she claimed had failed to satisfy Ohio training requirements.

Crenshaw argued that arrests and tickets should be dismissed because the officers were out of compliance and should have been pulled from the streets. The department and the state knew but did nothing, she said.

The case is pending in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. East Cleveland officials have since said all officers are now in compliance.

Crenshaw spent three years researching the issue and requesting officer training information from the state.

At her urging, the state training commission performed a rare audit on East Cleveland police two years ago that found about two dozen officers should have been off the streets for periods at a time during 2015, 2016 and 2017.

The audit also found that the state reimbursed East Cleveland for more than $10,000 in training that officers never received. The city was forced to repay the state.

“People have rights,” Crenshaw said. “They have a right to be arrested by a real police officer, who took the proper training, and is in compliance with state law. If citizens have to follow the law, so should police officers.”

Crenshaw called it “ridiculous” that the state doesn’t have a database that tracks which officers are in compliance.

“It just shows that the priorities are screwed up,” she said. “Some people act like it isn’t a big deal, but it causes damage to trust.”

Other state agencies do make it a priority, however. Such as the Ohio Supreme Court.

It keeps a database of attorneys’ required continuing legal education. Lawyers must attend classes and seminars and notify the court with supporting documentation to fulfill 24 hours of coursework over two years. Sponsors who put on the classes also provide information to the court about those who attended as verification.

The state court monitors the training of 44,000 lawyers, and it fines or suspends those who have failed to obtain the necessary classwork. The database “is the cornerstone of our system, and without it, we could never track the compliance of attorneys,” said Gina Palmer, who is the director of attorney services for the court.

But not everyone is in favor of tracking officers’ training or making the information publicly available.

“What purpose would that serve?” wrote Scott Reinbolt, the police chief in the village of Blanchester in southwest Ohio, in The Plain Dealer’s survey.

“I don’t want to spend 4 hours in court to testify in a DWI case about my agency’s training because some defense attorney has checked the database and found that my officer only had 4 hours of DWI specific training in the past decade, and the defense claims my officer is incompetent.’’

Officials have long considered different ways to pay for training, Fayette County Sheriff Vern Stanforth, the chairman of the training commission, said.

Over the years, officials have discussed increases to traffic tickets, fees for rental cars and even a sales tax. Nothing, however, has been chosen.

Under Ohio law, a percentage of casino revenues, 2%, are deposited into the Ohio Law Enforcement Training Fund annually. A small portion of that goes to the Department of Public Safety but most of it supports the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy, or OPOTA, which provides basic training and also some in-person and online, free continuing professional training classes.

The funding doesn't cover reimbursements for lost time when officers attend those classes.

When the casino funding was agreed upon, legislators and law enforcement leaders believed the casinos would generate enough revenue to cover that reimbursement for the annual training, but revenues have fallen short of those projections.

Attorney General Dave Yost’s office has been looking for possible funding alternatives for training reimbursements, Dominic Binkley, a spokesperson, said in an email.

Louisiana adds $2 to traffic tickets to fund a training program that is tracked in an online system. Each officer is required to take 20 hours of annual training that focuses on topics such as legal issues, firearms and domestic violence.

Massachusetts placed a $2 surcharge on most rental cars for municipal training.

Like Ohio, Massachusetts faces similar challenges with in-service training, particularly involving funding and accountability issues.

A November report by the Massachusetts auditor’s office found that the state spent more than $1 million on in-service training in 2019, while cities and towns spent $22.8 million. The state requires 40 hours of annual training but, like Ohio, has no way to track it.

The auditor’s report recommended greater accountability by utilizing an online system that would ensure officers participate in professional development and would decertify them if they don’t.

In Ohio, some advocate the need for training that is not tied to state funding.

Oregon Police Chief Michael Navarre in northwest Ohio said he believes the state should mandate 40 hours of annual training for officers and that it should not be tied to the availability of funds. Navarre was part of the 12-member Ohio Collaborative panel that ushered in new professional standards in recent years.

Too many police chiefs fail to provide annual training when they lack funds, he said.

“That’s just wrong,” Navarre wrote in The Plain Dealer survey. “Departments that cannot afford to provide training should not be police departments. They should merely contract with their county sheriff.”