At a recent City of Vermilion Health & Safety Committee meeting, Mayor Forthofer said as Safety Director he wanted to give a brief overview of the City’s position on free speech, festivals and public safety.
“Sunday, May 31st, there was a peaceful prayer vigil against social injustice at the United Church of Christ Congregational,” stated the mayor. “Last Saturday there was a peaceful march of about 30 protesters through downtown Vermilion. I have had literally dozens of calls for me to ‘close down the city’ to avoid the violence that these events might bring. I have not and I will not shut down the City of Vermilion.”
“Vermilion is a small town and is certainly large enough to accommodate First Amendment Rights no matter their view,” said Mayor Forthofer. “There’s no tolerance for violence and no tolerance for any attempt to suppress people exercising their First Amendment right. I lived through the 60’s and I know that a push for change often comes with push back. I have great faith in our police and fire department to plan for safe events.”
“COVID-19 is still with us,” stated the mayor. “Vermilion’s numbers are stable. Understandably, there are questions about how gatherings of more than 10 can be permitted for protests when parades and other gatherings in town are not permitted. This situation occurs in Vermilion, Amherst, Lorain, Sandusky, Avon, and Put in Bay. It is a balancing act for City Executives. We mayors meet to exchange thoughts and experiences on these issues. Ultimately, the Governor’s order states, ‘Ohio will keep its ban on mass gatherings of more than 10 people, other than existing exceptions of First Amendment expression like protests and places of worship.’ The Governor’s order guides my decisions. Plus, there is also the practical side of the balancing decision. It is common sense that a march of 30 people does not cause the same threat to public safety as the 30,000 that comes to town for one of Vermilion’s festivals, or 100,000 for another.”
“The Chiefs and I will continue to do our best to make the safest decisions for Vermilion residents,” said the mayor.
Steve Herron, President of Council, thanked the Mayor for his comments in capacity of Safety Director, and with respect to the question of festivals versus the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment is mandatory,” said Herron. “The laws are not negotiable when it comes to First Amendment Rights. The question on whether they have festivals he thinks is ultimately a health and safety issue and is within the purview of the administrative abilities of executive branches of government; being the Governor for the United States or the Mayor, so to him it’s a very legitimate question that people ask and he gets the same question as well. It doesn’t seem fair, but one of them is constitutionally driven and the other is not, so at the end of the day while it may comport with an outcome that one of them doesn’t like, it’s very critical that the First Amendment Rights of all citizens; even if the painful ones, are adhered to.”
Police Chief Hartung noted that, as the mayor touched on, this has been an interesting time with the protests and the issues of the protests.
“When we gather and when we know things are coming up, we’re cognizant about the nature of the events and what’s being protested, so we’re very understanding about protecting the people’s rights and we will support this,” said Chief Hartung. “What happened to George Floyd was inexcusable – any officer who saw that video hit their head as soon as they saw that – this was ridiculous! There is a lot of talk about change that nobody ever really addresses, ‘How do you do that change?’ In 2016, when I went to the White House and they had the introduction of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, there were six pillars that were incorporated into that. This lays a foundation and good policies and good training and paying attention when you’re hiring – accountability is number one. If you have an officer who is slamming somebody’s head into a car door, you must get rid of them. If you have somebody that is not doing their job, you’ve got to get rid of them. Accountability is the watch word. This is very much my responsibility, but that’s very much everybody’s responsibility in the room. You must know what your police department is doing; are they training them correctly, are they following these standards?”
“Unfortunately, they got into a situation these last couple of weeks where they are painting every agency with the same brush,” stated Hartung. “I couldn’t speak of policing in Minneapolis or Los Angeles – I couldn’t even imagine having 3,000 guys under me. There is no comparison to policing in Vermilion as everything is different. I don’t know what their standards are or how they train, so it’s important to take these things into consideration. However, accountability is also a community thing – make sure your cops are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and this is how they avoid tragedies. The irony is that the Vermilion Police Department had a bad period two years back and they got rid of a lot of officers and they made a lot of changes, and then when the Mayor was elected he had a meeting with the local paper, and one of the first things they said was, ‘What are you doing about that Chief? You got to get rid of that guy; everyone is getting fired and getting crazy’. So, the irony is taking these correct steps, so it’s a Catch 22.”
Hartung said he had an opportunity to speak with a lot of the young protestors and it was nice to see them.
“They were very passionate about their beliefs,” he said. “We had some interesting discussions about their views and I did a little research myself on Netflix of a documentary called “13” that discusses the 13th Amendment, and then the transformation from slavery to how the criminal justice system permitted labor use. It was interesting to learn about the things I didn’t know, so we have to take this opportunity to look at the other side of the coin.”
Hartung said he asked one young lady what orange juice has to do with how the courts interpret an officer’s use of force. She couldn’t answer this question, so he told her this was her homework assignment because as much as he needs to know what they’re thinking, they need to know how they do it and why force is used, and what conditions they can use force. They must take the time to educate themselves on both sides.
He thanked the Fire Department as it got a little intense.
“They weren’t sure who was going to show up as they were watching the news,” said Hartung. “Sandusky got 1,000 protestors and things got a little crazy over there for them. Fremont had 500 and Avon had 400; maybe a little closer to a 1,000, so they weren’t sure what was going on.”
He gave the Mayor a kudos for everything that has been thrown at him – the COVID, and everything else, and for him being put in the position as the Safety Director for the City and dealing with the magnitude of issues they have had this year. Considering everything, Chief Hartung jokingly asked that Council pass a Resolution making tomorrow January 1, 2021. The City Council chuckled.
Mayor Forthofer addressed the proposals around the county of disbanding police forces.
“Aside from the fact that it is wildly impractical, I want to bring attention to the fact that if a police department was disbanded you could only hope to replace it with one that resembles our Vermilion PD,” said the mayor. “Council has the 2019 VPD report. In it you will see that there was not one incident in 2019 of the deployment of either lethal or non-lethal weapons by VPD. Not even pepper spray. And let us not kid ourselves that the criminal population has suddenly become better behaved. Also, under Chief Hartung, we have witnessed his zero-tolerance policy toward any unprofessional behavior to the point of dismissing or even prosecuting offending officers. One former officer was prosecuted to the point of imprisonment. We should all be proud of our VPD, Chief Hartung’s leadership and their 21st Century Policing Practices.”