County seeks reassurance of non-violent protests

Many wonder if recent violence in other areas of the country associated with protests might spill into Columbus or the county.

Bartholomew County Commissioners Chairman Carl Lienhoop says he met recently with Sheriff Matt Myers and Chief Deputy Sheriff Maj. Chris Lane about taking steps to ensure that local rallies and demonstrations don’t get out of control.

The most recent protest occurred in early September, when about two dozen demonstrators gathered at the Bartholomew County Courthouse holding signs demanding justice for bicyclist Kyla Ortlieb, as the defendant charged in her hit-and-run death was pleading guilty in the case.

But instead of anger and violence, several demonstrators spent time chatting with the Columbus Police officer assigned to keep an eye on the situation. The setting looked more like a friendly neighborhood get-together.

Nevertheless, the Bartholomew County commissioners say they want to minimize the odds that violence or destruction might erupt during local protests or demonstrations.

One group that has either hosted or participated in local rallies and demonstrations is Bartholomew County Indivisible, which describes itself as a non-partisan political organization promoting socially responsible and progressive policies.

BCI spokeswoman Jenny Heichelbech recalls things got tense when a conservative group infiltrated a local observance of an international event called World Hijab Day in February 2017. As local women of the Islam faith attempted to clear up misconceptions about their fashions and faith, members of a conservative group were outside handing out inflammatory literature, Heichelbech said.

There were exchanges of words between the conservative group and those enjoying what Heichelbech said was designed to be a “feel-good event,” she said.

“But through it all, the officers remained very respectful,” Heichelbech said. “I felt much better that we had a police presence at that event.”

Over the past four years, local law enforcement has always been cooperative, respectful and professional at all events BCI has been involved in, she said.

“But at the same time, we haven’t given officers any reason to use force against us,” Heichelbech said.

Lane assured the commissioners that his department has put out daily training notices and issued regular reminders that deputies need to keep the public safe from what Lane calls “any potential problems that might be instigated.”

Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz, told Lane it’s not only important to remind officers to ensure their own safety, but to also keep out of all confrontational situations if possible. Taking steps to deescalate a potentially dangerous situation is something that everyone should be encouraged to do under the current tense circumstances, the commissioner said.

“It’s just a bad situation right now,” Kleinhenz said.

While Lane describes the county as an “ever-changing environment,” Myers is working with his staff to issue training briefs, as well as doing everything possible to make sure deputies adhere to all departmental policies, Lane said.

Both deputies and Columbus Police officers receive well above the state-mandated number of hours of training in working with the public, Lane said.

“I think we receive somewhere between 120 and 130 hours of training annually, and it has been that way for at least the past four to five years,” Lane said.

Much of that training emphasizes the importance of communicating with the public and building positive relationships, Lane said.

Myers had earlier said that treating people with respect, as well as becoming more connected with local residents, are invaluable in receiving the public cooperation required to fight crime.

Establishing positive relationships with local citizens is something the Columbus Police has been striving to accomplish for several years, CPD spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said.

Columbus Police recruiting new officers not only for their qualifications, but also whether they are a good fit for the community, Harris said. That includes choosing officers who enjoy serving residents — from helping to change a flat tire to finding help for those in distress, Harris said.

“These things carry over into our other calls,” Harris said. “Our officers know how to talk with people.”

Columbus Police completed a three-year accreditation process that certified officers are following nationally-established professional standards, Harris said.

The three-year process required to become accepted by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies enhances a law enforcement department’s ability to prevent and control crime, improve community understanding of law enforcement and increasing public confidence in local law enforcement, according to both current and past police administrators.