During a Tuesday City Commission meeting, Owensboro Police Department Chief Art Ealum took some time to summarize the 2020 OPD Annual Report, which includes statistics from the previous fiscal year related to violent crimes, property crimes and police-related activity.
Ealum addressed some concerns regarding the seemingly high number of “use of force” stats from 2020, telling commissioners the category had been mischaracterized as excessive use of force, and that his officers were trained to use forceful techniques to apprehend individuals for a number of reasons.
“If somebody takes off running from an officer, and the officer is trying to catch them and enforce some type of legitimate police action — if that officer pushes them down to the ground, the Owensboro Police Department completes a use of force report,” Ealum said. “Some agencies don’t classify that as use of force, but we do.”
Ealum said it was OPD’s policy to report an instance of force used by a police officer to gain control of a situation.
Because OPD requires officers to complete those reports, OPD’s statistics pertaining to use of force seemed higher than those of other law enforcement agencies. According to Ealum, many other agencies didn’t keep track of their officers’ uses of force.
Ealum also said the force used by OPD officers had been taught and was not excessive.
“It could be something as simple as a shove to a wall, or it could be a strike when somebody’s being combative,” he said. “We’ve had a number of officers injured over the years. We deal with the public … if they don’t want police action taken against them, they’re going to fight.”
While some suspects run out of fear, Ealum said, many of them run because they have drugs on them, while others have warrants out for their arrest.
“There’s nothing to fear,” he continued. “If you surrender — if you have warrants on you — all we’re going to do is put handcuffs on you and take you to jail. But to fight a police officer and to expect nothing to happen, it just doesn’t happen that way. Our job is to enforce laws and warrants, so we don’t have a choice in the matter when it comes to serving warrants.”
According to the data compiled by OPD, 2020 saw use of force used against caucasians at 68.75%, while force was used against African-Americans 28.9% of the time. That percentage, Ealum said, was higher than the demographics represented, as less than 28.9% of Owensboro’s population was made up of African Americans.
“You have to look at the actions that were taken against officers to avoid apprehension,” Ealum said. “It doesn’t come down to officers targeting anyone by race. It simply comes down to this — if you run, we’re going to chase you. That’s our job if we have a reason to be there.”
Ealum said he couldn’t help the number being that high, saying the issue went “much deeper” than the police.
“I can say, ‘We’re not going to do anything but arrest you,’ and there’s people saying, ‘No, you’re not. I’m not doing it,’” he said.
The numbers reported by OPD showed force being used on a high number of women too. According to Ealum, force was used on 16.4% of women in 2020.
“That could be because [the subjects are] high on drugs, and we deal with a lot of mental illness in this community,” he said. “People have it in their minds that they’re not going to jail, and a lot of them will tell you. We don’t have a choice. Once we’re there for a legitimate purpose, we have to take action.”
Of the 46,000 OPD-related contacts made across the community in 2020, including 38,000-plus calls for service, only 11 external complaints were made against OPD officers.
“Once they bring it to our attention, you can’t unring that bell,” Ealum said. “We have a duty to look into it, whether we’ve got a formal complaint or not.”
Sustained complaints made against officers totaled 18 for the year. Of those, 10 were exonerated, three were determined non-sustained, and one was unfounded, Ealum said.
“I would say we go well above and beyond to address issues within our organization,” he said. “When you have the authority to take someone’s freedom away, we have to do our absolute best to make the people we put on the street are best-suited for this community. Anything contrary to that is just an injustice for the members of this community.”
Commissioners responded positively to Ealum’s presentation and commended him for his leadership as chief of police.
Commissioner Jeff Sanford said he wished positive police work was covered more frequently in the news, while Mayor Tom Watson expressed his support for the OPD.
“There are bad folks in every position. That’s the way life is, and we can’t figure it out,” Watson said. “We’ll support you as far as we can go to make sure our community is given the policing it deserves and is given now.”