Kovalyk: We Will Go Day By Day

BELLAIRE – Following Tuesday’s accident in which two Bellaire police officers and two vehicles were taken out of commission, it’s understandable that Chief Mike Kovalyk is frustrated.

An already depleted department is now reduced to three vehicles and five full-time officers to patrol the village. However, Kovalyk isn’t backing down just yet.

“We’re looking, trying to make plans, going day-by-day,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”

The accident, which happened on Ohio 7 off the 48th Street exit in the village just after 10 p.m. Tuesday, occurred after officers with the department responded to a fight on Franklin Street. While transporting two individuals – Autumn Preston and Christopher Bennett – to the hospital and jail, respectively, they became combative toward officer Mike Wheeler and Lt. John Watson. Preston was tased, while Bennett allegedly spit on Watson and made death threats toward Watson and his family. Watson abruptly stopped the vehicle, causing Wheeler to rear-end Watson’s vehicle.

Kovalyk said Watson was released from the hospital Thursday. He is using crutches and is expected to be out of action for up to six weeks. Wheeler suffered only minor injuries and isn’t expected to miss extended time.

“He was banged around, so I’m sure he’s sore, but he’s able to return to work and not miss any time that I know of,” Kovalyk said.

The department was already missing two officers before the accident, Kovalyk said, adding that scheduling is the biggest issue for now. After responding to a report of shots fire in the village last month, Kovalyk said he had not had a day off in several weeks and is often the only law enforcement official on duty. Additionally, officers have not received a raise in nine years.

Last week, Bellaire Village Council voted to hire part-time officers at a $12-per-hour rate of pay in an effort to alleviate some of those issues. While that doesn’t solve the bigger problem, Kovalyk said he will utilize those officers when they are available.

Adding insult to injury, one of the department’s three remaining cruisers required work Thursday, leaving the department with just two. Kovalyk said that cruiser should be back in use this morning. In the meantime, neighboring departments have offered cruisers for Kovalyk’s staff to use on a temporary basis.

“Other law enforcement agencies in the county have been very cooperative,” he said.

One of the cruisers totaled Tuesday was the oldest in the department’s fleet, and Kovalyk said he did not expect to receive a large monetary settlement from the department’s insurance company for that vehicle. However, the second cruiser was relatively new and should be fully replaced, and another used vehicle will likely will be purchased. Kovalyk, though, said time will be the deciding factor in getting the fleet back up to par.

“The thing now is retrieving the radio and equipment from those cruisers and transferring it to the other vehicles,” he said. “But it all depends on the State Patrol investigation. We can’t remove that equipment from the wrecked cruisers until that’s done.”

The investigation could take several weeks, according to officials with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. As for Bennett and Preston, Kovalyk said the initial fight was over a drug transaction that went wrong. He said his department is familiar with Bennett, 28, who is being held in Belmont County Jail on $20,000 bond for failure to appear. Preston is still being sought by authorities.