Bethesda’s Police Chief Is on the Hot Seat

BETHESDA — The mood was tense again Thursday as village council members and residents discussed concerns about the Bethesda Police Department, with one resident even going as far as to announce a petition drive to remove three council members from office.

A large crowd of more than 100 people gathered in the municipal building for the second time in two months. At the February council meeting, several residents expressed concerns about Police Chief Eric Smith’s job performance.

On Thursday, public comment on the matter continued, with some speculating about whether Smith’s residence — miles away in Bridgeport — and his employment with other area departments might be interfering with his ability to lead in Bethesda.

Village Solicitor T.J. Schultz said Ohio law addresses residency requirements for municipal police chiefs, but he was not able to provide details of that statute Thursday evening or say if an ordinance exempting the chief is in existence.

A former village police officer, Jack Sall, also alleged that evidence was stored improperly under Smith’s leadership, leading to an altercation with Village Administrator Dirk Davis.

Mayor Martin Lucas is now considering all of the concerns aired during the past two meetings and whether he should file an official complaint against Smith as a result.

“The reason I have not leveled any charges against the chief is that these issues are of very serious nature, and they need to be treated as such. They need to be looked through and reviewed meticulously. That way, there’s absolutely no mistakes made, and that this is carried out properly by the Ohio Revised Code — by the law,” Lucas said.

If the mayor does decide to take official action, Smith will have the opportunity for a hearing before council makes a decision on whether to continue his employment.

Due to the serious nature of the matter, council plans to schedule a work session to consider beginning to meet twice a month, rather than only on the fourth Thursday of the month, in order to address this and other village matters in a more timely fashion.

A couple of attendees Thursday spoke in favor of Smith, citing the fight against crime and serious illicit drugs in the village. Several other residents spoke in support of the police department as a whole.

Tempers ran high toward the end of the meeting, extending to the council members and mayor as they in turn brought up and explained past decisions.

Local businessman Joel Braido also announced that he plans to launch a petition drive to remove three council members from office. Braido hopes residents will support removal of Carol Merritt, Paul Fitch and Brian Bee, who many residents said have supported Smith throughout the controversy surrounding his role with the department.

Braido also spearheaded the movement in February to remove Smith from office. During last month’s meeting, Braido said that while he supports the local police department and the village, he has problems with Smith’s work.

“This is in no way an assault on law enforcement. It’s just the opposite. I believe we are all grateful for responsible law enforcement. However, the manner in which Chief Eric Smith chooses to enforce the law is putting all law enforcement officers in jeopardy,” Braido said.

Braido also critiqued some village council members, saying they empowered and endorsed what he called Smith’s inappropriate behavior by ignoring it.

“Chief Smith has created a hostile work environment at the city building,” Braido said. He said Smith has demonstrated flares of temper, insubordination and open disrespect to Mayor Martin Lucas, along with belligerent, disruptive behavior. Braido also said the fines Smith sets are too high.

Braido at that time added that according to Belmont County Sheriff David Lucas, Smith has been suspended from participation in the Major Crimes Unit of the county. Afterward, Sheriff Lucas said he was informed the suspension occurred in late January.

Former Belmont County Sheriff Fred Thompson said he had filed a Freedom of Information Act request addressing issues, including the use of village equipment outside the village, the policy regarding high-speed pursuits, and policies and procedures of employees on social media. During Thursday’s meeting, Thompson was highly critical of Smith’s demeanor and behavior, adding that Smith may be in violation of state statutes due to his residence outside Bethesda and some work he is doing in other villages. Davis said he would look more closely into these matters.

On the advice of his attorney, Smith chose not to speak at the meeting.

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