Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger and Ohio Valley Black Caucus President Delores Wiggins accomplished some good Wednesday when they met to discuss relations between the law enforcement community and the local minority population. Within hours, some of the trust and good will had been erased.
Several days before that, accusations of racially motivated harassment were made against police during a Black Caucus meeting. Schwertfeger and Wiggins met to discuss them. The chief said the meeting was "productive" and "cordial."
While insisting his officers have not used racial slurs and that he has no evidence of corruption in the department, Schwertfeger admitted there may be "cultural differences" between some police officers and some Wheeling residents. He pledged to work hard to improve the situation.
Among those complaining about police officers last week was Bonnie Grewe. On Monday, she turned herself in at the police department, after hearing a warrant for her arrest had been issued. Grewe was accused of stealing a wallet from a store on Chapline Street.
But on Thursday, the charge against Grewe was dismissed. Schwertfeger said his officers arrested the wrong woman.
The initial mistaken identification was made through videotape from a store surveillance camera. Apparently, Grewe and the suspect eventually arrested in the case bear some resemblance.
Schwertfeger understands just how bad the error made his department look. "I'm sure there are some folks who will believe (Grewe's arrest) is some sort of retaliation," he told our reporter. "I am not one of those people," he added. "I think this is a case of mistaken identity."
There is every reason to believe the error was just that. But given the timing - an arrest warrant issued not long after Grewe complained about the police - mistrust of the department will grow among Wheeling residents who already had concerns. That is inevitable.
"I'm certainly not happy about this. I'm the chief and I'll take responsibility for the mistake," Schwertfeger emphasized.
Of course, those in his department involved directly in the error bear most responsibility. But now the chief must repair the public relations damage.
Schwertfeger already had pledged to work with his department to address "cultural differences." The mistaken arrest of Grewe means his task will be more difficult.
Unfortunately, it appears whatever he had in mind previously will have to be augmented. Perhaps he and Wiggins can work together to undo some of the damage.