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Dayton residents rally at City Hall in support of paraplegic man and stronger police reform

Dayton activists, residents and community leaders gathered on the steps of Dayton City Hall.
Alejandro Figueroa
Dayton activists, residents and community leaders gathered on the steps of Dayton City Hall.

Dozens of community members chanted “I am paraplegic” 16 times on the steps of Dayton City Hall Wednesday morning. Their goal was to chant loud enough for city leaders to hear them during the city commission meeting inside.

“[This] takes us back to when we were talking about George Floyd,” demonstrator Ari Divine said. “How many times do I have to tell you that I cannot comply because you are harming me? You are killing me.”

Although it was 8:30 in the morning, more than 30 demonstrators turned out in support of Clifford Owensby, a paraplegic Black man who was forcibly dragged out of his car by his hair during a traffic stop by Dayton Police officers.

There were impassioned speeches, prayer and protest chants. Community members demanded a total reimagining of the police system.

“They're saying that they're upholding the law, they’re serving [us] justice,” Divine said. “But I think they're actually serving us injustice, and we have to do the work to redefine that.”

The case

On September 30, Owensby was pulled over by Dayton Police officers after leaving what police say is a suspected drug house.In body cam footage released by the department, Owensby requests a supervisor after repeatedly telling officers that he is unable to get out of the car. An officer responds by saying that he could either cooperate or get dragged out.

Owensby was then forcibly removed and handcuffed on the ground. He’s been cited with driving with tinted windows and failure to properly restrain a child in his car’s back seat. Owensby has hired an attorney.

During the rally, his mom, Caroline Smith, expressed outrage at her son’s treatment. A mother of nine children, Smith says she has watched her boys get brutalized by police over and over again.

“I know the names of those officers, but I'm not going to say them right now,” Smith said. “Yes, I'm angry. I'm upset. Not just for my son, but for every Black man, every Black woman. This racism needs to stop.”

Several community members, leaders and activists demanded change inside city hall during the public comment period of the city commission meeting. They presented a list of four demands, which included suspending the police officers involved while an investigation is underway and for the city to apologize to Owensby.

“I'm appalled and upset at the deplorable actions of the Dayton Police Department, the way they treated Mr. Owens, they disrespected him,” Bishop Richard Cox, one of the speakers, said. “We want you to apologize.”

While Dayton City Mayor Nan Whaley was responding to public comments, Owensby — who was sitting near the front of the room in his wheelchair — interrupted the Mayor and voiced frustration about the city's lack of action on the incident.

“Should’ve put out the truth,” Owensby said. “Everybody deserves to see the rest of that video and the rest that happened in the back of that cruiser… I’m out of here... they won’t listen to me.”

After briefly talking, Owensby left the commission meeting.

Alejandro Figueroa
Tommy Owens Jr., a Dayton resident, speaking in support of Clifford Owensby who can be seen in the background sitting on his wheelchair.

A year and a half later

In response to the public comments, Whaley said the city is still committed to police reform.

“We know there is more work to do,” Whaley said. “We're still working forward on really tough issues that did not happen overnight and certainly aren't going to be solved even in 18 months.”

Several residents, like Omega Baptist Church Pastor Josh Woodward, expressed frustration with the city for dragging their feet on police reform efforts. Woodward was a member of the police reform working groups that were formed last summer in response to George Floyd’s murder.

“We want to hold our city to that assurance that they shared with us, that Dayton would not be a city where people are treated differently or treated unfairly or unjustly by the police,” Woodward said. “We're here to ensure that that truly never takes place here. And when it does, it's our job to speak up and say, let's do what we promised we were going to do.”

A year and a half after forming five police reform working groups, the city has implemented just 34 out of the 142 policy recommendations submitted by the groups, according to the city’s implementation tracker.

Decisions on three Use of Force recommendations have been delayed since April. Per the working groups’ charter, the commission has 30 days to respond to the group with one of three options: accept, reject, or ask the group for further information about the recommendation.

“Six months does not demonstrate the commitment that you have made,” Melissa Bertolo, a west Dayton resident said. “It certainly does not demonstrate the urgency or recognize the police brutality and excessive use of force that is continuing. It will continue until you take action.”

These recommendations outline a more specific definition of “force,” to include sections on preserving the sanctity of human life, public cooperation and specific de-escalation tactics. Working group member Julio Mateo says these recommendations are relevant to Owensby’s case.

“Adopting the proposed use of force policy changes in a timely manner would have prevented the treatment to which Mr. Owensby was subjected,” Mateo said. “Adopting it today would still prevent other cases like this from happening in the future.”

Demonstrators say they are planning a march to the police department building soon.

Mawa Iqbal is a reporter for WYSO. Before coming to WYSO, she interned at Kansas City PBS's digital magazine, Flatland. There, her reporting focused on higher education and immigrant communities in the Kansas City area. She studied radio journalism at Mizzou, where she also worked for their local NPR-affiliate station as a reporter.
Alejandro Figueroa covers food insecurity and the business of food for WYSO through Report for America — a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Alejandro particularly covers the lack of access to healthy and affordable food in Southwest Ohio communities, and what local government and nonprofits are doing to address it. He also covers rural and urban farming

Email: afigueroa@wyso.org
Phone: 937-917-5943