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Tensions run high in Put-In-Bay

Wire • Jul 28, 2014 at 11:56 PM

 One night this month while his guests looked on perplexedly, Harriet's House guest house owner and retired Port Clinton Schools superintendent Dennis Rectenwald found himself in handcuffs -- over a traffic violation.

Rectenwald reported pulling into his driveway after the Put-in-Bay police followed him after he ran a stop sign. When he walked toward the officers to prove he was not intoxicated, he said he was asked to put up his hands and was handcuffed. An officer, explaining himself, said Rectenwald, 68, had "charged him."

The incident and others like it have drawn the ire of residents and business owners over alleged inappropriate behavior by the island's largely inexperienced police force, about a quarter of whom are in their first year of service.

Their behavior has left the island in a "state of chaos," Put-in-Bay Resort owner Mark Mathys said.

More than 20,000 visitors are expected to flood the island during this weekend's "Christmas in July," the island's largest event of the year. Countering excitement about the three-day bacchanal, however, is a sense of worry by business owners who have reported tense interactions with the island's police force.

In preparation for large events like Christmas in July, it is common practice for island businesses to hire outside security, said Ed Fitzgerald, owner of Mr. Ed's Bar and Grille.

Although Fitzgerald praised the department for its responsiveness, he said he planned to address other complaints Thursday at a public safety forum.

Put-in-Bay Resort's negative experience with the department has provided even more reason to look elsewhere for help, said Amber Sommers, the resort's sales director.

"We hesitate to call (the Put-in-Bay police)," she said. "We can't depend on them to do their jobs appropriately."

Tensions are running particularly high at the resort, where three employees were arrested in September.

"Everybody is on edge," Sommers said. "You don't know if you'll be the one to get arrested next."

The Put-in-Bay Resort workers were charged with obstruction of justice. Employees say they were arrested when they refused to speak with police officers out of sight of the resort's security cameras. Put-in-Bay police refused to comment.

"This police department is not as sophisticated as Cleveland's, Detroit's, or Toledo's," Mayor Margaret Scarpelli said. "It's just not."

Put-in-Bay councilman Jeff Koehler said the island has a difficult time recruiting experienced police officers, in part because the seasonal job's average length, about five to seven months, tends to deter potential applicants looking for a permanent position, he said. Also, the average officer salary is little more than the minimum wage of about $8 an hour.

Police chief Ric Lampela said the Put-in-Bay police department is historically composed of officers in their first year of service, fresh out of training academies.

"It's not the first time I've heard this summer about people being handcuffed over traffic stops," Koehler said. "There are some questionable things, and people deserve a response."

"You get more experience here in a couple of weeks than in years from other departments," said Chief Lampela, who added that the island provides a unique training ground for his officers, many of whom are able to secure full-time jobs elsewhere following their term on the island.

In response to the allegations of wrongdoing in Rectenwald's case, he said, "I don't think it was excessive for them to place someone that they did not know under arrest," he said. "Putting someone in handcuffs temporarily -- I don't find that incredibly unusual."

However, Rectenwald disputes that claim.

"I'm lucky that I can walk at my age, let alone run," the 68-year-old said, in response to the claim that he charged an officer. "I don't care about the ticket, I care about being handcuffed and embarrassed. (This) is totally inexcusable."

Put-in-Bay officers arrive at the start of May, take a week of training, then shadow experienced officers before beginning their official duties.

Jennifer Gersten, The Blade, Toledo (MCT)

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