Police chief shares handling of past Norwalk strike situations

Cary Ashby • Aug 24, 2014 at 6:07 PM

"Train, train, train."

That's the name of the game for the Norwalk Police Department when it comes to officers responding to and handling complaints and community unrest.

"You have to train, train, train. That's what we do here all the time," Chief Dave Light said.

The chief emphasized you can't give an officer special response team equipment, such as riot gear, and send him or her into a volatile situation without the proper training.

"You're facing bigger problems and lawsuits," Light said.

Norwalk's SRT includes seven officers, a hostage negotiator and two paramedics. Two of the officers are trained sharp shooters.

"They've been to about every sniper school we find," Light said.

Each of the SRT members are part of the Ohio Tactical Officers Association.

Light, when sharing his thoughts with the Reflector on the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., was asked if he had any experience with racial tension in Norwalk. (See the sidebar for the chief's comments.)

"I can't think of any. In the 30 years I've been here (in the department), I can't remember any," he said. "I can't even think of the last time we have investigated a racially-motivated incident."

Light said one of the advantages Norwalk officers have in dealing with the public is they know the local citizens and often have mutual friends, have worked together, coach their children or are members of the same organization or sports team. The chief said ultimately that means police can reason with people and situations don't get out of hand.

"Norwalk is full of a lot of good people," Light added.

Unlike the recent riots and demonstrations in Ferguson, Light said most of the incidents of civil unrest in Norwalk have been related to labor strikes. The chief shared his memories of some of those incidents.

In the late 1990s when there was a Janesville strike. Mike Ruggles was the chief at the time.

"We were notified by the management that things might get out of control," Light said.

Eight SRT members responded. Police estimate several hundred people were involved in the demonstration, with 70 or 80 residents at each site. Light said an officer videotaped what happened from the top of the SRT van so police would have evidence of the circumstances.

Capt. Mike Conney, who leads the SRT, said police probably wouldn't have had to be involved if some of the demonstrators hadn't formed a human chain to keep trucks from leaving the Janesville facility.

"We had people around the clock for a few days," Light said, noting there eventually was one officer overseeing the situation per shift. "That pretty much calmed things down."

About the late 1980s or early 1990s, police responded to a contract strike at Norwalk Furniture.

"I worked there for 10 years. My dad worked there for 36 years. He was management; I was in the factory," said Light, who again pointed out that experience helped police handle the situation.

Light and Conney said the only memorable experience during the Norwalk Furniture strike was someone threw something at a manager's vehicle, but there was no damage.

"You're just there to keep the peace," Light said.

About 1988, truck parts manufacturer Sheller-Globe Corp. brought in non-union workers who crossed the picket line during a strike. Sheller-Globe was at the Garfield Street facility which later housed Mayflower and Commercial Vehicle Group.

"That was the most tense of everything," Light said.

The chief said Sheller-Globe hired Knuckles Security to protect the "scab workers" and the Knuckles guards were large, intimidating men who just came from a similar situation in Kentucky coal mines. He recalled the security guards drove trucks with bullet holes caused by the mine workers who shot at the vehicles.

"They were dealing with a lot of workers. They did more to antagonize (things) than help," Light said.

"That got pretty heated. That went on for several days," he added. "We didn't have (the) SRT at the time. Every officer had a riot helmet and shield."

Light and Conney laughed about one situation when the Sheller-Globe union workers surged on the street as a manager drove down Garfield Street. Light said the demonstrators surrounded the vehicle, pushed officers and the Knuckles guards and then by the time the crowd stepped away from the car, all the tires were flat.

"You couldn't even see who did it," he added.

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