Bethesda gets a new police chief
BETHESDA — Following years of fierce debate over law enforcement, the village welcomed Chris Storm as its new police chief this week.
The future of the police force has been a source of conflict between village leaders and residents since 2018 and earlier, with the lengthy suspension and eventual resignation of Eric Smith as chief and the council deadlocked in whether to promote Pete Busack from patrolman and acting chief to the position.
Both situations involved personality conflicts with village leaders and allegations from members of the public of overreach and improper behavior, as well as assertions from other residents who defended each man and said those residents who spoke against them were spreading misinformation and half-truths.
Storm was sworn in Wednesday at a village council meeting. He will serve a six-month probationary period. He is currently the sole officer but may have other auxiliary part-time officers in a month.
Village solicitor Michael Shaheen said Busack was terminated during a special meeting in February as the village patrolman. Since February, the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department has provided law enforcement for Bethesda. There had been some consideration in 2019 of contracting with Sheriff David Lucas to police the village, but residents and council remain in favor of maintaining a local department.
“The one common thread is everybody, administration, council, village residents, everybody agrees they want their own police department,” Shaheen said. “The mayor and council are tasked with that duty.”
Mayor Samantha Burkhead recommended Storm and council voted five-to-one to approve Storm to the position, with Councilwoman Jordan Castello opposed.
Shaheen said Storm will receive $16 per hour, 32 hours weekly.
Many residents have expressed frustration with the situation, with outbursts and hostility in multiple council meetings. Shaheen said this was true of Wednesday’s meeting as well.
“During the meeting I was not at all upset that people were expressing concern about what’s happened to date, because they want to feel safe and that’s fair. I don’t particularly like people using this as an opportunity just to attack mayor, council and everybody involved,” Shaheen said. “I happen to know mayor and council were diligently trying to fill this position.”
“The best we can hope for is everybody cooperates, give this chief a chance, and we’re on the right path,” Shaheen said, adding some of the conflict continued during the search for a new chief.
“We know one or maybe two people who expressed interest and were good candidates, and were contacted by a third party and kind of discouraged,” he said. He declined to comment on who might be responsible. “I know for a fact that one very good candidate was contacted within a day of expressing interest, which resulted in him not proceeding, which was terribly disturbing, as he was provided with information that was false. … It happened at least once. It may have happened a second time.”
Burkhead said Storm impressed her as knowledgeable and qualified to operate a police department
“I’m very hopeful. He seems to really want to be involved in the community,” she said, adding that Bethesda cannot afford a full-time officer and lack of funding of the police force continues to be an issue, but fundraising may allow for the hiring of more part-time officers to provide additional coverage for Bethesda. Burkhead said there are no plans to put another police levy before the residents until the village can demonstrate a stable police department.
“I am really hopeful that everybody gets along and it works out with everybody,” Burkhead said. “We will work with everybody and work for what’s best for the town, and that’s the important thing.”
Storm also works as an officer with the Village of Belmont.
“I’ve been with Belmont for a year and I’m somewhat familiar with the county, as I worked Jamboree In The Hills for three or four years,” he said. He was involved in starting a Shop With A Cop program and will be looking into similar programs around Bethesda.
Storm was a member of the Military Police and served in both Gulf Wars and 25 years in the Army Reserve. He began work in law enforcement in 1997. He worked as an officer in Crooksville, Ohio for 19 years and an overlapping five years in East Cleveland
“They needed a chief. I like challenges. I like the people in the area. I like the county,” he said.
“I’m heavy on community policing and getting to know people. I like to set up programs with the young kids to keep them out of trouble,” Storm said.
He also hopes to introduce a drug counseling program, adding he has contacts with counselors and ministers.
“It won’t be just for us. We’ll invite anybody from the neighboring communities,” he said.
Other possibilities include reaching out to Goshen Township about the possibility of expanding coverage to that and other communities as Bethesda police had in prior years. He said mutual aid is important.
“The only way for small communities to survive with small police departments is if they can cooperate with the neighboring towns and work together.”
To raise more money for the department, Storm said some of the larger village fundraisers such as the yearly gun bash to benefit the park and fire department might be expanded to include the police department.
Storm also looks forward to gaining the trust of the community.
“I want to sit down with people in the community and find out what they need, what they’ve been lacking and see if I can fill those spots,” he said. “We’re going to get a list of family members and relatives that need checked on, so when we do our patrols periodically we can go and check on the people, especially those who don’t have a lot of relatives in the area.”
“I think there’s a lot of potential for there to be some positive changes. I don’t know what really happened in the past and I’m not concerned about it. I’m just concerned about the future going forward.”
Storm is an Akron resident who is planning to move closer to Bethesda.