LORAIN - For two years the video of Pele Smith’s head shattering the windshield of a Lorain police cruiser sat untouched.
Lorain police brass long ago signed off on Patrolman Zach Ferenec’s use of force, saying the officer was only trying to restrain Smith when he forced Smith onto the cruiser.
But the dash-cam video – which provides an extreme close-up of Smith’s head cracking the glass after he was slammed into the windshield – is dormant no more.
It’s been viewed a million or more times on social and traditional media outlets. And now, Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera has asked Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will to review the video to determine if criminal charges should be brought against the officer.
Saturday’s announcement places Rivera and his department in a familiar spot: fending off accusations that Lorain officers are too aggressive and they needlessly allow minor infractions to escalate into violence.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice finished a four-year review of Lorain police conduct. The report noted Lorain’s history of “problems regarding the use of force” but found improvements had been made under Rivera’s watch.
“We hope that the need for additional investigation does not arise,” the DOJ report cautioned.
Once again, however, Lorain police find themselves in the national spotlight. The glare comes at a time when law enforcement throughout the country are under heavy scrutiny for police shootings, particularly against blacks.
“It’s painful to know that our name could even be associated with some of these incidents that have been happening nationally,” Rivera said during a hastily-called press conference Saturday attended by local clergy leaders.
“It’s not consistent with the transition that we have been quietly making for many years. It’s not who we are.”
Rev. Timothy Williams of the Greater Victory Christian Ministries attended the press conference with Rivera and other community leaders. They all urged the community to remain calm and await the prosecutors’ ruling.
Williams, who has known the Smith family since they moved to Lorain from Alabama years ago, said he and the others were shown the video prior to the press conference.
“I don’t speak for all of us, but I would say that none of us saw that video without angst,” he said. “It was compelling. It was challenging and we’re questioning how things like this can occur.
In September 2014, Smith, 32, was crossing the street near his family’s 34th Street home when he was stopped for jaywalking and suspicion of carrying drugs. Police said Smith has a long history on drug offenses. Rivera called him a “violent drug trafficker.”
After Smith was handcuffed from behind, Ferenec was walking him to his cruiser. Suddenly, Smith is seen in the dash cam video being slammed on top of the cruiser. Smith suffered injuries to his chin.
Ferenec noted his use of force in a report and said Smith was resisting as they walked. Ferenec’s actions were approved by two supervisors.
In August. Smith filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. He is seeking unspecified damages. After the lawsuit was filed, WKYC Channel 3 News requested the video from Will’s office under the state’s public records laws.
Will’s office had the video as part of its case file against Smith, who eventually pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, resisting arrest and obstructing official business. Smith was given probation.
Mark Petroff, Smith’s attorney, said he believes a special prosecutor should be assigned to the review.
“I’d like to think that the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office would do a complete and thorough review, but the thing that concerns me is that the video has been in their possession for two years now and nothing’s occurred,” Petroff said.