VERMILION — On Tuesday, the police in this small town were going about their business, posting on the department’s Facebook page about icy morning roads.
“Be careful and slow down” is a typical message.
Over the weekend the site posted pictures of a stray dog that residents and officers had been trying to rescue from the cold, asking for people to keep an eye out for him. Another post, complete with photos, listed a goose that was spotted sitting in the road in front of the town library. The cops managed to catch the frightened pup, but the goose got away.
But all that changed Tuesday morning, when the tenor of the citizen responses grew taxing, even for a department that will spend time searching for a lost goose.
Messages starting seeping in by way of email and social media sites. Suddenly, the small department was on the receiving end of hatred from — well, all over.
“So is everyone in your district crooked cops or just you guys,” emailed Julia. The department’s autoresponse kicked in, replying to Julia that no one was currently available at the moment, but they would be back shortly and listed a number to call if she couldn’t wait.
It seems Julia was angered by this, too.
“I don’t need fake police,” her response began, and from the content of her message it was clear she was voicing her displeasure at the Vermilion police for arresting a schoolteacher the night before.
The teacher addressed the school board during a public forum and questioned the superintendent’s pay raise. She was removed from the meeting, forcibly handcuffed and booked into jail.
But here’s the catch: The event took place in Vermilion Parish, La., 1,189 miles from the Lake Erie Vermilion that straddles Lorain and Erie counties.
“Hi Julia, I bet you have some issues with the Vermilion Parish police in Louisiana,” the department replied.
She thanked them for the correction with a laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji. But that really was just the warmup act for the avalanche that was to come. Hate, disgust, destroyers of freedom of speech — all of it swelled up and overran the internet feeds of police Chief Chris Hartung.
A particularly stinging one came from “out-of-the-country-Al” who wanted him to know that watching his department arrest a teacher for questioning a pay raise was symptomatic of everything wrong “with police in America.”
“You guys should be a shamed of yourselves,” Hartung read. “‘A. Shamed. Two words.”
“I said, ‘That’s not us. You’ve got the wrong state,’” Hartung said, and suddenly the venom collapsed. “Oh, sorry about that,” Al said.
The group Copwatch, which lists complaints against police officers and often videos police making arrests to post online, put the department on notice.
“They posted a warning: ‘We’ve got boots on the ground, and we’re watching your agency,’ ” Hartung said.
“Not us.” The warning vanished.
“And then there’s my personal favorite,” Hartung said, an expletive-filled rant left as a comment under an ice advisory on the department’s Facebook page Wednesday afternoon. His only response: “Wrong Vermilion.”
By then other comment writers were trying to stem the tide, too, including one person who helpfully posted a link to the actual Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office site.
“Now say you’re sorry,” another commenter urged.
Shortly after that, Hartung posted again. “The teacher was arrested in Vermilion Parish in Louisiana. This is Vermilion in Ohio. Please stop sending us your hate mail.”
Hartung said he called the new mayor, Jim Forthofer, to warn him.
“I had to call him and say this is what’s happening and there’s a chance people are going to be calling you next and saying your police department is doing all these things,” Hartung said. “He was reserved and appreciative, but I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear when you’ve been mayor for a week.”
Hartung said he has been thinking about reaching out to Vermillion, S.D. He knows from experience that the South Dakota town likely won’t escape the Vermilion backlash, even if they do spell their name with two “L’s.” When his own town made headlines in recent years, the South Dakota force caught some flak.
“You know, my father-in-law stopped in on his way through there a few years ago, got a picture with the chief,” Hartung said. “We’re thinking about calling and asking them if they were getting this stuff.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at firstname.lastname@example.org.