WARREN — Paddling was just a small portion of a juvenile diversion program in Fowler Township that is the subject of federal lawsuits and a grand jury indictment.
Speaking for the first time since being indicted earlier this month on 52 charges, Fowler Police Chief James Martin says the program was designed to keep teenagers on the right path.
"I care about kids," said Martin. "This program was not to hurt anyone, it was to help. I was available for those involved. They could talk to me."
He recalled one young man who told him "that when he was in junior high and got good grades, no one cared. When he was in high school and got bad grades, no one cared. He said I was the only one who cared. He is now going to graduate from college."
Martin would also insist that those involved in the program memorize a list of 17 rules, such as respecting others and staying out of trouble at home and at school.
"Corporal punishment was only one part of the program," Martin said. "A number of kids never got corporal punishment."
His reaction to probe
Martin, who will retire from his full-time position as captain at the Howland Township Police Department at month's end, said he is stunned by the investigation and indictments. He has pleaded innocent and is scheduled to return to court Tuesday.
"The fact that this would happen at the end of a 33-year career is a shock," Martin said. "I entered this profession because I wanted to help people. I thought I could help make a difference along the way."
The idea to start the juvenile diversion program came to Martin in the early 1970s after he investigated the suicide of a 16-year-old boy.
"I remember getting in my car and, after blowing my lunch, I kept asking myself, 'Why?'" Martin said. "Why? Why at 16 would this happen? What was missing? Who didn't pay attention?"
The diversion program in Howland began in the 1970s and lasted until 1993, when Martin was instructed to stop.
An investigation in 1993 by then-Howland Police Chief Steve Lamantia states that one juvenile complained at that time about being paddled as part of Martin's diversion program there. Martin told the chief at that time that he had the parents' permission to use corporal punishment. No charges were filed.
Program began again
In 1998, Martin became the Fowler Township's police chief. Sometime after assuming that post, he started a juvenile diversion program there. Martin said he was not sure of the exact date the program began in Fowler.
"I started it again because it worked," Martin said. He acknowledged that only a "handful" of juveniles took part in the Fowler program. He could not recall the number of juveniles who took part in the Howland program.
Not all those involved in the Fowler juvenile diversion program were referred by Martin. Other officers would stop teenagers on traffic or other misdemeanor charges and refer them to Martin "because they thought I could help," he said.
Several allegations by juveniles that they were paddled without their pants on are not true, said Martin and his attorney, Dominic Vitantonio of Cleveland.
"I'm very, very upset about that accusation and it is flat-out false," Martin said, adding that those paddled were always fully clothed.
The paddlings were also videotaped, Martin said.
"I made the videotapes so everybody would be protected and no one was paddled on bare bottoms," he stressed. "Also, no one was paddled in this program unless they and their parents agreed."
Martin also stressed that no one involved in the program was ever physically hurt.
One juvenile's claim
One of the juveniles involved in the program, however, stated in a civil lawsuit that he had welts after the paddling.
The FBI and agents from the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation are investigating Martin.
Free on a $2,500 bond, he faces 20 counts of dereliction of duty; 11 counts of misdemeanor assault; seven counts of unauthorized photography; 12 counts of using a sham legal process; and two felony counts of theft in office, said Dave Toepfer, an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor.
Authorities said the charge of sham legal process means Martin showed juveniles a document that appeared to be official but in reality had no legal standing and was not lawfully issued.
The theft charges stem from accusations he removed records from the Howland Township Police Department and took them home.
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