The Story of Levi Dehmann: Police Violence in Small-Town America

Police handcuffs(Image: Police handcuffs via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

The news never stops happening, even when the cameras aren’t paying attention. Subscribe to our email newsletter to stay in the know!

A man with dark hair, a thin moustache, and a beard walks into a white-walled hallway with a grey-and-white-checked floor. He’s wearing a white sweatshirt and dark pants and is escorted by two large sheriff’s deputies.

The man stumbles, apparently drunk, and is faced against a wall by the deputies. He is searched and then uncuffed. He then tries to hug the deputy who has just searched him. He takes off his sweatshirt, revealing a black T-shirt and a paunch. The man is laughing and, it seems, even dancing.

He’s escorted down the hallway, moving closer to the camera. He points at a woman, another deputy, and smiles and keeps shuffling. Next he points at a big guy standing next to her, another deputy.

This deputy bats his hand away. The man drunkenly swipes at the deputy. And then, in an instant, the deputy lifts the man off the ground and drops him to the floor. You can see his head hit.

Two days later, 33-year-old David Levi Dehmann of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was dead. The deputy who body-slammed him, Chase Wright, was placed on administrative leave pending a state investigation.

To those who cared for him, including his 5-year-old daughter named Justice, what matters now is uncovering the truth of what happened to Levi Dehmann.

A Widespread Phenomenon

According to the Guardian, 473 people have been killed by US police since January 1, 2015. The website Killed By Police reports that at least 1,102 were killed in 2014. At least 2,311 have been killed since May 1, 2013.

The national narrative has mostly been about big cities and white cops shooting black people, for good reason: Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than white teens, Black males between the ages of 20 to 24 are the group most likely to be killed by police. And white officers kill Black people twice a week, stop and frisk them more, and deploy more SWAT teams in their communities.

Levi Dehmann, however, was white, and his deadly encounter happened in a small Central Ohio town 20 long miles from Interstate 71.

Mount Vernon is 60 miles from Columbus and 100 miles from Cleveland, but it is worlds away in ethos, character and style. The town of about 17,000 people consists of Victorian houses along the meandering Kokosing River. In the 19th century, Johnny Appleseed planted his seeds here. There’s still a Saturday farmer’s market, where locals gather as they have for almost two centuries. One local pastor told me it’s one of the most generous places he’s ever encountered: There’s a free meal every day of the week hosted by a local church.

You can drive a few miles out of town and see signs of the large Amish population – homes set back from the road without power lines but with clotheslines bedecked with white bonnets and blue smocks drying in the breeze.

“Look, when a guy’s intoxicated and makes a drunken lunge, in my universe you just spin him around and pin him against the wall and let the other officers help you.”

But Mount Vernon is no paradise. It has the typical struggles of many postindustrial Midwestern towns, and it occasionally finds itself in the national spotlight. In 2010, Matthew Hoffman murdered three people and stuffed their bodies in a hollow tree. Last year, the Amish in Knox County, where Mount Vernon is located, had the largest measles outbreak in recent US history. And now, Mount Vernon is in the national spotlight again.

A Continuum of Force

Five miles down the road from Mount Vernon in Gambier, I met with Glenn McNair, a history professor at Kenyon College, who previously served five years with the Savannah Police Department and seven with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

His office is in a quaint, white four-square building just yards from Kenyon’s famed middle path, which bisects the tree-lined campus. With its collegiate Gothic architecture and Church of the Holy Spirit at its the center, the campus feels like the set of Harry Potter.

It’s a long way from law enforcement, that’s for sure. And, McNair says, he’s glad. After 12 years, he wanted something new.

“There’s a mentality of us versus them, good versus bad, and this idea that nobody knows what we do. And there’s some truth to that last part because the reality is most people really don’t know what it’s like to be on patrol.”

He says, “Sometimes force is necessary.” But “force” means different things in different situations.

“Look, when a guy’s intoxicated and makes a drunken lunge, in my universe you just spin him around and pin him against the wall and let the other officers help you,” McNair says. Especially, he adds, if there are four other officers around.

“Law enforcement culture is insular, authoritarian, militaristic, and racist. … This is how we do race and class in the US. There are relatively few consequences for abusing poor people.”

Instead, Wright escalated what law enforcement calls the use-of-force continuum, the steps an officer takes, from nonverbal to verbal to physical, to control a situation. There’s no science to how quickly police escalate the use of force. But based on statistics accounting for interactions between Black people and law enforcement, race plays a key role.

“Law enforcement culture is insular, authoritarian, militaristic, and racist,” McNair says. “It’s a troubling culture, and I see elements of it in this incident in Mount Vernon.”

“Look,” McNair says, “this is how we do race and class in the US. There are relatively few consequences for abusing poor people in this county. Nothing will happen. There’s a culture of silence in law enforcement and a lack of accountability, and so this is the kind of situation you get. It’s in the interest of those involved to just ride it out because the public has a short attention span.”

Levi Dehmann was poor and, according to his family, had a spectrum disorder – Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome. (His family has not spoken since the videos were released, and a friend of the family told me they need time to grieve.)

Seth W. Stoughton, professor of law at the University of South Carolina, use-of-force expert and former police officer, says what surprises him the most about the video is when Deputy Wright slaps Dehmann’s hand.

Stoughton notes that Dehmann had been searched, was compliant, intoxicated, and under the control of five officers. If Dehmann had a long history of fighting with officers, they would act differently than they were in the video.

“So maybe he does reach for his face, but that’s not too alarming in that environment,” Stoughton says. “At that point, I would expect the officer to take defensive action. Restrain him. Even take him to the ground; it’s harder for people to fight on the ground.”

Extensively trained in martial arts, Stoughton says there are many techniques for bringing someone safely to the ground. Wright’s move was severe because it risks injury; rather than taking Dehmann to the ground in a controlled manner, Wright slams him.

In a May 8 interview with the Mount Vernon News, Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer claims that Wright was not in the wrong. He notes that Dehmann swatted at Wright, who then said, “Put your hands away. Move on.”

What happened next, he contends, did not constitute excessive force.

“A combination of lack of experience and the exuberance of youth led Deputy Wright to make a bad decision.”

But did it constitute a pattern of abuse – a systemic problem ingrained in US law enforcement? Chase Wright had a few years of experience with area law enforcement, had studied criminal law at two community colleges without completing a degree and had attended police academy. He also had been issued a warning by a superior the Knox County Jail for excessive force.

In a September 25, 2014, letter to Sheriff Shaffer, Sergeant William Shaffer reported an incident in which Wright put an inmate in a restraint chair.

Wright claimed the inmate was restrained for striking something in his cell and shouting profanities. Sergeant Shaffer reviewed video of the incident and felt that it didn’t warrant using a restraint chair. He says that the video shows Wright entering the inmate’s cell with “what seems to be an excessive amount of force.”

He warned Wright not to use the restraint chair for punishment or to silence inmates. Sergeant Shaffer concluded that “a combination of lack of experience and the exuberance of youth led Deputy Wright to make a bad decision.” Bad decisions have consequences, he added, because they can harm others.

And in the case of Levi Dehmann, bad decisions can cause death.

A Friend, An Artist

It’s an unusually cold, gray day in May. A tattoo and airbrush artist, Max Tipton looks the part. He’s wearing two black sweatshirts, black jeans, black ball cap, boots, plugs in his ear lobes, and, beneath a thick beard, a stoic demeanor.

I’ve encountered Max at a low point. He’s lost two friends recently – one to a heroin overdose and now Levi Dehmann. “My feelings about what happened to Levi are still pretty raw,” he says.

Max met Levi in the sixth grade. They played football together, hung out. Levi was fun to be around and trustworthy to a fault. “You could hand Levi 50 bucks, and he’d probably come back to you with 60 a week later,” Max says.

By ninth grade, they stopped playing football. They were less interested in what coaches had to say and more interested in being artists or musicians. Levi, Max says, liked to draw. “Like if you’d take a whole big piece of paper and you’d draw across the whole page, and there would be all these tiny details, faces or whatever,” Max tells me. “He was crazy with detail.”

As he got older, Levi was a fixture in Max’s downtown tattoo studio. Tattoo work kept Max pretty stationary, so Levi stopped by almost daily. He was always walking around town with a cane and a grin.

You can see that grin in his freshman yearbook photo. A youthful Levi looks back with a goofy smile on his face. By his senior year in 2000, you can tell he has grown up, but the grin remains.

“Levi would never tell you anything negative; he was always positive,” Max says. “He’d always come by with these ideas, always looking at the future.” He dreamed of taking his artwork to another level, and he would organize art shows to bring other artists in town together.

Max said he did worry about Levi sometimes, “that maybe he wasn’t progressing through life in a certain way. But Levi was happy. He was never like, ‘I’m stressed’ about anything.”

But there were plenty of stressors in Levi’s life.

Max says that though he didn’t realize Levi was living with a disability, it was clear to him that Levi’s circumstances had changed since high school. Levi’s rap sheet with the Mount Vernon police includes dozens of incidents, most of them related to substance abuse – and, most likely, his disability.

Levi’s Last Day

Tuesday, April 21, 2015, dawned with calm winds and light rain. By afternoon, it was clear skies with wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. This would be Levi Dehmann’s last day in Mount Vernon.

The public record of that day begins when Mount Vernon Police Department Officer Nicholas Myrda found Levi Dehmann passed out on his Shirley Avenue apartment porch.

Dehmann asked Tharp to take him to his aunt’s house on Shalimar Drive, not far from the hospital, because, he told Tharp, he “didn’t want to be alone.”

Myrda writes that a neighbor told him there was a half-naked “white male laying on his concrete patio vomiting.” He notes that he found Dehmann “on his side with some vomit on the ground. There was a little bit of blood on his left side of his face.” Myrda asked him if he had hit his head, and he said that he did when he fell. Myrda adds that Dehmann had finished off “a bottle of vodka and a large bottle of Scope mouth wash.”

Shortly before 2 pm, the Mount Vernon Fire Department took Dehmann to Knox Community Hospital.

At 5:52, Dehmann was released from the emergency room. Hospital staff asked Corporal Travis Tharp, at the hospital on another call, if he could give Dehmann a ride. Dehmann asked Tharp to take him to his aunt’s house on Shalimar Drive, not far from the hospital, because, he told Tharp, he “didn’t want to be alone.”

Tharp dropped him off near his aunt’s house and told him he’d get arrested if he was found so drunk “that he could not take care of himself.” Dehmann, Tharp writes, “was walking on his own at this time and speaking coherently.”

Somehow Levi made his way to the baseball fields behind Dan Emmett Elementary School, just off of Mansfield Avenue. It’s about three miles from Shalimar Drive to the school, and he would have passed by there on his way home.

At 7:43, Corporal Tharp responded to a call about an intoxicated male lying down behind the ball field restrooms. When he arrived, Dehmann had walked toward the front of the school on Mansfield Avenue (in the direction of his Shirley Avenue apartment), and he was leaning on a fence. Tharp writes that Dehmann could barely stand and his pants were falling down due to a bottle of vodka stuffed in a pocket. Tharp asked him for the bottle, and he handed it over. Tharp took him to his cruiser, handcuffed him and told him he was being arrested.

On the drive to the Knox County Jail, Tharp says, Levi shouted, messed with the camera, and spit on the Plexiglas divider. Tharp told him he’d be charged for damages to the cruiser.

At 8:01, Levi walked into the jail’s hallway. He was searched and uncuffed. By 8:04, Deputy Chase Wright had slammed him to the ground.

“It looks like Levi’s joking around.”

The jail’s reporting officer Alan Hackman writes that “while [Dehmann] was in the jail’s intake area he became aggressive with the jail staff, making an aggressive move towards Dep. Wright. Mr. Dehmann did attempt to hit Dep. Wright in the face causing Dep. Wright to place Mr. Dehmann into a take-down hold, taking him to the ground to get control of him.”

In his interview with the Mount Vernon News, Sheriff Shaffer said that “Chase hooked up under his arm, and it’s just a straight takedown. He squares up. Turns and squares up again.”

“If you look close, he pretty much lands on Chase,” Shaffer claims. “Chase takes a lot of the blow. Unfortunately his head is up higher and that’s what hits the floor.”

Max Tipton sees something else entirely when he looks at the video: “It looks like Levi’s joking around. He points at the one woman cop, and it looks like he’s pointing at name badges. And I bet what he’s saying is, ‘Oh, you’re a new guy!’ I could hear Levi saying that. Whatever he’s saying, it shouldn’t have happened. I mean you can see right off the rip that the side of his face is bruised when they’re putting him on that gurney.”

According to Hackman’s report, “Once control was gained it was found that Mr. Dehmann had hit his head on the floor during the incident.” From the video, it appears that, from the moment Levi Dehmann hit the floor until the paramedics arrived, he was motionless.

At 8:20 pm, Levi was taken to the emergency room at Knox Community Hospital and later to Grant Medical Center in Columbus.

At 4 am on April 22, Levi’s father got a call saying that his son was in the hospital with head trauma. At 12:15 am on April 23, Levi Dehmann was pronounced dead.

Cause of Death

The state’s investigation of the incident is ongoing, but shortly after Dehmann’s death, a narrative was already being spun to deflect attention from Deputy Chase Wright’s body slam.

On April 30, the Mount Vernon News ran a story with the headline, “Dehmann Injured before Arrest.” Based on the police reports, the story focuses on Levi’s first arrest, noting that he fell and that there was blood on the left side of face.

Friends that were with Levi earlier the day have claimed, according to Max Tipton, that he hadn’t suffered any serious head trauma.

The Franklin County Coroner’s Office has now released its autopsy report. The cause of Levi’s death was traumatic brain injuries – a subdural hematoma on the left side and base of his brain as well as bruising on the left temporal lobe. In addition, Levi had bruises on his chest and right armpit, maybe the result of the body slam.

The manner of death is listed as “undetermined,” though the report notes that Levi “allegedly fell while incarcerated.”

While the bureaucratic narrative of Levi Dehmann’s last day can be found in the written record of his interactions with local law enforcement, the truth of what really happened has yet to surface. His friends think the county and state want to bury this incident. But As Max Tipton said, for many people, the sorrow and anger are still too raw for that to happen.