Photo by Julia Kelley

It has been almost two years since residents gathered outside Westerville City Hall to support the police department after the murders of Officers Anthony Morelli and Eric Joering, but that support continues today. 

Quentin Smith, who prompted the domestic violence call and shot both officers, was sentenced to life in prison last month. The February 2018 deaths of Officers Morelli and Joering were the first on-duty police deaths in Westerville’s history, which added to the unique strength of the city’s support for their law enforcement. 

“When this happens in the police world, everything is great for about two to three weeks and then things start to fade … I know this community will change that,” then-Westerville Division of Police (WPD) Chief Joe Morbitzer said at a memorial service for his two fallen officers. Morbitzer now holds a position in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. 

Holly Zachariah, who has covered "far too many” police deaths as a metro desk reporter and the crime team lead for The Columbus Dispatch, said the Westerville situation is unique because multiple officers in a smaller community were killed in the line of duty.  

          

Officers Morelli and Joering were active in Westerville through their department’s community policing, the practice of sending out officers to build relationships in their precinct.  

In his 30-year career, Morelli was known for teaching life lessons at the lunch tables of Blendon Middle School as their school resource officer. Joering, a Westerville native on the force for 17 years, reached families as a K9 officer with his partner, Sam. 

“They [WPD] aren’t just sitting around waiting for calls, they are actively engaging the community with good community policing … and that brings about greater understanding and support," Otterbein Police Department (OPD) Chief of Police Larry Banaszak said.

          

The community came together for their police department after the shootings. WPD Lieutenant Ron McMillin, who has spent 31 years in law enforcement, said he will never forget coming back from the coroner’s office with Officers Morelli and Joering and seeing traffic stopped in both directions on the highway with people standing on the median, saluting.  

Some businesses in Westerville still have posters with the hashtag “#WestervilleStrong” over a black and white American flag with a blue stripe to show their support. 

Banaszak’s department also aims for that greater understanding and support with its “Service First” motto. OPD must mirror WPD’s community efforts after signing mutual aid and dispatch agreements with them in 2011 after transitioning from a security department.  

Under those agreements, the departments help in each other’s precincts while sharing a dispatch center. In fact, an OPD officer responded to the call that took the lives of the two WPD officers.   

Richard Tiburzio, deputy chief of OPD and a WPD retiree, said the Otterbein community supported both departments "like he had not seen in a long time" following the shootings. 

Otterbein’s presence in the “Courage” tier, the third highest, of the donors list for the recent $1.2 million expansion of First Responders Park is proof of the university’s support for local law enforcement. 

The expansion added the names of Morelli and Joering to that of Westerville Fire Department’s David Theisen, who died in 1998 fighting a fire in Crooksville, Ohio, to the new stone memorial wall.  

During last month's expansion dedication ceremony, Westerville Mayor Craig Treneff called his city “a community that can heal” and hoped that “we never again gather to place another name on this wall.”