MOUNT VERNON — For county law enforcement, working with a diverse population can call for creative and delicate investigating — especially when working with Amish communities.
All aspects of Amish life are dictated by a list of written or oral rules, known as Ordnung. These rules outline the basics of the Amish faith and helps to define what it means to be Amish. The Ordnung will dictate almost every aspect of one’s lifestyle, from dress and hair length to buggy style and farming techniques. The Ordnung varies from community to community, and order to order, which explains why you will see some Amish riding in automobiles, while others don’t accept the use of battery-powered lights.
Many communities will also keep any internal crimes, or breaking of those rules, within the community imposing its own punishment. This usually consists of excommunication from the church for a prescribed period of time. Part of this excommunication also involves the person being shunned for that period of time.
For local law enforcement this creates a situation that draws a fine line that forces them to strike a balance between law enforcement’s duty under the laws of the state of Ohio and respecting the religious beliefs of the Amish.
Law enforcement officials in Knox, Licking and Holmes counties have had to deal with this to various degrees.
“Knox County and Holmes County deal much more with the Amish than we do here in Licking County,” said Sheriff Randy Thorp. “We don’t have a huge Amish community here in Licking County. We do have some but I don’t believe it rises to the numbers you see in Knox and Holmes. ... It is a real close-knit community and I believe a lot of times things get handled within the community and that it does not even get reported to law enforcement.”
Knox County’s most recent investigation involving an Amish community was that of Harvey J. Miller. Miller was indicted in June with gross sexual imposition for allegedly having sexual contact by force, or threat of force, with two victims. Miller, who is Amish, was arrested and taken to the Knox County Jail. He posted bond and was released.
Because the case is pending, neither the Knox County Prosecutor’s Office nor the Knox County Sheriff’s Office will comment on the case. However, this case does highlight a situation where law enforcement has to walk a thin line when it comes to investigating crimes involving the Amish, described by some as a closed community.
Knox County, while it does not have as large an Amish population as Holmes County, still has to deal with the situation from time to time. Knox County Sheriff David Barber feels one of the best ways to walk the line is to earn the trust of the Amish community.
“Our success has been to explain to them — just like any other reluctant witness or victim — what we’re doing and why we need the information we need,” Barber explained. “Particularly when we’ve had situations where Amish children have died. Our detectives have to take numerous photographs of the dead child and that type of thing. And we just have to let them know why we do the things we have to do. For me, it has come with my experience over the years.”
Barber said there have been instances where he has had to intervene in situations handled by an officer or trooper who did not have a lot of experience dealing with the Amish. Someone with some understanding of the Amish culture, traditions and laws can deal with the situation without offending the families of victims or the community at large.
“And I don’t want it to sound like we are singling out one segment of society, or one culture, or treat them differently than we do [any other resident],” Barber added. “Dealing with a reluctant victim crosses all cultures.”
For the sheriff’s office, or any other law enforcement office, to take action on a crime, it has to be reported and a complaint filed. If this does not happen there is little the sheriff’s office can do.
“Yes, I do acknowledge that we are aware that some situations may have been handled within the culture,” Barber said. “When it comes to law enforcement intervention, the one thing the older order Amish are reluctant to get involved with is the government. And without a victim, there’s little we can do.”
Holmes County has a huge Amish population and Holmes County Sheriff Timothy Zimmerly agrees the key to working with the Amish is trust and good communication.
“I’ve got a really good working relationship with the Amish,” Zimmerly said. “Of course we have a large population here. They aren’t any different from you or I, really. They have their share of problems with their people and they are, of course, victims of crime, too. But as a general rule, we haven’t had any real issues. Sometimes they will deal with things themselves instead of coming to us. Sometimes the church will take care of things.”
Zimmerly and his staff do make an effort to work closely with the Amish to keep things smooth.
“About every three months or so I have a meeting with the Bishops in the county,” he explained. “And we sit down and discuss any issues or problems we see. Sometimes the Amish will have what they call field parties. The young kids will get together and do some drinking and what have you. We go over things like that. If we are having any problems with the youth that they can help us address, they will do that.”
Zimmerly said they do try to enlist the help of the Amish community to address certain concerns.
“And they are usually very willing to do whatever it takes to help,” he added.