| Akron Beacon Journal
Critics on either side of the police reform debate see promise in what Akron City Council has done.
The union representing officers “can work with” the eight recommendations in council’s 22-page report on Reimagining Public Safety, which was released publicly this week.
The head of the Akron NAACP is applauding the time and consideration council committed to do “something that definitely needed done.”
And the Rev. Greg Harrison, a retired Akron detective a regular critic of local lawmakers who fail to understand the inner working of the city’s police force, praised council members for allowing officers to educate them on policing in Akron before putting together “substantial” and “solid” recommendations.
“I am very surprised, because really I did not think that the council was going to come up with such substantial recommendations,” said Harrison. “I am surprised, but I’m happy. I think the recommendations, if implemented, put us light years ahead of what any task force can come up with.”
Eleven of the 13 City Council members present Monday afternoon unanimously supported a resolution adopting the recommendations. But that’s all they are, at this point: recommendations to work with the next police chief, the mayor and community partners to craft legislation after collecting public input.
And some of these recommendations have been recommended before.
The first — to give the city’s independent police auditor enough staff and resources to do his job — has been sought by the community since the position was created in the early 2000s. It was a priority in a 2011 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent firm of law enforcement experts who dived into policing in Akron when leaders kicked around the idea of reforms more than a decade ago.
“I want to applaud them for taking the time to do what they did,” Judith Hill, president of the Akron NAACP said after looking over the recommendations. “I think it was important and it was something that definitely needed to be done.
“And I know this is the beginning of a process,” she continued, “but I don’t see anything that sets aside funding to support changes.”
Some recommendations, like crisis intervention training to all officers, identify limited funding as a barrier.
On that, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 President Clay Cozart agrees with some of the loudest advocates for change.
“It’s going to require more officers. It’s going to require more training. And it’s going to require more funding, and that’s probably the most difficult issue to tackle,” Cozart said.
He added that he found it “disingenuous” that council, though reaching out to him Sunday, waited until 10 minutes before the recommendations went public on Monday to share them with him.
General approval of the eight recommendations, which can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3piHNyc, was not without some concern. The Beacon Journal sought but received no comment from Police Cheif Ken Ball, who is retiring in February, or Maj. Michael Caprez.
Cozart said ramping up foot and bike patrols is fine, as long as an officer in danger isn’t left high and dry because backup is walking to get there.
Harrison paused when he got to language about hiring. Candidates are screened and questioned on their bad credit reports and drug offenses, which could be minor and nonviolent. This interview process, which involves a lie detector test, determines whether they get hired.
“They have absolute control of recommending or not recommending them,” Harrison said of sergeants doing the background investigations of potential cadets. “When they say it’s an honesty issue, that’s a judgement call. And when you’re talking about implicit biases, a lot of those biases come into play.”
Hill said she and members of her community have a strong interest in some citizen oversight committee. Council, instead, recommended strengthening the police auditor’s position, which Hill said she was something sought “across the board” in the community.
Now, she said, lawmakers need to find ways, in conjunction with the mayor and Akron police and community partners, to fund these recommendations and benchmark progress by collecting data today “to see how changes are affecting policies and procedure” after implementation.
“I was pleased to see all of the progress our city is making both in structure and inclusive thinking to better benefit Akron citizens and help our police department both reflect and serve the community more effectively,” added Bree Chambers, president of Akron Minority Council. The group of youth-led social justice advocates handed the mayor and council a list of police reforms in July, including a “great many” of that are “outlined or alluded to” in council’s recommendations.
As council works to legislate the recommendations, University of Akron Sociology and Anthropology Department Chair Rebecca Erickson has been asked to host virtual town hall meetings with residents in every city ward. Faculty and students will facilitate the conversations generated by the recommendations. Erickson said police officers will join the discussion by the end of the spring semester as a community survey solicits broader feedback.
Council President Margo Sommerville said that since council announced the special committee on Reimagining Public Safety in July, the public has asked when they would get the chance to speak on the topic of policing and community relations.
“Maybe there’s something that we missed that needs to be addressed,” Sommerville said. “So, we want to give the public that opportunity to do that. We’re really excited about this partnership and collaboration with the University of Akron because that too is something that we have not tapped into enough.”
Prior to approving the recommendations, council members thanked police officers and command staff who educated the special committee’s four working groups. It was enlightening, they said.
“We are probably far more advanced than many police agencies in terms of incorporating social services in to the police work that we do,” said Councilwoman Linda Omobien, the director of clinical services at Community Support Services.
“The Akron Police Department liaisons showed that this is an institution that has led the way on many of these issues, like on Crisis Intervention Team training. At the same time, they really showed that they want to keep moving forward,” said Councilman Shammas Malik, who was regarded by colleagues on council as critical to the success of a fact-finding, deliberative process that spanned five months and 22 meetings.
“It would not have been possible if not for him,” Sommerville said.
Malik credited Sommerville’s leadership as the driving force in “something that council hasn’t done before.”
“When we talk about building equitable policing, when we talk about improving community trust with law enforcement, here are ideas that I think we can all get behind,” Malik said. “Getting community input through the University of Akron is going to be important.”
Councilman Russ Neal said the process council started in September to better understand policing is a model for understanding and legislating solutions to other complex problems like housing high utility costs in the city. Neal asked council to consider more staff to help them dive deeply into other issues.
Along with involvement, Cozart said the union supports legislation that is grounded by facts. The process led to “more enlightenment and education on both sides,” he said.
“Change has to occur,” Hill said. “And it’s going to be a win-win for everyone once we get through the process.”
Reach reporter Doug Livingston at [email protected] or 330-996-3792.