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Akron Considers Path Forward Amid Conversation About Defunding Police

The city of Akron will begin reviewing police policies and procedures locally and across the state to enact best practices that combat racism and improve police relations with the community.
Josh Troche
The city of Akron will begin reviewing police policies and procedures locally and across the state to enact best practices that combat racism and improve police relations with the community.

The phrase "Defund The Police" has become a battle cry of protesters after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. Now, like many cities, Akron is in the early stages of what could add up to significant change for the police department.

“The end goal is abolition," says Tyler Bohinc, spokesperson for the Akron chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

The group believes a just society is governed to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.

"We are just saying it’s time for change," Bohinc said. "Police scare people more than they protect people.” 

Their proposed solution, Bohinc said, is to redirect all police funding back into social services. 

“The end goal is no armed military forces coming into communities that they don’t live in to solve problems,” he said. “It’s reinvesting in social programs, new programs; having city council meet with community members and have these discussions of where we want these funds to go. And that should be happening now.”

That debate on whether to defund or restructure police is playing out across the nation. This past week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) explained what defunding police means in his view. 

“It means we start thinking more about training police, about discipline,” Brown said. “About making sure that mental health services are available in communities and some things that aren’t police work that have kind of been defined that way.”

Those changes also are on the mind of Akron City Council member Shammas Malik. He says police are expected to address too many issues that fall outside their expertise.

“We have put a burden over the years on police that are not necessarily their focus – things like homelessness, things like nonviolent service calls,” Malik said.  

Malik points to a 2011 study of Akron Police conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy organization. The study suggested reforms that would have boosted police-community interaction.

Akron’s call volume of more than 230,000 per year could hinder community interactivity, Malik said.

“I think we know that too big of a social burden has been placed on a department, that honestly ought to be handled by other forms of services of government, of nonprofits and community,” he said. 

Akron Police spokesman Lt. Michael Miller has been with the department for more than 20 years. In addition to 12 neighborhood response officers dedicated to community policing, Miller said Akron patrols already follow a community policing approach.

“Getting out of their cars, having a face to face conversation with citizens, getting to know them and understanding and finding out what the specific need is," he said. "But the real focus of community policing is very much what we’re still doing on a daily basis, which is 'how can we collectively help improve this situation?'"

According to Akron Police, the department used force last year in one out of about 1,100 calls. Police averaged one complaint for every 4,300 calls, lower than the national average.

Even so, Akron City Council voted last week to ban police chokeholds and make officers legally responsible for reporting police brutality.

Those policies were already in effect, Miller said. 

“Any enhancement that would improve public trust enhance transparency is a good thing," he said. "But our use of force policy was already progressive in that way.” 

The conversation around police reform in Akron might be just getting started. Mayor Dan Horrigan announced last week that Akron will participate in a Police Reform Support Network created by the Ohio Mayors Alliance.

The goal of the network is to enable cities to enact best practices that combat racism and improve police-community relations.  

“To start specifically focusing on police reform is paramount to this work and vital to the health of our communities," Horrigan said. "Our systemic changes are harder to enact if some of our residents don’t feel safe.”

And Malik believes there’s an opportunity now for the community and law enforcement to work together on a path forward.

“It is something where we’re going to want, not just financially, but in terms of increased accountability and oversight," Malik said. "I think it’s something where, in the next six months or so, you would want some concrete steps that we can take.”

Jennifer Conn joined WKSU in February 2019 as Akron reporter.