In the Conversation About Defunding the Police, Does Akron Have a Path Forward?
The phrase “defund the police” has become one of the battle cries of protesters across the country since George Floyd was killed in May by Minneapolis police.
Floyd’s death has sparked a new push for police reform, which many say is decades overdue.
The city of Akron, like many cities, is in the early stages of what could add up to significant change for the police department.
For eight minutes and 46 seconds, a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd. When it was over, Floyd was dead.
Bystanders recorded what was happening on their cellphones. They captured the sound of Floyd’s cries of anguish as he was asphyxiated.
But they documented something else too: their videos revealed a startling absence of empathy by the police.
What comes next
“The end goal is abolition," Tyler Bohinc said of the police department. Bohinc is the 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," he said. "Police scare people more than they protect people.”
The 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 explained what defunding police means.
“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.”
The conversation in Akron
That’s on Akron City Councilman Shammas Malik’s mind as well. Police are expected to address too many issues that fall outside their expertise, he said.
“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.
The study suggested reforms that would have boosted police-community interaction.
Akron’s call volume of more than 230,000 calls a 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 Lieutenant Michael Miller has been with Akron police 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?'"
The department reports police used force last year in one out of about 1,100 calls; it averaged one complaint for every 4,300 calls. That’s 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.
The path forward
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.”