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Government & Politics

Meet Akron's new chief of police Stephen Mylett and learn why he came to Akron

photo of Akron Police chief Stephen Mylett
Jeff St.Clair
/
WKSU
Stephen Mylett moved to Akron from Bellevue, Wash., in part, to take on the challenges of the city's record level of gun violence and because it's an affordable place to live.

What are your top priorities as chief of the Akron police?

I inherited a really good police department.

I started doing one-on-one interviews and one of the questions I ask is, ‘What are, or what should be the priorities of the Akron Police Department?’

And almost to an employee, the No. 1 thing they identify is service to the community, finding new and innovative ways to meet the public where they are, and to find out what we can do to reduce crime, reduce the fear of crime, and enhance the quality of life for residents here in Akron.

So working off of that, I'm coming up with an approach that mirrors a program I launched in Bellevue, Wash., with three pillars. The first pillar is community engagement. Starting with advisory councils to the chief based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, just to get a cross-section of Akron to communicate with me how we can better connect with that specific community.

I'm convinced that in many communities there's a break between the police and the people they serve. It's a communication barrier. Basically they're not sharing information. We all want the same thing. We want safe communities where we can raise our families, and we want peace in our communities.

So community engagement is the first pillar. Second pillar will be process improvement. And then the third pillar is officer or employee wellness, employee development, and employee health. Because if you don't have a healthy employee and you're putting employees that are not ready to meet the public, you're already starting out on a disadvantage.

Akron saw a record year of homicides in 2020. What do you think is the root cause of the gun violence we're seeing here and across the country?

As I look at all the deaths that we've seen here in Akron, there are some common denominators.

Number one is the proliferation of firearms and the availability of illegal firearms.

And the other thing when you when you get down to the root cause of it, I think, is [poor] conflict resolution skills.

When you and I were in high school, if we got into an argument and we couldn't resolve it, we were going to get into some sort of pushing, tugging match or exchange blows. Now people don't do that, instead they go for their handgun because it's there. In the heat of the moment, they lose control over emotions, and they go straight for that gun. And before you know it, you have somebody laying on the ground that's dead. But then you also have the loss of life of the person who pulled the trigger because they're going away for a long, long, long time.

And when I've met with community groups here in Akron since I've been here, one of the questions they ask me is, ‘What are you going to do about the gun violence?’ And I tell them that this past year, we took 1,200 firearms off the streets of Akron, that's incredible for a city this size.

But then I ask them, ‘What are you going to do about it? Because you have a role as well.’ Mayor Horrigan and I have been going to the different high schools to meet with students and that question came up, and I asked the students, ‘What are you going to do about it?’

When you get to a party and you see that this party is not what you thought it was going to be, and you start seeing weapons there, are you going to stay? Are you going to leave?

Are you going to let law enforcement know, ‘Hey, there's a party going on here, there are weapons here.’

An example of the kind of situation you're talking about is the University of Akron neighborhood near Exchange Street. Back in September people were hanging out and somebody started shooting, two people were killed. You've taken specific actions in that neighborhood. How might they apply to other areas of Akron?

So we're partnering with the university. We're looking at installing some cameras. I've actually assigned my deputy chiefs to oversee that. I'm almost due for an update, so I don't want to say anything that I have to come back and correct the record. But we're also looking at some other opportunities in the communities to use technology to help combat the violence.

Two young lives were lost in September at an off-campus house party. My heart goes out to both sets of parents, but I got to know AJ Beasley's mom and dad a little bit, and I got to know AJ through them. He was just 25 years old, just starting life. And because somebody is incapable of controlling their emotions and poor decision making, he's gone. And somebody saw it. There were hundreds of people out there, and I am 100% convinced that somebody knows who pulled that trigger. It is so important for them to come forward and share that information with law enforcement so we can bring that person to justice for AJ and [ 18 year-old U.A. student] Maya McFetridge, the other victim in that shooting. For her family every day there’s a hole that never gets filled. We can't forget the victims.

Are you close to an arrest in this case?

I can't comment. I really can't. I think there's no doubt that we need help from the public.

When we talk about conflict resolution skills, police have a role of demonstrating effective conflict resolution. When you encounter a situation, you can use de-escalation techniques and model a type of behavior that you'd like to see with young people. Is that something that you're going to encourage?

Absolutely, yes. I can't take credit for the Akron Police Department before I got here, for all the positive things that they've done consistently, but their use of force numbers have been low. When you consider this past year, we had close to 150,000 contacts with the public, from everything from arrests to, burglary calls, report calls. And when you look at the number of times that we used force in the discharge of our duties, the percentage is 0.13%. That's incredible. What that's telling me is that we're doing a good job in training our officers here in Akron. We’re hiring the right people, because that's the first step. No. 2, you got to train them, invest in them and encourage them, give them support. And No. 3, you need to hold them accountable when they do step out of bounds.

It seems you were very popular in Bellevue, Wash. You put some new initiatives in place. Why did you leave the Seattle area to come to a town in the Midwest with a record number of homicides? Why did you come to Akron?

Why did I come to Akron? A lot of different reasons. How do I put this? I started doing my research on Akron when I got invited to apply, and I did see the level of gun violence. I know the issues in this country between police and communities, especially communities of color, and I felt a calling, a pull to apply whatever skill set the Good Lord has given me over the 33 years to help the communities I've been serving.

If I can become a part of this community and help it become the community it wants to be. And I do think it is a safe community, relatively speaking. I do think that it's a phenomenal place to raise your family.

There was that at play. I'm from New York originally, so this gets me back to the closer to my family on Long Island and in New York and New Jersey.

I have four children, and they're all married. They started having families, and I'm trying to also find a place in the country where it's affordable for my wife Joanne and I, and for our children, to get them to come here and plant roots so we can have access to our grandkids as well.

A lot of different reasons.

Well, how's that going? Are they embracing the idea of moving?

I got one here. He and his wife.

And what did you tell them? How do you sell Akron to them?

I tell them that your mother stays up late at night crying because she wants grandchildren. Guilt. You know, it works. I have a very close relationship with all four of my kids. And I think it is our collective desire to be very close to each other. I think three of them have been waiting for Joanne and I to find the final spot that we're going to land. And then they'll start making some decisions. We’ve purchased a home in West Akron, so we’re committed. And my hope is that this is where we are planting roots. I really love the Akron community.

This past year, we did see a drop in every major category of crime including homicides. The police department didn't do it by themselves, certainly, the community helped us with it. And hopefully, we're going to continue down that path and we will see the results of our efforts.

Are you considering some of the sort of integrated policing practices that bring in mental health professionals for calls?

Yes, we're partnering right now with the different mental health organizations to assist us, but not in the way in which I think it will end up being what we do.

We have started looking at the co-responder program.

We launched one in Bellevue, where we partnered mental health professionals with plainclothes police officers, because for some people in crisis, the uniform will actually send them further into crisis.

So the officer and the mental health professional make contact with the individual, and the officer steps back and lets the mental health professional do what they're trained to do. And if it goes the way in which we hope it does, bringing the person down, de-escalating and getting him into services, then great.

But if the person does not stop presenting the risk to themselves and others, and if it gets to a point where the officer needs to identify themselves and then step in as a police officer, then they do it.

And what were the results?

They saw a double-digit reduction in the number of people we put in jail. They saw double-digit reduction in the use of force for that specific demographic of people with a mental health crisis.

Here in Akron, our deputy mayor of public safety has been moving forward with exploring the model, and so we're in the analysis phase of it. But we can't make that decision in isolation. We need to reach out to the mental health professional community and get their input. So my hope is that sometime this year, we'll see something like a blueprint where we could start moving this forward in Akron.

What are you doing to build diversity at the Akron police department?

We're about to launch a recruitment campaign. We are short staffed. We're going to try to get an academy towards the end of this year. We have one that's in place right now. I think 33% of the people that are going through the academy represent something other than a Caucasian male. And in the statistics, the need for the benefits are well defined that a police department reflect the community in which they serve, and we don't right now.

There are a lot of obstacles that we're trying to overcome right now to attract people into our profession because we're not the most popular profession right now after George Floyd's death, especially in communities of color. The trust is strained if it's there at all.

When I came on there were thousands of people that took the test along with me. Now we're lucky to get three or 400 people interested, but we are about to launch a recruitment campaign. And one of our priorities is diversity hiring.

We need to increase our numbers with people who reflect the community. Right now, I think our African-American officers here in Akron is 11 or 12 percent where our community’s over 30 percent. And I want to be clear, it's just not getting a body right. It's not just a number.

You mentioned the George Floyd incident and I would like to hear more about that. How you feel about it personally and how it did it change your approach to policing?

I don't know that it changed my approach to policing. That was established even before I became a police officer. My father was a police officer in New York City. He passed about a year-and-a-half ago at 92, and I remember as a child—I have six older brothers—and I remember as a child listening to the adults talk. And any time the issue of policing came up, I had uncles that were New York police officers and such, it was all about service. It was always about serving the community. Those deposits were made in my brain as a young child, how you treat people not based on the color of their skin, but the content of the character and what's in their heart. And you always treat people with dignity, respect and humanity. I never forgot that.

And when I was hired in the Corpus Christi Police Department in January 1989, my father told me, he said, ‘Look, don't you ever forget this is a service profession. This isn't about you.’ So in that way, my policing has never changed.

But you asked about George Floyd. And you can't say George Floyd without saying Derek Chauvin.

What that officer did was reprehensible. It was disgusting. And he's exactly where he should be. When I saw that video, I remember saying things out loud, ‘Get off him, get off him,’ and he just kept on. And when George Floyd died and we saw the response from the country, that didn't surprise me.

I was in the Seattle area at the time, and it was a very difficult period in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the country. But you didn't see any police officers coming forward and trying to justify what Derek Chauvin did. Nobody condoned what that officer did. From East Coast to West Coast, north or south, you saw police officers taking a knee in solidarity with the black community because the black community said, ‘We've had enough. That's it. No more.’ And law enforcement, I think, during this period responded in a way that that was respectful, that said, ‘OK, we're listening. We know we need to move. We know we need to change.’

What Derek Chauvin did does not represent law enforcement. And that is what I'm trying to message. There's a lot of things that came out of the dialog that followed George Floyd's death. I think we are now in a place where emotions are not super high and that we're having these conversations and police chiefs, police officers, civilian staff and police departments are leaning into the conversation.