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Akron weighs 2 competing proposals for a civilian police review board. Here's what you need to know

The Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center in downtown Akron.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center in downtown Akron, where Akron Police are headquartered. Calls for more civilian oversight of the police department were renewed this summer after the fatal shooting of Jayland Walker, an unarmed Black man.

There are now two different plans for an independent oversight board to monitor citizen complaints of the Akron Police Department. Depending on the actions of city council over the next few weeks, Akron voters will find out whether they will get to decide on the review board next year, or as soon as November.

Akron residents have been calling for a civilian review board of the police department for years, but the recent police shooting of an unarmed Black man, 25-year-old Jayland Walker, put it at the front of mind for both citizens and elected officials.

Two different options have recently emerged: a charter amendment developed by community groups that could be voted on in the November election and an ordinance from the mayor’s office to be considered by Akron City Council in September.

Members of local groups, including Freedom BLOC and the Akron NAACP, turned in more than 7,000 signatures on a petition to the city clerk’s office Tuesday. If it makes the ballot and is approved by voters, the review board would become part of the city’s official charter.

Meanwhile, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan also announced Tuesday he plans to propose an
ordinance to city council next month. Horrigan’s proposal, if passed, would create the review board but not immediately codify it into the city’s charter. The ordinance specifies that the ultimate goal is to put a charter amendment before voters in November 2023, according to the document.

Time crunch for charter amendment

In order for the ballot initiative from community groups to be added to the ballot, 2,678 of the 7,000 signatures collected must be from registered Akron voters, which is 10% of how many voters participated in the most recent municipal election, said Bill Rich, chairman of the Summit County Board of Elections.

The Board of Elections will review the signatures in the coming days, and the clerk of city council is checking to make sure the initiative adheres to requirements in the city's charter.

If everything is validated, city council must call a meeting to officially put the charter amendment on the ballot, Rich said.

The meeting would have to be held by Sept. 9 for the initiative to qualify for the November 2022 general election, he said. If council does not meet in time, there will have to be a special election specifically for the ballot measure – which wouldn’t happen until January 2023 at the earliest.

“That’s why there’s some time pressure here,” Rich said.

City council’s next regular meeting is Sept. 12, when they are set to consider the proposal from Horrigan.

Rich is also a professor emeritus of law at the University of Akron and offered some perspective on several possible outcomes that could occur depending on council’s actions in the coming weeks.

If city council does not hold a meeting by Sept. 9 and a special election is forced, this could impact voter turnout, he said.

“It certainly affects turnout, and it can be confusing for some voters,” Rich said. “People are not used to voting in January … there will be people who turn out for the general election in November who wouldn’t turn out for a special election in January.”

Plus, it will cost more to hold another election just a couple of months after the general, he added.

“Ultimately, the taxpayers and the city of Akron will end up … paying extra for that, as compared to if it had gone on the ballot in November,” Rich said.

If city council passes Horrigan’s ordinance – and the charter amendment eventually makes the ballot and also passes – the ordinance would have to be modified so that it adheres to the charter amendment, he said.

“An ordinance can’t trump the city charter,” Rich said. “There would be some conflicts between the ordinance and the charter.”

The proposed boards are similar, but not exactly the same

Both proposed review boards are similar, but there are key differences, Rich added. Both review boards would review citizen complaints against police, issue recommendations for how the department can improve, offer input on trainings and focus on community engagement.

In the charter amendment, the review board can conduct its own investigations of potential misconduct by police, if there is support from at least two-thirds of the board.

The mayor’s proposal specifies that while the board will review complaints, all investigations will be done internally by the Akron Police Department or handed off to state or federal authorities. The investigations would then be reviewed by the board once completed.

One of the biggest differences is the number of members on the board and how they would be appointed.

In the citizen-led ballot initiative, the board would consist of nine members – three people appointed by the mayor, and six by city council. The members would be required to come from diverse backgrounds, and some must specifically have worked in the fields pertaining to mental health, criminal justice and law enforcement.

Mayor Horrigan has proposed an 11-member review board all appointed by the mayor with the consent of city council. The proposal calls for some members to have backgrounds in criminal justice, racial equity and law enforcement. Members would have to participate in the police department’s citizens academy and complete 40 hours of “ride-alongs” with officers.

Another key difference is that the mayor’s proposal creates a new department, the Inspector General’s Office, which would review laws and procedures of the police department and other city employees.

The charter amendment outlines an Office of Independent Police Auditor, which would review policing practices. Akron currently has a police auditor, Phillip Young. The amendment does not specify whether the current police auditor would fill the new position which would be created.

Both review boards would be required to issue reports on their actions and recommendations regularly.

If the review board initiative makes the ballot, the ballot language shown to voters – a short, accurate summary of the charter amendment - still needs to be written, Rich added. Either city council can write proposed language, or the board of elections will create it, he said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.