Akron City Council has had a busy week, and it's just getting started, said Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville.
On Monday, council unanimously declared racism a public health crisis. In separate legislation, council banned chokeholds by police.
“There’s a lot of reform that we can make that will bring pretty good changes,” Sommerville said.
The issues at hand relate to the killing of George Floyd May 25 by police in Minnesota, which kicked off public protests as well as public discourse about racism and police brutality.
In Akron, declaring racism a public health crisis first arose when Mayor Dan Horrigan told viewers during his June 1 virtual town hall that he wanted a formal declaration on racism.
Declaring racism a public health crisis requires lawmakers to take steps to remove the disparities causing the crisis, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Akron will name a task force of community leaders and residents to develop, over the coming year, a five-year plan.
“We understand as elected officials we don’t always have all the answers,” Sommerville said.
However, she said community members with strong skill sets often reach out to city council with good suggestions and ideas.
“We want to tap into that and kind of set the table for them to come around and give us ideas about what we should be doing to tackle this issue,” she said.
The task force will report on its progress to council at regular intervals throughout the year, she said. A plan will be presented to Horrigan, city council and Health Commissioner Donna Skoda by June 30, 2021.
Reviewing police practices
City council’s ban on chokeholds -- or any type of neck hold that would restrict air flow -- is also the beginning of a close look at city policies to make sure they are clear, Sommerville said.
It is now mandatory for an Akron police officer to intervene or report unlawful use of force, she said.
The law was drafted after Akron officials watched the video of Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“If officers do not intervene or report they will be held criminally liable so we are being really serious about this,” she said.
That legislation also contains language that protects officers from retaliatory actions by other police, she said.
Body camera policies will be up for review next, Sommerville said. Akron outfitted all police officers with body cameras in 2017.
“The issue is turning your body camera on and making sure it stays on,” she said. “It’s not just to benefit Akron residents; it’s to protect the officer as well.”
If anything positive can come out of Floyd’s death, she said, it should be that cities examine their policies to make sure they are holding their police officers accountable.