Akron Police Try to Build Bridges in Tense Times With Ride-Alongs

Jul 11, 2016

Officer Mike Bruvarny, City Councilman Jeff Fusco, citizen observer George Johnson and Officer Kyle Cunningham all participated in Saturday night's ride-alongs in Akron.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

The City of Akron has had a program allowing citizens to ride-along with police for years. Interest was a lot higher over this past weekend, following the killing of five police officers in Dallas and two police-involved shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia rode along with two Akron officers on Saturday night.

“I’m gonna pop open your door real fast – get out if you want, but stay behind.”

Mike Bruvarny has been a police officer for almost two years. He looks a little like wrestler John Cena. He’s been partnered that whole time with Kyle Cunningham, who’s been a police officer for eight years – six of them in Akron -- and he looks a lot like actor Jason Sudeikis. Both men are quiet and have young families; they socialize outside of work.

This past Saturday, they hit the streets just before midnight, with Cunningham at the wheel.

“I’m excited you guys are out here. It means a lot, especially -- in this last week, it’s been rough.”

Akron Police Chief James Nice says his department usually has one or two requests each week for a citizen ride-along, but this weekend, there were 25 such requests.

“People are concerned about their safety. There continues to be social media postings where people talk about attacking police officers. And they go out there and they ambush us and things like that; you don’t know when they’re going to come.”

Who rides along?

On I-77, this old Honda Prelude zoomed past Officers Bruvarny and Cunningham, who were driving a dark-colored Akron Police SUV. The teenage driver not only apologized for his actions, he thanked the officers for what they do.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

Nice says most of them were city officials who rode along as a show of support.

“We’ve got the mayor, his cabinet [and] civic leaders standing behind the Akron Police Department. It’s a wonderful thing. This is a tough shift; they’re coming out on the midnight shift with the young officers, when the calls are tougher – so I’m very impressed with the city leadership.”

Also in our car was George Johnson, a city employee and union rep. While he’s black, and Bruvarny and Cunningham are white, Johnson doesn’t see race. He sees only support for union members.

“I’ve been involved in the union for 27, 28 years. I was not raised to look at things like that. Even though I do know, in some cases, race does play a role in some things that’s going on. But what’s going on right now – race ain’t got nothing to do with this. These guys here are doing their job, and we need to support them.”

Akron Police Chief James Nice estimates that the department gets one or two ride-along requests each week. Here, he talks to the first shift of the day, which hits the streets at midnight and consists mostly of younger officers.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

A powder keg
Bruvarny and Cunningham say a Saturday night in Akron – especially with nice weather – can be a powder keg. In the first two hours of the shift, other units respond to two overdoses, a trend that clearly troubles Officer Cunningham.

“The last two weeks have been awful. Been awful. So they had a bad batch. They’re OD’ing. One gentleman had to have Narcan – eight doses of Narcan.”

On this Saturday night, Bruvarny and Cunningham spend a lot of time patrolling possible trouble spots, such as the areas south and west of Chapel Hill Mall. At one point, they pull over a pair of speeding teenagers. Later, they respond to noise complaints, as well as someone with mental health issues who frequently calls for assistance but then, Bruvarny says, pretends not to be home when police arrive.

“The somewhat bad thing about our district: we have the old St. Thomas mental institution. And a lot of the people who have been discharged, they stay up in North Hill. A good amount of our citizens do have a lot of mental issues, and when they get off their medications, they cause problems.”

Punctuating all that are occasional calls like one of a man with a gun in a parking lot near Emidio’s Pizza. Arriving on-scene, Cunningham, Bruvarny and several other officers found a half-dozen people, but no one armed. One young lady immediately began recording the police with her iPhone – at close range -- something which Cunningham tells us happens all the time.

“Yea film us, that’s fine, but if we say, ‘Hey, get on the sidewalk,’ it’s probably for a good reason. She’s in danger, you know?”

Bruvarny adds, "Film all you want, but do it from a safe distance. And don’t interfere with why we’re there.”

The call about the man with a gun is one of several that could be potentially life-threatening for police. For much of the night, a “BOLO” warning – which means “Be On the Look Out” – is in-place because the department has a tip that someone in a Chevy Impala was planning to target white officers. Cunningham – a third-generation police officer – says it’s all part of the job and he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I honestly, as naïve as it may seem at times, I really do think we can make a difference. Treat others as you want to treat yourself. It’s a respect thing I’m gonna give you right off the bat. Until you choose to disrespect, or break the law, then I enforce it. It’s my duty; it’s my job to act.”

Closing time
Early in the morning – around 2 a.m. – Cunningham and Bruvarny are called downtown to the area near Canal Park. They’re among about a dozen units who arrive to keep the peace as hundreds of people -- mostly young and black – start leaving the bars. For Officer Bruvarny, this is what a typical Saturday-night-at-closing-time feels like, regardless of what’s happening in the news.

“People here in Akron: we have a good relationship with our community. It’s never a color issue. You’ve got your criminals and you’ve got your law-abiding citizens. You always just gotta be on alert, no matter what.”

One young lady ends up in the back of a squad car for drunkenness. Keith Burnett was in the crowd. He says the police did a good job handling the situation.

“I think the police cooperate with the community accordingly. They didn’t kill anybody tonight, and that was good. It’s an understanding with the community. I think Akron police grew up in [the] Akron community. With all the killings going on – to be honest, it’s kind of hard to look at it on the news.”

By 3 a.m., the sidewalks are empty and the street is calm. The officers get back into their car. They hit “save” on the in-unit video recorder, and they head off to their next call: a low-speed collision in a parking lot.