AKRON, Ohio — Akron voters could decide whether the city creates a citizen review board for the Akron Police Department, independent of city government, as soon as the midterm election in November, officials said.
The idea for a review board that would hear citizen complaints about policing, engage with residents and closely monitor trends in the police department has been talked about for years, the city said in a recent release announcing its intent to move forward with the board.
The issue has taken on greater urgency in the aftermath of the police killing of Jayland Walker in late June, which sparked ongoing protests around the city. Walker was shot more than 40 times after leading police on a chase, according to the coroner's report. The case is being investigated by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
For the review board to be truly independent, such a board should not be under the mayor’s control, according to a statement by the Racial Equity and Social Justice Task Force.
“Without that independence, the board would not enjoy the level of trust and support on the part of the community that is essential to its success,” wrote the RESJ Task Force in a statement issued by Task Force President Bishop Joey Johnson and Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chair Bill Rich.
The RESJ Task Force was established in 2020 when Akron declared racism a public health crisis, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The city’s aim was to create a “pro-equity strategic response” through the work of the task force’s six subcommittees in areas from public safety and education to health care and workforce development. The task force released a five-year plan earlier this year.
The criminal justice subcommittee focused mainly on policing, Rich said. The subcommittee recommended a citizen review board be established whose members would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council.
The board would receive reports from the police auditor about police use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints of police misconduct, Rich said. The role of the review board would be to make findings and recommendations to the mayor and report to the public at least annually.
The police auditor, who would investigate use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints, would make reports to the civilian oversight board for review and recommendations, he said.
“One of the things that's on the table right now is the possibility that the police auditor could be hired and fired by the by the civilian oversight board,” Rich said. “We didn't specifically recommend that but that's a possibility.”
Those kinds of details would be defined in the charter amendment, he said.
Keeping a citizen board apart from mayor oversight would keep members from being removed for making decisions the mayor disagrees with, the RESJ Task Force wrote. A charter amendment would ensure board members could be removed only “for cause,” such as dereliction of duty or malfeasance in office.
That’s one reason Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik supports putting a charter amendment on the ballot, he said.
“A future mayor, or the current mayor, could unilaterally decide to take that authority back,” he said. “It’s not just independence, but it's also legitimacy. This would be a pretty significant step as a community, so more than just the 13 members of City Council should be able to vote and weigh in — all the citizens of Akron should be able to weigh in on it.”
A review board wouldn’t just conduct reviews after the fact, Malik said, but also proactively look at policies and procedures.
“So that we're not only looking at our vehicle-chase policy after a tragedy happens, but we're actually looking at all of these policies all the time,” he said.
A citizen board would create better communication between law enforcement and the community.
“A lot of boards all across the country help facilitate that communication, where there's a trust gap there,” he said. “So we need mechanisms that can help build those bridges.”
Several Ohio cities, including Cleveland and Columbus, have launched a citizen review board by charter amendment, Malik said.
“I think we should put it in front of voters and I think voters will buy into it, no matter their thoughts about any specific case or any specific issue,” he said. “I think people recognize that we need change.”