What would “defunding the police” mean in Akron?

Reporting, writing and graphics by Abbey Marshall; lead illustration by Chris Harvey

When activists marched in the streets in June demanding racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, people across the country united under a demand to elected officials: “Defund the Police.”

The specifics of that demand run the gamut, from full-fledged police abolition to revoking a small percentage of the police budget and reallocating it to other city departments.

In the heat of protests against police brutality in June, Akron’s Freedom Black-Led Organizing Collaborative, or BLOC, sent a letter to local elected officials with a list of demands, including a call to reduce the police budget by 25% and use those funds instead for crime prevention and community health programs. 

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“We need to invest in people and invest in our schools as opposed to investing in law and order,” says Ray Greene, executive director of the organization. “If you couple that 25% with asset forfeiture money and put it into nonprofit organizations and community projects, you’ll see changes in the community.” (On top of reducing the budget, Greene has called for asset forfeiture money to be used to fund community projects.)

To gain better insight into the distribution of city resources, The Devil Strip analyzed public records, including service call logs and the city budget reports, and talked to local activists and the Akron Police Department. 

In brief, we learned:

  • The Akron Police Department’s budget grew 30% between 2015 and 2020.
  • Calls for service have decreased by about 5% each year since 2016, with a larger drop-off of 8.9% between 2018 and 2019.
  • Based on a sample police log from July 2019, out of 17,820 calls for service, only 13.8% of incidents (2,466) warranted written police reports. Of those reports, 26.3% — or 3.6% of calls overall for the month — were for violent crimes, including forcible rape, robbery, assault, intimidation, arson and other crimes.
  • Activists say other professionals, such as social workers or mental health professionals, are better equipped to handle some of the situations police commonly deal with. The department insists its officers are best positioned to respond. 

The Freedom BLOC’s list of demands have been in place since 2004, Greene says, but they have gotten little to no traction over the past decade and a half. He believes it’s time for activists to take matters into their own hands by training and supporting elected officials who will propose and implement policy changes.

Some local elected officials have expressed openness to reallocating some police funding and redirecting certain calls for service to other agencies. 

City Council will convene a special committee that reimagines public safety and policing, with groups focused on personnel and culture, accountability and transparency, and technology and equipment. The committee will present concrete recommendations on Dec. 7.

Shammas Malik (Ward 8), who serves on the city’s Budget and Finance Committee and Public Safety Committee, said in a July 7 Freedom BLOC town hall that he is “absolutely” willing to reassess the budget.

“It’s not the most radical ask in the world,” he expressed then. “What we are talking about now in the country and here locally is, what is the best way to create public safety? We certainly have things we need the police for, but we have a quarter million calls for service a year. What percentage of those could be done other ways?”

APD’s budget continues to increase, despite lower service calls

The recently released 2020 budget surpassed $70 million. 

The amount of money allocated to the police department continues to increase, despite the police department receiving fewer calls for service every year since 2016.

Calls for service represent all calls except station calls, which are created when police are performing non-patrol tasks like filing paperwork or tagging evidence; out-of-service calls, which are created when an officer is unable to answer service calls, such as when they’ve recently ended a shift or have a flat tire; and meal breaks.

The primary reason for the 30% budget increase in the past five years is labor costs, City of Akron Finance Director Steve Fricker says. 

Salaries and overtime pay make up about 54% of the total costs to the department. 

The current count of uniformed officers is 458, including supervisors and the 45 new recruits hired in late 2019. Since their hire, about 10 officers have retired. The 2020 budget allows for 468 officers and 31 additional police personnel.

Base salary for a new police officer is currently $66,768.

Additionally, those rising labor costs include a 2.75% cost of living adjustment to all city employee salaries, as well as incremental pay increases for police officers according to experience, longevity and promotions.

Finally, Fricker says some grant funding that had been allocated specifically to subsidize officer salaries ran out in recent years, so money from the city’s general fund needed to go to the department to continue paying those officers.

Fricker says the police department has been understaffed in recent years, so while service calls may be decreasing, the budget is growing alongside units the department is trying to develop.

“That’s a big complaint that the city council members get from citizens. They are asking for more traffic enforcement, and we haven’t been able to do it to the level they would like to do,” he says. “Because of our low staffing levels, there’s not really a working vice unit like they used to have. There’s areas like that where they haven’t been able to staff functions typical to police departments.”

According to data from Governing, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes state and local government and policy, cities with a population between 100,000 and 200,000 have an average of 15.9 officers per 10,000 people.

Akron, a city with a population of 197,000, averages 23 officers for every 10,000 people. 

How the police department is funded

Approximately 83% of the Akron Police Department’s funding comes from the city’s general revenue fund. Another 16% comes from the “special revenue fund,” which includes income sources like Issue 4, which voters passed to increase taxes for public safety and infrastructure. The remaining 0.7% comes primarily from cash or property confiscated by police. 

The city has wide latitude over how to spend the general fund. That money comes from taxpayers, through income and property taxes, as well as court revenues and some funding from the State of Ohio.

The city decides how to divvy up the general fund almost a year in advance, led by Fricker and the finance department. That department passes a temporary budget to cover the first quarter of the year while the proposals are pending. Then the finance department prepares a budget and presents their recommendations to city council over several days in the spring. City council members can propose changes, though Fricker doesn’t recall any alterations being made this year, and it is adopted at the end of March as law, effective immediately.

The special revenue fund is an account established by the city government to collect funds that must be used for a specific purpose or project. This may come in the form of grant money specific to police or special levies. For example, Issue 4, passed in 2017, increased income taxes to generate about $15 million each year, split evenly between police, fire and infrastructure. Fricker says most of this fund is used for capital needs, like replacing old patrol cars. The special revenue fund is the money that is likely unable to be diverted from the police department. 

The trust and agency fund, which only generates $501,000 of the $71.1 million budget, is hardly used, Fricker says. It is mostly funded through civil asset forfeiture, which is money and property confiscated when someone is arrested. As their case works its way through the justice system, the judge decides based on court proceedings if the money will be returned to the person or remitted to the city. Typically, the city has to give a portion of that money to federal, state and county governments as well. 

Because so much of police funding comes from the aforementioned general revenue fund — which is essentially the big pot of cash the city divvies up when they create and approve the budget — it could theoretically be moved to any other department, Fricker says.

“In theory, there’s really nothing that is [untouchable],” Frick says. “Other than the existing staffing that we’re trying to maintain in the police and fire departments — there’s nothing dictating how we allocate the money to go in the general fund.”

The service runs patrol officers make

The Devil Strip obtained public records of all service calls made in July 2019 to sample what incidents patrol officers face on each run. The log reflects any patrol officer activities during the month, whether it is responding to a call or self-generated, meaning an officer initiates an activity without a citizen call. (We selected July 2019 because summer months are typically when crime reports peak, and 2020 months are likely to be skewed due to shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Nearly 9% of calls for service are created when officers call the station to report off-duty extra jobs, such as working security for an event outside of their police duties, as required by department policy. Approximately 8% are people calling and requesting to meet with an officer, for anything from a civil complaint to a vehicle failure. Another 6.8% are traffic stops, and 5.9% are police checking in on specific locations, either at the owners’ request or because they’re the sites of previous problems.

The duties above, which are the most frequent calls for that month, comprise about a third of the call activity log. The rest include at least 170 other tasks, including responding to security alarms, verbal fights, drug offenses, shots fired and burglary, but those calls are far fewer than those listed above.

Of those 17,820 service calls, only 13.8% of incidents warranted written police reports (2,466), according to the city’s database of reports made during the same time frame. 

Of those written reports, 26.3% — or 3.6% of calls overall — were considered violent crimes, including forcible rape, robbery, assault, intimidation and arson.

In all of 2019, Akron police received and responded to a total of 182,260 calls, resulting in 33,536 reports throughout the year.

The station averages about 500 calls for service per day and between 12,000 and 13,000 calls per month, APD spokesperson Lt. Michael Miller estimates. He says a “large percentage” of people call 911 for non-emergency issues.  (911 calls are initiated by members of the public. Calls for service include 911 calls as well as activity initiated by police officers themselves.)

“As a patrol officer, you have to stay dialed in and focused or in a condition to go up or down, left or right,” says Miller, who worked as a patrol officer 18 of his 21 years at the Akron Police Department. “It varies a lot. You could be not very busy three or four hours straight, or it could get very rough. Anything from low-level calls, civil disputes, property crimes with no victims to a homicide or death call.”

‘Investing in the community:’ Activists say some police duties can be reallocated

Nationally, lots of communities are talking about taking some responsibilities away from the police and ceding them to organizations who specialize in working with vulnerable populations, including homeless people and people experiencing domestic violence, for example. Some activists are calling for total abolition of police forces. Others are pushing for police departments to shrink, but not disappear. 

When we asked who was best equipped to handle various service calls, activists offered a variety of solutions. Greene recommends investments in already-existing programs to combat specific problems police may not be thoroughly trained to handle. 

W.O.M.B. already deals with most of those issues,” Greene says. “W.O.M.B, Freedom BLOC, Harmony House — if they had money, would be able to deal with and prevent some of these issues like disorderly conduct, vagrancy, trespassing.”

Activists suggest investments in other organizations that could respond to calls related to their area of specialization, as well as prevention initiatives. Instead of police responding to someone having a mental health incident, Greene says, a mental health worker could be funded and trained to deescalate the situation and provide proper medical care to assist that person and prevent any future issues. In the case of a domestic dispute, a battered women’s shelter could intervene. 

“When we think of community safety, what would it look like when we invest in community counselors?” DaMareo Cooper, BlackPAC’s national field director, said at a July 7 virtual town hall hosted by Freedom BLOC to discuss policy changes to protect Black Akronites. “Police officers have been trained to stop the threat, but what if the threat isn’t violent?”

Miller, on the other hand, says he believes police officers are in fact the best department to handle what he labels as “non-police activities,” such as responding to calls about child welfare and mental health incidents. (Welfare checks make up roughly 3.8% of calls for service in the log from July 2019.)

“People will say ‘defund, defund, defund,’ but based on the dynamics of situations, we might argue the police are best suited to handle a very combative, aggressive person experiencing a mental health crisis,” he says. “A counseling agency wouldn’t be the first agency for a situation like that.”

Miller argues a lot of calls are time-sensitive and come in a way “where there would be no realistic timeframe to refer to another agency.” 

“When people call the police, they want an immediate police response,” he says. “Is it even practical on a Wednesday afternoon to tell this family not to expect a response from child services or the hospital until next Tuesday? Their crisis is right now. The degree we can go listen, offer resources; that’s all in our toolbox to do.”

Activists counter that, if social service providers had more resources, they could help prevent the occurrence of incidents, and respond more effectively when incidents do occur. 

“Stop thinking about it as defunding the police, and think about it as investing in the community,” Cooper says. “We need to spend money on what makes communities thrive and invest in people.”

A 2011 study by the Police Executive Research Forum, mandated by the City of Akron to assess the effectiveness of APD, analyzed the amount of time tasks such as calls for service, self-initiated activities, meal breaks and administrative tasks took up, and called that amount of time “higher than some comparable agencies.”

The report recommended that “the Department should initiate alternative methods for responding to service demands” to give patrol officers more time to engage with the community.

“We wear a lot of hats and handle a lot of non-police related things,” Miller acknowledges. Still, he says, “police officers are the best equipped to handle those dynamic situations.” 

Some local officials are open to reallocating police funds 

As calls to defund the police grow more widespread and detailed, some local officials are ready to listen to constituents. Others have already prepared proposals for changes to the department. 

Russ Neal, the city council member for Ward 4, contacted The Devil Strip about a plan to reallocate $5 million from the police budget to other means of community investment. He said this discussion had been taking place long before the protests, but current events are an impetus for others getting on board.

“I’d like to look at how we could better utilize resources regarding community policing,” he says. “When people have a need, the only place they call are the police. We are looking at diversifying that and how to better utilize those dollars.”

Neal’s first proposal would be to hire at least four community liaisons for each of the 10 wards, be they social workers or mental health workers, at a salary of $40,000 each. Those 40 jobs would cost the city $1.6 million and provide people with the professional skills to deal with social work situations and mental health crises as an alternative to the police. 

Next, he says, each ward should receive $250,000 for community wraparound support dollars for organizations and programs that uplift and support those who live there, such as after-school programs.

“We’re all pretty cash-strapped,” he says. “Last year, I requested a grant for over $140,000 for my entire ward. I only got $8,000. Every ward did.” 

Finally, he suggests hiring two additional part-time community ambassadors per ward, paid $25,000 per year, to engage with youth in the community. 

All of his proposed programming amounts to $4.6 million, leaving a surplus of $400,000 that he says could be invested back in the police if need be, as some of those calls will likely still go back to the police.

“You save money, and you’re better able to service the community,” he says. “The idea would be to create a community network working with the police officers so you could more intimately serve the community.”

Neal says he is waiting on updated statistics and information to come through from the police department before he makes solid proposals in council.

“Our police officers and our police department have been taking a beating for stuff they haven’t done that is happening across the nation,” Neal says. “We want to make sure they’re part of conversation on how to better utilize resources, actually saving them money and freeing up their time to do more police work.”

Two other elected officials — Veronica Sims of Summit County Council and Shammas Malik of Ward 8 —  joined Freedom BLOC’s July 7 virtual town hall to express their openness to advocate for altering the police budget and have conversations with constituents about what future policing looks like in the city.

“It’s government by the people for the people,” Sims said on July 7. “It’s not what we want to do with the budget; it’s what the people want to do with the budget. I’m open to doing whatever we need to do to address the myriad issues, but people keep needing to speak out.”

In July, city council announced a special committee that will reimagine public safety and policing, including four groups: personnel and culture, accountability and transparency, prevention, and technology and equipment. Each city council member will serve on a committee in the fall with the intent of proposing concrete recommendations in a report scheduled to be released to the public on Dec. 7.

None of the committees focus explicitly on the police department budget; and some possible reform initiatives, such as expanding police training, will likely require additional funding. 

Police abolitionists want investments to prevent crime for a future without officers

Greene argues that police are ineffective in that they are a band-aid: a response once damage has already been done and a crime is already committed.

“I want to see the police go away. I know that’s not a conversation we’re ready to have,” says Greene, who is one of the growing number of activists calling on a total abolition of a police force.

The key to a successful society, he says, is prevention.

Each crime boils down to a fundamental need not being met in underfunded Black communities, he says. Economic crimes such as burglary and theft could be prevented with the implementation of a living wage of $15 per hour and the implementation of entrepreneurship instruction in public schools. Assault and intimidation, both behavioral crimes, could be curbed through investment in school counselors that work on communication skills and de-escalation tactics at a young age. Destruction of property could be stopped through after-school and community outreach programs.

“It’s about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: giving people affordable housing, living wage, childcare, healthcare,” he says. “You do those things, you’re looking at a different Akron in 10 years.”

“These things are going to continue to happen for sure,” Greene says. “Let’s not create a false narrative to think that once we get rid of 25% of the budget that everything is going to be peaches and cream. When it fails, they want to go back to the norm. We can’t let it. This is 400 years in the making. 10 years is going to just be the foundation to change the thinking of the government and our people.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos from a Downtown Black Lives Matter demonstration on May 30 by Garrick Black/Noir Creative.