Reporting and writing by Noor Hindi
Almost 18 years ago, before the last decade of protests against police brutality, Marco Sommerville, a former Akron City Council president, was frustrated about the process by which citizens could file complaints about the Akron Police Department.
At the time, he says, there was “no documentation of complaints” on APD’s end.
What Sommerville wanted was a citizen review board, which would investigate alleged misconduct by APD officers.
Instead, Akron hired Philip Young as a police auditor in 2007, five years after conversations began.
Young’s position was created to strengthen community connections to APD, monitor and audit APD complaints, review investigations of officer-involved shootings and make policy and procedural recommendations based on his findings.
Now, 13 years later, some are questioning whether Young’s position has actually worked for citizens.
At a public committee meeting on Sept. 30, Young said his ability to provide oversight has been limited because of shortened hours, lack of staff and lack of access to critical software and information.
Councilmembers and citizens alike argue Young’s lack of authority has led to an absence of oversight for APD. The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer in Minneapolis in May, inflamed many of these conversations as community members lamented past efforts at creating a stronger civilian oversight entity.
- Understanding the Summit County and Ohio races on your 2020 ballot
- What would “defunding the police” mean in Akron?
- Akron Public Schools has 13 police officers in schools. Here’s what they do.
“There are still problems,” Sommerville says now. “It’s been a fight all along. He needs to be given more power. And he needs to be given more staff. And he needs to be given more money. And he needs to be given more hours.”
Originally, Akron’s police auditor position was supposed to mimic the power and structure of Tucson, AZ’s, oversight agency. Liana Perez, former Tucson Police Auditor, told The Devil Strip during an interview that she remembers visiting Akron in 2002. Perez says the effort received pushback from Akron’s police chief, the police union and some elected officials at the time.
Still, by the time she left, it was her understanding that the Akron police auditor would be able to review completed investigations, to monitor ongoing investigations and to recommend changes based on their findings.
Though Young can review completed investigations and recommend changes to APD’s, Perez says his level of authority has been “watered down” from the original vision, as he is unable to monitor ongoing investigations, does not have access to body camera footage early in an investigation and does not have access to software programs that identify patterns in officer misconduct.
Rev. Gregory Harrison, who worked with the Akron Police Department for 14 years and retired in 2004, says APD faces “the same issues generating every seven or eight years.” He argues the police auditor, who is accountable to the public, is supposed to be the public’s “eyes and ears” within APD so the public feels they can trust the investigation process during cases of alleged officer misconduct.
“He’s just a figurehead,” argues Ray Greene, executive director of Akron’s Freedom BLOC. “When we say we need a police auditor and a civilian review board with subpoena power, and they come back to say, ‘well, we have a police auditor,’ people don’t understand the rest of the parts, and that he has virtually no power. He can’t do anything.’”
What is the role of a police auditor?
This summer, calls to the National Associations for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) have dramatically increased as cities across the country attempt to either create oversight structures or improve current oversight structures in their communities.
Perez, who is now director of operations at NACOLE, says in order for a police auditor to be able to adequately do their job, they must be able to accept and investigate all complaints and instances of force and must be properly staffed.
Young says complaints about APD have “gone down dramatically” over the years.
In 2008, Young remembers the number of use-of-force cases and citizen complaints being around 600. Today, he estimates they’ve gone down to about 300.
“That can be related to a few things. Number one, the officers are doing a better job; number two, we have body cameras; or number three, people have given up on the process,” he says.
Young says people often ask him, “is it worth me filing a complaint?” He tells them, “File your complaint. If nothing else, it starts a paper trail to see if that officer has had these issues in the past.”
Complaints Young receives are broad, he says. They can include anything from citizens feeling that an officer was “rude” to them to wrongful arrest allegations.
Young doesn’t have the powers or tools recommended by NACOLE for successful oversight.
This August, NACOLE released a study that identifies a set of 13 essential principles for oversight.
- Independence, which is defined as the ability of the oversight entity to work without the influence of law enforcement and politics
- Clearly defined authority
- Complete access to records and facilities in a timely manner
- Sustained communication between the oversight agency and internal affairs
- Full cooperation from the police department
- Support from stakeholders, such as politicians and city governments
- Adequate funding and operations resources
- Public reporting and transparency to ensure the public trusts and understands the roles of police and is provided with at least one written report each year
- The ability to identify patterns in data to make recommendations
- Community outreach
- Community involvement
- Confidentiality and protection from retaliation
- Procedural justice and legitimacy within the organization
Right now, the Akron police auditor position meets almost none of these principles.
Complaints about APD officers can be made directly to Young or to the Office of Professional Standards and Accountability (OPSA), which functions as APD’s internal affairs department. The OSPA investigates the complaints and Young reviews the completed findings, explained Young during a Reimagining Public Safety conversation with Akron City Council member Shammas Malik on Sept. 30.
Young said this process prevents him from monitoring ongoing investigations in order to ensure all evidence is properly considered before a decision is made.
Additionally, Young does not have access to the software programs police departments use to track data surrounding complaints, use-of-force instances, and critical instances, which are cases where serious injury or death occurs while in the custody of police. The software is needed to identify trends and patterns in officer misconduct and adequately make recommendations for policy changes within APD, Malik says.
Young says he’s asked multiple times for access to relevant software but has “gotten different answers” each time he’s asked, he said during the Sept. 30 meeting. He says this software would be “tremendously helpful” and would cut down on the time it takes him to wait on APD to provide him with relevant information.
Young does not have access to body camera footage at the beginning of an investigation. He receives footage at the same time as the general public, which is when an investigation has ended. Young can ask for footage before the conclusions, but APD can choose whether or not to provide that footage.
“Sometimes I don’t see them for months after they’ve been filed. It’s very difficult to have input on something you don’t know anything about until later,” Young said.
Young’s role, in short, should be to “monitor and audit APD complaint investigations,” and make policy recommendations, according to a job description on the City of Akron’s website. But he is unable to do so because he’s not brought into the process from the beginning, he said.
Currently, punishments for APD officers who violate protocol are at the discretion of the police chief. If an officer violates a minor or informal violation, APD’s contract with the Fraternal Order of the Police allows those violations to be disregarded after two years. Major violations and suspensions from duty are also at the discretion of the chief. Young does not have the power to review suspensions or punishments or to make recommendations.
But even if Young were to be given oversight power during ongoing police investigations, access to body camera footage and relevant software, he only works 30 hours a week. Prior to March, Young worked 20 hours a week.
“He’s one person for a department of over 450 officers,” Malik says. “One person cannot effectively oversee 450 people or audit 450 people. In my mind, what we ought to have is at least three people.”
With these limitations considered, Perez says she’s unsure about Young’s “effectiveness as an auditor.”
“One of the biggest ways to cripple an oversight mechanism is to not resource it appropriately,” she says. “It needs to be appropriately staffed. If you want to do data analysis, you need a data person. You need somebody to crunch those numbers and do some analysis based on those numbers.”
In the past, all law enforcement had to rely on for investigations was officer statements, bystander testimony and police reports. Today, with body camera footage and sometimes cellphone footage, an auditor is examining hours of recordings.
Young’s shortened hours also hinder his community outreach abilities. Right now, Young does not release an annual report of his findings to the public each year, which is critical to an oversight system’s success, according to NACOLE.
“There’s no way I can do an annual report with just myself here and no help to do that. No matter what I do, it takes a long time when you’re by yourself… it’s very, very difficult. Even at 30 hours, it’s very difficult,” Young says.
What’s being done to change Young’s position to better fit the needs of the community?
In July, Akron City Council brought together a Special Committee on Reimagining Public Safety to begin conversations about APD’s practices. This committee’s meetings are designed for councilmembers and the public to learn more about APD’s policies and procedures.
Each council member is part of a working group, one of which is “accountability and transparency,” addressing APD policies and procedures, the role of the police auditor and accessibility of policing-related data.
The first meeting, which took place on Sept. 14, was testy, with Chief Kenneth Ball denying there was any need for this process.
“This organization has always been one that examined ourselves, that has constantly looked out to try and figure out if there are things we can do better, things that were necessary to improve, things that we shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “I appreciate some of the sentiment that is accepting and supporting of that. But I haven’t heard a lot of that in any of these conversations, which is a great frustration. And I would say I’m thankful to be here, but I’m not. I’m frustrated.”
Malik, who sits on the accountability and transparency committee, plans to introduce legislation this fall to give the auditor more power.
“Community oversight is about protecting civilian rights, but it’s also about creating trust. And to me, you need independent oversight to have effective trust because of historic injustices, because of national breaches of trust, but also because of local breaches of trust,” Malik says.
Malik’s legislation will require Young to have greater access to information early in investigations; a staff of at least three people, including a deputy auditor and a communications assistant; and a civilian review board that Young reports to. Young currently reports to Mayor Horrigan, Malik says.
Over the next few months, council will continue meeting, researching better practices and learning more about procedures within APD. By Dec. 7, each working group will publish a report on its findings and recommendations to Mayor Horrigan.
Reimagining Public Safety committee meetings are livestreamed every Wednesday and Thursday at 5 pm on Akron City Council’s YouTube page.
Week of 10/5
Technology Meeting #2 – Wednesday 10/7 at 5pm
Prevention Meeting #2 – Thursday 10/8 at 5pm
Week of 10/12
Accountability/Transparency Meeting #3 – Wednesday 10/14 at 5pm
Personnel and Culture Meeting #3 – Thursday 10/15 at 5pm
Week of 10/19
Technology Meeting #3 – Wednesday 10/21 at 5pm
Prevention Meeting #3 – Thursday 10/22 at 5pm
Week of 10/26
Accountability and Transparency Meeting #4 – Wednesday 10/28 at 5pm
Personnel and Culture Meeting #4 – Thursday 10/29 at 5pm
Week of 11/2
Technology Meeting #4 – Wednesday 11/4 at 5pm
Prevention Meeting #4 – Thursday 11/5 at 5pm
Week of 11/9
Accountability and Transparency Meeting #5 – Tuesday 11/10 at 5pm (Tuesday due to
Personnel and Culture Meeting #5 – Thursday 11/12 at 5pm
Week of 11/16
Technology Meeting #5 – Wednesday 11/18 at 5pm
Prevention Meeting #5 – Thursday 11/19 at 5pm
Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Garrick Black/Noir Creative