Reporting and writing by Noor Hindi
A number of charter amendments appeared on Akronites’ Nov. 3 ballots, including a resolution that would change how and when body-worn camera footage would be released to the public.
Overwhelmingly, Akronites voted for Issue 2, with over 80% of voters supporting the amendment.
Before the amendment was passed, body-worn camera footage was released to the public at the end of a use-of-force investigation or at the discretion of the police chief. This could sometimes take years.
Now, APD recordings of officers using force against citizens resulting in death or serious bodily injury will be released to the public immediately.
This change, says Margo Sommerville, president of Akron City Council, shows that most Akronites desire more transparency and accountability from the Akron Police Department.
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“We found ourselves having a conversation around accountability and transparency as it related to body cam footage because of the tragic death of George Floyd,” she says. “There were many protests and rallies that happened in Akron and a lot of what we were hearing was the need for transparency — the need for accountability, and some of those frustrations. We saw it as an opportunity for residents of Akron to really decide if accountability and transparency are important.”
Previously, the chief of the Akron Police Department could decide if body-worn camera footage would be released before an investigation ended. Judi Hill, president of the Akron chapter of the NAACP, says this caused mistrust in the community.
“I think it’s powerful,” she says. “You can no longer hide behind, ‘this is what happened’ when that’s not the truth. It’s one thing to say that we have transparency. And it’s another thing to actually implement rules and laws to show that we have transparency. And [Issue 2] is one of them.”
Before the end of January, Akron City Council will create legislation that addresses Issue 2. They will decide exactly when footage will be released and in what format. The Akron Police Department will need time before release to edit out any sensitive information like license plate information.
Ward 8 Councilmember Shammas Malik says Akron City Council will need to decide if APD can further edit the footage before releasing it. He says it may be helpful to release an entire unedited file, and then an edited version that’s slowed down and provides the context of the incident for citizens.
“I think it’s important to release both. Just having an edited video with a lack of trust raises concerns,” he says.
In 2017, after years of advocacy from citizens, APD started to require that all officers wear body-worn cameras and that they be mounted on the dashboards of police cruisers.
Beth Vild, an advocate through the W.O.M.B (Way of Mind and Body), helped push for all APD officers to wear body-worn cameras in 2015. She hopes Issue 2 will not only increase transparency but hold officers accountable.
“We were finding that the ways officers were perceiving things happening was not the way the community was perceiving how an event happened. So the footage helps people say, ‘this is how I was really treated, this is what really happened.’ This allows a fighting case in court with the judicial system,” says Vild. “But it’s certainly not a fix-all. It’s one aspect of this giant machine we have to dismantle.”
Issue 2 has some limitations. For example, off-duty officers working in other settings, like at grocery stores or libraries, don’t wear body-worn cameras. Neither do the narcotics and SWAT teams.
For Ray Greene, executive director of Freedom Black Lead Organizing (Freedom BLOC), the passing of Issue 2 is a big win but doesn’t address larger systemic issues. Greene advocates for defunding the police and reallocating funds to local organizations that can work on crime prevention and community health programs.
“Body-worn cameras are not going to stop the issues of racial profiling,” he says. “I feel good about this legislation passing because it shows me that the community is, first of all, voting, [and] that the community is understanding of policing issues. But people want police reform without full understanding that police reform will never work. We need an overhaul of the criminal justice system, period.”
Akron City Council recently wrapped up their Reimagining Public Safety meetings, which were meant to address a number of issues regarding transparency, accountability, culture and prevention at APD. Akron City Council will send a report of these meetings in January.
Catch up on the reimagining public safety meetings, and keep up to date with Issue 2, by watching Akron City Council meetings every Monday at 7 p.m. at youtube.com/akroncitycouncil.
Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at email@example.com.
Photo: Garrick Black/Noir Creative