Drone backup for SWAT officers. Spy cams sending live drug house footage to the police station. Traffic lights collecting license plate numbers.
A police academy with higher standards than the state requires. Getting more qualified and diverse cadets.
Fewer use-of-force cases. Pioneering de-escalation and body cameras, which now automatically flip on when officers use a taser.
In the first round of Reimagining Public Safety meetings this month, Akron City Council is finding a police force already reimagining itself.
But a lack of diversity continues to dog the force, especially among supervisors.
The department’s police auditor position, which took years to fill after a public fight with the police union, also has no authority or staff to investigate allegations of police misconduct and no access to a new system that tracks citizen complaints and uses of force.
And the new IA Pro system can flag officers for more training or possible discipline. But after three years of monitoring, supervisors have yet to develop or codify a strategy to use it.
The four subgroups of City Council’s Special Committee on Reimagining Public Safety will meet four more times each before presenting a list of recommended reforms on Dec. 7, including some already being discussed.
At-large Councilman Jeff Fusco and Brad McKitrick, a retired firefighter who represents Ellet, suggested hiring future police cadets as parks department employees or 311 and 911 call center operators, where they would deal with the public until turning 21. (Ohio doesn’t allow officers under 21 to carry firearms.)
“I think that’s a great idea,” Training Bureau Commander Lt. Gerald E. Forney said. “You’re already observing them doing work and, like you said, communicating with people. So, you’re getting a good judge of character.”
Councilman Russ Neal, who represents West Akron, wants $5 million of the more than $65 million spent each year on policing to go toward hiring two full-time social workers, two full-time mental health workers and a part-time council assistant for each ward. The assistant would coordinate every local organization that provides wraparound services to address the root causes of violence, including poverty, mental illness, addiction and unemployment.
“We’ve got to be able to more intimately serve our communities,” said Neal, whose initial research suggests most 911 calls are for nonviolent issues like “a complaint with a neighbor or someone passed out in the street or a barking dog or Ms. Jones, who has dementia, walking down the street in her bath robe.”
Early discussion, however, has focused less on sweeping reforms and more on current practice. Liaisons assigned by Chief Ken Ball, who expressed anger and frustration this month with the Reimagining Public Safety initiative, have used most the time educating council.
Akron Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards and Accountability (OPSA) handles all citizen complaints or uses of force, which 59% of the time involve take-downs.
The internal affairs unit also audits the property room, trains and randomly drug tests officers and reviews random body camera footage.
OPSA runs the new IA Pro program that tracks every accommodations and concern for each of the department’s 458 sworn officers.
“Our first full year was 2018,” said Lt. Chris Brown with OPSA. “So now we’re trying to come up with what are we going to do with this data that we’ve compiled, and if we see that an officer has quite a few uses of force or been involved in quite a few critical incidents, how should we handle that? Is there some sort of counseling? And it really needs to be codified somewhere in procedure.”
After an investigation by an officer’s supervisors (or a detective in officer-involved shootings), a report with possible violations is sent to Police Auditor Phil Young, Brown said. Young has no access to the IA Pro software that gives trend data on how often officers use force, fire weapons or receive complaints.
Similar minor offenses that are two years or older are not considered when disciplining officers. “That seems to me to be somewhat at odds with the progressive discipline,” Councilman Shammas Malik said.
“That’s in the [police union] contract,” Brown responded.
Before 45 cadets graduated from the reopened Akron Police Academy, they were among 1,428 applicants.
Several hundred decided not to take the test, which is typical, Lt. Allen Fite Jr. said. In the end, only 271 candidates passed the written test and physical exam, which involves sit-ups, push-ups and a 1½ mile run.
If the city needs to hire more cadets, the candidate pool is not exhausted, but it’s more shallow than usual.
“You used to post that there was going to be a police test or a fire test and 3,000 people rushed to sign up for the test,” said Fite, who runs training for the police force. “That doesn’t happen anymore. We have to put in some work and we have to get out there on the streets and do a grassroot recruitment campaign, from going to barber shops, attending churches, going to churches, social media is big.”
The city reinstated the academy and began paying cadets $27.64 an hour while in training. The maximum eligible age was upped from 35 to 40 and the physical test requirements were lowered by 15%, assuming cadets would get in shape by the end of the academy.
All this has helped find more qualified and diverse recruits, officers said. But the department remains largely white and male.
“Diversity is the big issue. You ask any police executive across the country,” Fite said.
Lt. Kris Beitzel, a shift commander, read the breakdown for the 458 sworn officers: 93% male and 7% female officers; 81% white and 17% Black. Among the 100 police supervisors, 80 are white men, 12 are Black men, five are white women and one each is Hispanic, Indian or a Black female.
Lt. Mark Farrar gave an enthusiastic presentation on new technology.
Farrar oversaw the $1 million, three-year implementation of the body-worn camera system, which has logged 4,500 hours of footage — enough to occupy a single person for 188 straight days.
These nine terabytes of video will only get bigger, especially with school resource officers now required to wear them. “This is going to be a tsunami of digital evidence. That requires a huge lift on personnel to sort them, tag them, review them for records retention, for public records requests, to release to council, to release to law, to release to the media.”
Farrar said his team is working on an online reporting system that “would allow citizens to report low-level crimes, such as minor accidents, to an online portal,” bypassing the need to dispatch patrol officers. “This would allow officers to work more efficiently in the field and respond to higher priority calls for service,” he said.
A new e-ticketing system will allow patrol officers to input information directly into a new records management system while printing a ticket at the scene.
“We’re also interested in moving forward with license plate reader technology,” which could be installed on the city’s existing fiber optic network, Farrar said.
Farrar was skeptical of shot spotter technology. It’s “hit or miss” and “relatively new technology,” he said. To be accurate in triangulating location, three sensors must hear the gunshot, he said.
“So, the question is, where would you put this technology that’s very expensive?” he asked. “And if you put it in one area, what about the other areas?”
Already hidden on telephone poles or buildings are mobile camera systems that typically provide surveillance for known or suspected drug houses.
Detectives can log into Milestone, which is part of the camera system, and they can actually see the locations that they are putting under surveillance.
Councilman Neal asked about using drones. Farrar, who owns one, said they’re already shopping for one.
“Can you imagine if there was a drone flying over that tanker accident on Route 8 and you could keep everyone a safe distance away and read the placard on the tanker and know exactly what chemicals or hazards are in the truck?” he asked after Neal suggested their use. “Imagine if it was used in a SWAT call where police had a live eyeball-in-the-sky, first-hand view of what’s going on.”
Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at [email protected] or 330-996-3792.
Watch the meetings
Akron Council’s 5 p.m. subcommittee meetings on Reimagining Public Safety are broadcast on Youtube at https://bit.ly/3kVg1Fi. To submit a public comment to a specific subcommittee, email [email protected]
The next meetings are Accountability and Transparency on Sept. 30, Personnel and Culture on Oct. 1, Technology on Oct. 7 and Prevention on Oct. 8.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron is ‘Reimagining Public Safety’ with drones, diversity and license plate readers