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Akron police, mayor stand by officers' use of chemical irritants during Jayland Walker protest

 A screen grab from a video released by Akron Police on Saturday, April 22, 2023.
Akron Police Department
A screen grab from a video released by Akron Police on Saturday, April 22, 2023, in which Police Chief Steve Mylett defended police use of chemical irritants at a protest on Akron's West Side on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

The city of Akron and the Akron Police Department asserted Saturday that police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray during a protest on Copley Road Wednesday was appropriate, sharing aerial video and video from officers’ perspectives that purport to show objects being thrown at officers prior to those actions.

Akron Police Chief Steve Mylett said the use of force was consistent with the city’s policies and also retroactively consistent with a temporary order a federal judge granted Thursday that barred use of chemical irritants on nonviolent protests, arguing protesters became “violent” prior to doing so.

Mylett and Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said in statements released Saturday that for two hours police followed what Mylett called a “peaceful protest.” However, he argued the protest became problematic once the intersection at East Avenue and Copley Road became blocked to vehicle traffic, and protesters threw rocks, bricks, and bottles at the officers. He said more than 75 vehicles were backed up at the intersection.

"The officers gave multiple orders for the crowd to disperse before deploying chemical irritants," Mylett said. "The officers continue to work to gain compliance from the protesters to clear the roadway."

The videos show the following incidents where it appears those objects were thrown at officers. It’s not clear when the aerial videos were recorded because they do not each have specific time stamps.

  • In one aerial video, a person who is off the side of the road — it’s not clear if they are a protester — throws some sort of object in the general direction of officers. The video is too far away to make out many details.
  • In another aerial video, a person in a car appears to throw some kind of liquid on officers, and the car tries to drive away.
  • In another piece of aerial footage, another person who is standing off the side of the road throws an object at officers. It's also not clear if they were part of the main body of the protest group, and it’s difficult to make out what the object is.
  • An officer’s body camera on the ground appears to show a moment when an officer is hit in the back of the head with a plastic water bottle, as well. A video recorded by an Ideastream Public Media reporter with a different angle of this incident shows this happens after officers started use of pepper spray.

Video of the protest captured by Ideastream Public Media reporters does not show any objects being thrown at officers prior to them using pepper spray and tear gas, but it does show several water bottles being thrown at them after they start using those measures. One reporter did also see a small rock being thrown at officers after pepper spray was used. Two reporters were also hit with pepper spray while standing on the sidewalk, off the street.

“It’s important to note that the use of chemical irritants on Wednesday, April 19th was consistent with the Court’s order,” Akron Mayor Horrigan said in a statement. “And while some may not agree with the use of chemical irritants, the facts remain that when people start throwing objects at police officers, they are no longer peaceful. The safety of all of our citizens is paramount and when we have dozens of cars blocking EMS routes, it becomes a public safety issue for everyone.”

The court’s order was signed by both parties after a complaint was filed Thursday by the Akron Bail Fund seeking a temporary order forcing the city to refrain from using chemical irritants on peaceful protesters.

Elizabeth Bonham, an attorney representing the Akron Bail Fund, said even if “one or two people were doing something unlawful,” that doesn’t excuse “wholesale suppression of speech” against the whole group of protesters.

“The use of chemical weapons to punish nonviolent demonstrators is obviously not in line with the restraining order or with constitutional law, restraining order or not,” Bonham said on Saturday evening. “We expect the city to adhere to the terms of this order and I hope that community members will feel safe exercising their rights despite the city’s persistent threats.”

Ideastream Public Media has requested a copy of the city police department's policy on crowd dispersal.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.