It's been 7 months. When will Akron's new police oversight board start investigating complaints?
Akron's Citizens' Police Oversight Board has been up and running for about seven months. While the board is receiving complaints from citizens about police misconduct, it is not investigating them.
The board has seen delays in getting its rules approved, as well as hiring for positions in the police auditor’s office - which handles complaints.
Board members say there is still plenty of work to get done in the meantime.
What has the board been up to since it was seated in March?
The board meets every other week. In the weeks between, they have committee meetings for governance, human resources and budget, community engagement and complaints.
The board itself is not investigating complaints. That’s partly because they haven't adopted their official rules yet.
The proposed rules explicitly give the CPOB the authority to investigate complaintsseparately from the Akron Police Department's Office of Professional Standards and Accountability – which handles internal investigations.
The board unanimously passed these rules in July, but the rules still have to be approved by city council.
However, in a recent meeting, the board spoke with officials from the city’s law department. They were warned, as they've been told previously, that Akron’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #7, might sue them if they decide to conduct their own investigations.
The police union's contract states that only the department’s internal affairs office can investigate use of force complaints.
The charter amendment approved by voters, which created the CPOB, states the board should be able to conduct investigations separately from the police department.
That's one of the fundamental reasons voters approved the charter amendment for creating the board: to provide independent oversight over the police.
Board may decide whether to change its proposed rules
Even though the board already approved rules that give them broad investigatory power, some members have changed their mind since having that conversation with the law department, said Bob Gippin, local attorney and chair of the governance committee.
Instead, they want their investigatory power to be included in the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union, which is up for renegotiation next year, he said.
"I have my view about it - that we should push it on to council and let council take it up, and there are others that, I can well understand, think ‘no, we should be more cautious now and pull back, and again, look to next year to hopefully get it negotiated,’” Gippin said. “I can see both sides of it, and we just need to take a vote.”
The board is split on this, Gippin added.
“It’ll be a divided vote, and again, I don’t know, really, how the count will go. I think there are some who are still undecided,” Gippin said.”
The board is waiting to vote to send the legislation to council until all members are present for a meeting. One or two people have been absent for the past few meetings.
If they vote down the motion, Gippin said they'll have to give themselves less investigatory power.
“We would just go back and there’d be a rewrite of the rules with the law department, and presumably get a version that the law department would be able to support,” he said.
What happens to complaints when they are filed?
Complaints are handled by the police auditor's office, which the board oversees. The current police auditor, Phil Young, is on medical leave.
In August, the board hired local private investigator Tom Fields to take over in the meantime.
Fields takes complaints, documents them and refers them to the police department's internal affairs office to be investigated.
He can also review investigations the department has already completed and make his own conclusion about whether policies were followed.
Auditor Young's contract with the city is up this year, so the HR committee will be hiring for this role.
They’re also hiring an administrative assistant. Since the board was formed, they’ve offered the job to several candidates who ended up seeking employment elsewhere.
Gippin told me there's at least a dozen investigations ready for Fields or the next auditor to review, and the board members themselves have plenty on their plate.
"There's a lot to do, so as a practical matter, this question, the scope of our authority, it's not life or death,” Gippin added.
Board is also working on community engagement, annual report
This is a new board that they are building from scratch, so members are still laying the groundwork.
They go to events and introduce themselves to the Akron community.
Per the charter, the board has to write an annual in-depth report on what the board has done, as well as recommendations for the police department.
Right now, the governance committee is figuring out what topics to focus on – such as use of force data, the police department's culture and diversity in hiring.
Board members also regularly attend role call, the shift change at the police department, to introduce themselves to officers and hear the goings-on of their daily shifts.