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Akron police auditor wants criminal charges for fired officer, says department has 'systemic issue'

In this screenshot from surveillance camera footage, Officer Ryan Westlake shoves a juvenile suspect into his police car after arresting her.
City of Akron
In this screenshot from surveillance camera footage, Officer Ryan Westlake shoves a juvenile suspect into his police car after arresting her.

Akron’s police auditor is recommending criminal charges be filed against an officer who was recently terminated from the department. He also believes police supervisors may have tried to downplay the officer's behavior in a March use-of-force incident.

Akron Police Chief Brian Harding fired Officer Ryan Westlake May 6 due to his behavior in two use-of-force incidents in December 2023 and March of this year. Westlake also shot and injured a 15-year-old Black teen who was carrying a fake gun in early April before his termination, but that incident is still under investigation.

On Wednesday, Akron police auditor Anthony Finnell’s presented his review of the March use-of-force incident, in which Westlake shoved a juvenile suspect into his police car while arresting her, to the Citizen's Police Oversight Board.

Finnell agreed with Akron Police's internal affairs unit’s ruling that the use-of-force was “not objectively reasonable,” and he went a step further by calling for the prosecutor to file criminal charges.

Finnell recommended the department “[investigate] the use of force incident by Officer Ryan Westlake as a criminal offense and refers the matter to the City of Akron Prosecutor’s office for the filing of appropriate criminal charges,” according to his report.

“Officer Westlake’s use of force … may rise to the level of a criminal offense such as endangering children,” Finnell wrote in the report.

On March 1, Westlake responded to an alleged shoplifting at the Firestone Mini-Mart on Aster Avenue. Westlake threw the suspect, who was already handcuffed, into the door of his police car, causing her to fall to the ground, according to the report. Body camera footage shows the suspect hit her back and head on the door during the incident, Finnell wrote. Westlake also used profanity during the incident.

Westlake and the supervisor who initially reviewed the incident, Officer Timothy Shmigal, said the suspect was resisting arrest and lost her balance.

However, the department’s Office of Professional Standards and Accountability later ruled that the use-of-force was “not objectively reasonable.” Westlake was charged on April 25 with conduct unbecoming of an Akron police officer and violating the department's resisting arrest/use of force procedure.

Finnell also said he believes the supervisors who reviewed the incident before it was referred to the internal affairs investigators may have tried to downplay it.

Sgt. Timothy Shmigal, Lt. Kimberly Williams and Capt. Kris Beitzel had previously signed off on the incident and found the use of force justified, according to Finnell’s report.

“[They] may have attempted to mitigate Officer Westlake’s misconduct,” Finnell wrote. “This incident and the subsequent Use of Force investigation has exposed a systemic issue in which violence and unnecessary uses of force are condoned by some members of the APD.”

Officer Westlake’s initial report of the incident contradicted surveillance video footage from a nearby business, Finnell wrote in the report. Sgt. Shmigal went to the store 15 days after the incident to obtain the video and notified Capt. Beitzel three days later of the contradiction, Finnell wrote.

“Discrepancies between what is reported by the officer and what is later learned through new, compelling, and independent evidence seemed to have been overlooked, reinforcing misconduct within the ranks of APD,” Finnell wrote. “This misconduct shows that the problem is both cultural and systemic.”

If the use-of-force had been addressed more quickly, it could have prevented Westlake's use-of-force incident one month later, in which he shot a teen, Finnell added.

As part of his recommendations, Finnell also asked the city to review Shmigal’s previous investigations.

He also recommended the city add the violation of knowingly making a false statement as an additional violation on Westlake's termination decision.

Finnell has already discussed the recommendations with Chief Harding, who agrees with some of them, Finnell said.

"On some of these recommendations, he's in full agreement. On others, we still have further discussion," Finnell said.

A spokesperson for the Akron Police Department said Thursday that Chief Harding had not yet had a chance to read the full report and that the department has no additional comment. Ideastream also reached out to the Akron mayor's office but has not yet received a response.

The Citizens' Police Oversight Board approved Finnell's report during its meeting Wednesday.

The report was posted on the CPOB's website and submitted to the mayor and city council Thursday.

Updated: May 30, 2024 at 9:57 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include a comment from the Akron Police Department.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.