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Finalists For Akron Police Chief Stress Reform, Trust During Town Hall

Activist and co-organizer Prophecy Dorsey tried to invite Akron Police officers to take a knee in solidarity during a Black Lives Matter march at a June 6, 2020 protest in Akron. [Kabir Bhatia / WKSU]
protestor in Akron flanked by uniformed police officers

Four finalists are vying to take over as the city of Akron’s new police chief.

All four are from outside Akron and have decades of experience in law enforcement:

  • Christopher Davis is a deputy chief of police in Portland, Ore.
  • Eric David Hawkins is chief of police in Albany, N.Y.
  • Stephen Mylett is chief of police in Bellevue, Wash.
  • Joseph Sullivan is a former deputy police commissioner in Philadelphia.

If there was one statement that could sum up all the candidates’ pitches to Akron residents during a Thursday night town hall meeting, it came from Davis.

“I believe that right now, our profession is at a crossroads and that there is a national crisis of confidence in our police,” Davis said. “And I think this is something that we have an urgent responsibility to fix.”

Following protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Akron residents and city officials started a reform process that is still ongoing. City council created a Reimagining Public Safety Committee that made reform recommendations to the mayor in January. And the city has strengthened the office that scrutinizes use of force and complaint investigations performed by the police department and promised more reforms are coming.

All four candidates emphasized reform throughout the 90-minute event, with each weighing in on one specific measure: the creation of a civilian oversight board, which would have some level of authority over police discipline and policies.

Hawkins, the only Black candidate among the four finalists, said that kind of outside oversight can be frustrating for experienced officers – but it’s coming anyway.

“It’s inevitable that law enforcement leaders are going to have to embrace this concept of some sort of oversight with our agencies,” Hawkins said. “In most cases it’ll be some sort of civilian oversight. It’s just the reality.”

He went on to make one of the only mentions of police unions for the night.

“In New York and Michigan and Ohio, we have very strong police unions with very solid collective bargaining agreements that govern things like wages, benefits and discipline and how this discipline is administered and the process for discipline,” Hawkins said.

His point: those contracts pose potential roadblocks to any reform the city might try to undertake.

Mylett, currently the police chief of Bellevue, Wash., echoed Hawkins’ view that, like it or not, civilian oversight is coming. Mylett, who started out as a patrol officer 32 years ago, said at that time, civilian oversight was reserved for the worst departments.

“Because back then, in most communities, what came out of an officer’s mouth and the police department itself had great trust in the community,” Mylett said. “And we were always given the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, that’s changed.”

All four candidates supported the creation of a civilian oversight board.

Sullivan, formerly the Philadelphia deputy police commissioner, said there are important details to figure out for such a panel, including how it would be set up and how it would engage with police department officials.

“But I can assure you, whatever that structure is, that director will find an excellent partner in myself if I am chosen as the next police chief in Akron,” Sullivan said.

If there was any daylight between the candidates, it was in the ways some chose to acknowledge concerns rank-and-file officers might have about their reform agendas.

Davis said he wouldn’t require officers to live within city limits.

Mylett said he would not support removing police officers’ legal protection against lawsuits, known as qualified immunity.

“That will have a chilling effect on policing and people’s willingness to join our profession. The state of Washington was considering eliminating qualified immunity,” Mylett said. “I’m glad that they didn’t.”

But for the most part, each candidate was focused on the ways they would build trust with community members.

All four spoke about listening and working with Black communities and religious organizations in Akron. The importance of community policing and recruiting a more diverse police force were themes repeated many times.

Davis said a truth-and-reconciliation process could be worth exploring in Akron, something first done in South Africa after apartheid by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“That is a very large project and you have to take that on with a lot of thought and a lot of community involvement,” Davis said. “But I think that’s another thing that I’d at least like to explore. That’s something that you really need to be in the community for a while and see how ready it is.”

Because the town hall was virtual, questions from the public were gathered beforehand and none of the candidates were asked follow up questions.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who launched the search in March, has said he’s looking for a candidate who can both address the city’s violent crime and strained community trust.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.