As the only city in Ohio with a police auditor, one might think Akron is on the cutting edge of providing citizens with accountability for its police department.
But if you listen to Police Auditor Phil Young’s recent descriptions of the roadblocks being erected by police brass, that’s far from the truth.
Young, who officially works only 30 hours per week in his one-man office, told City Council he’s not told about new public complaints of police misconduct, denied access to a system that tracks officer conduct and does not get to see police-worn body camera footage.
Those claims create significant concerns about the effectiveness of the position at a time when police conduct is under immense scrutiny nationally following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. City Council is studying the auditor’s role as part of its comprehensive policing review set to conclude in December with recommendations.
It’s important to understand Young holds no special powers to obtain information or conduct official police investigations. By design, Young can only “audit” police work.
He’s essentially a citizen being paid by the city to serve as a liaison with the public to direct complaints to the appropriate police contact. Ideally, he’d also be raising concerns — if necessary — about any shortcomings in internal investigations and reporting his findings good or bad with the public.
We’re also perplexed about why Young can’t use the city’s IA Pro software installed three years ago. The program displays officer-level trends in use of force cases, shootings, complaints, commendations and more. Appropriate use of this software could allow Young, an experienced officer himself, to glean important information about how Akron police are performing.
Also troubling part of this situation is Young’s claims about his lack of access to public records, which should be lawfully accessible to him or any citizen, including completed internal reviews. Ohio law only shields investigator work product of active investigations from public disclosure.
We’re also increasingly concerned about the city’s position on releasing body camera footage. You may recall the department refused to release footage of a January officer-involved shooting even after it returned the officers to street duty by claiming it was a confidential record. When pressured by the Beacon Journal, police quickly called a news conference to release edited footage explaining what happened.
Detectives don’t produce body camera videos. To us, the videos are clear public records in all cases within some privacy limitations. Ohio law also specifies that police video showing a serious injury or death is a public record. Surely Young should have access to video that increases police accountability.
We understand every aspect of police oversight remains complex and fraught with legitimate concerns from citizens, city leaders, chiefs and police officers, not to mention their powerful unions. There are no simple answers.
But we have to ask why Mayor Dan Horrigan allows Akron police to make Young’s job more difficult than it needs to be. If a police auditor can’t access basic records, view body camera footage or function in a meaningful way, something needs to be done. Horrigan should be able to establish and enforce expectations for supporting the police auditor with timely and complete information.
We’re also looking forward to the report scheduled to be released Dec. 7 by Akron City Council’s Special Committee on Reimagining Public Safety, which currently has four subgroups studying a wide range of policing issues, including oversight.
One place council is looking to for ideas is the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which has studied the core principles of proper police oversight. The group sees a need for independent, proactive police oversight with some power to compel cooperation.
Akron residents deserve more transparency than what’s available today. They need a police auditor who could call out any shortcomings or credibly report strong performances. Both could help police improve the public’s confidence in police work.
– AKRON BEACON JOURNAL