AKRON, Ohio — On Monday night, Akron City Council unanimously declared racism a public health crisis. Council members also unanimously passed both a resolution and legislation addressing specific policing practices, banning chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene when other officers use unlawful force.
"I think this is a good starting point for us," Akron City Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples, who represents Ward 5, said. "We have a long way to go."
Mosley-Samples co-sponsored the resolution to declare racism a public health crisis, along with Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville, and she offered a resolution to address specific policing practices.
Along with the mayor, Mosley-Samples offered an ordinance that touched on several of those policies, including banning chokeholds and "knee to the neck. Anything that's going to constrict the air flow in and out of a person's body, totally prohibited."
She said policy changes are needed to make sure these kinds of incidents stop.
"Resolutions are to urge an individual to do something, so we are urging not only just the Akron Police Department, but we’re urging other cities and the governor to enact certain policies and to rid themselves of certain policies," Mosley-Samples said.
In the resolution, Mosley-Samples mentions making sure body cameras stay on at all times, making sure new and current officers take racial bias training and banning chokeholds and similar practices.
The legislation that comes from that resolution, Mosley-Samples said, "speaks specifically and intentionally to the chokehold and to officers who stand around and watch another officer inflict harm on an individual and them not stop it. So this is a criminal component to that now, so we’re saying that, although it is [in] our policy book, these actions are prohibited, but we’re now saying that you as a fellow officer, if you see your colleague inflicting harm, then you are to stop them from inflicting their harm and you [will] not have any repercussions for doing that."
Mosley-Samples said she and her colleagues realized that there are ordinances on Akron's books that have not been changed since the 1930s.
"And that speaks volumes to the work that we have to do, to make sure that we don’t have an incident like George Floyd here in the city of Akron, and making sure that other departments across the state or across the country don’t as well," Mosley-Samples said.
Mosley-Samples commended both the mayor and council president for their leadership.
"Not too many mayors in Ohio are taking a knee with the protesters," Mosley-Samples said. "Our mayor probably was the first one to do it."
E.J. Brinson with the Summit County Think Tank Coalition said that the current moment "is a time and period that we've had a lot of people where their eyes have been opened up."
Brinson said his hat is off to the mayor and council for addressing these issues at an important time.
"We don’t want to miss the moment from protests," Brinson said. "We want to move from protests to rallying behind something that will move our community in a positive direction."
Brinson quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. in saying, "Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless."
He added, "I think increasing policy around social justice in a police department is critical for us to move forward."
In addition to banning specific policing practices and requiring implicit bias training, Brinson said it was critical to have an "African American counseling team, a minority behavioral health group" and to bring together other organizations in the community to work together on a plan that could be a model for other communities.
Horrigan said that he believes the resolution that declares racism as a public health crisis is a lead-up to the work the city is trying to do "around equity, with infant mortality and even where we spend city dollars."
He said cities, states, and countries need to be able to address systemic racism and how it affects health outcomes and educational outcomes.
In regard to the ordinance on specific policing practices, Horrigan said, "I’ve talked about accountability and transparency from the very beginning for the last five years, and in no way is this a failure of leadership on behalf of the Akron Police Department. They don’t train that way, they don’t hire that way, they don’t do things that way."
He said just two weeks ago, he was proud to hire the most diverse class of police officers the department has had in 15 to 20 years.
But Horrigan said he'd been out in the community and has heard a lot of pain and anger from people. This, he said, is a way to be responsive to the demands.
"I think bringing that forward is a sign to the community saying, 'Listen, that’s not what we do, this is what we do and this is how we’re going to be accountable and transparent for it,'" Horrigan said.
Horrigan said he speaks on a near-daily basis with leaders of other Ohio cities (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) about ways to make some of these moves with resolutions and ordinances, even if they are things that can't be passed on a state level.
"I think that’s a strong movement forward to really increase that accountability and really start to address that systemic racism that seems to permeate through our entire community and really the country," Horrigan said.
You can watch the city council meeting in the player below: