A forum Saturday at Burning Bush Church in downtown Akron demonstrated that tensions between police and the city’s African-American community remain high more than two months after the Filming of Jayland Walker on July 27.

The three-hour Cops + Community event, billed as a discussion between police, pastors and the community, also revealed a consensus that the breach will not be easy to fix.

“There are a lot of people in the black community who think the police department hasn’t taken responsibility,” DeJuan Kelker, pastor of Burning Bush Church, said at the opening of the discussion. His church organized the event, hoping to begin a healing process.

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Questions and comments from attendees addressed the issue raised by Kelker, along with several other concerns, arguing with Akron Police Department Chief Steve Mylett and Mayor Dan Horrigan that accountability for police actions is necessary. to build trust and change perceptions.

Police Chief Steve Mylett reacts as he listens to a citizen's question at a public forum Saturday in Akron.

Mylett said he understands the need for better communication, sometimes likening the effort to building a bridge between police and the communities they serve.

“It hurts my heart to hear and feel the lack of confidence,” Mylett said. “I pledge to you to build that bridge and break down the barriers as much as possible.”

The forum took place a week after a September 3 incident in which a 16 year old was shot by hand by a policeman. An unidentified attendee asked why the officers’ body cameras weren’t turned on until after the shooting.

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Problems with body cameras, treatment disparity

“I’m fed up and I’m fed up with body cameras that are turned off,” she says.

One of the six officers present with Mylett and Lt. Michael Miller explained that officers have to press a button twice for the camera to activate.

An Akron police officer discusses the difficulties of using a body-worn camera during the forum.  Several officers stopped wearing their badges after police were threatened on social media.

“Sometimes body cameras don’t turn on,” he said.

In a chaotic situation, he said, an officer might not start the camera and not have time to check if it’s working properly.

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Horrigan said the problem could be fixed.

“We as a city need to investigate this technology,” he said.

In certain “dynamic” situations that require immediate attention, officers are excused from starting the cameras if they need to act quickly, Mylett said.

“I would prefer that rather than them taking the extra second or two,” he said.

Other questions focused on the disparity of treatment according to race.

“There should be no difference in the de-escalation process…” Mylett said. “I am listening and will develop actions behind.”

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One participant said she feared a traffic stop involving her autistic child would be mishandled by officers untrained to deal with her condition. A 61-year-old woman said she was closely followed by police for no apparent reason, later calling the non-emergency line to find out why. Other audience members spoke of confrontations they or their family and friends had with the police.

Edward Smith, executive director of Students With A Goal, said African-American children often grow up with negative impressions of the police.

Burning Bush Church hosted Saturday's forum along with the Akron Police Department and city officials.

“You’ve seen a lot of videos that scared you,” he said. “Our young people need to meet…agents at a positive time.”

Bishop Flanvis Josephus Johnson II, senior pastor of the House of the Lord in Akron, said bridging the gap between the police and the community will take effort from both sides.

“We are all part of the culture and we all contribute to it,” he said. “Culture eats procedures and politics for lunch. The culture we need is respect and trust.”

Akron NAACP President Judi Hill said a charter amendment establishing a civilian review board would provide a way to change negative perceptions. She said engaging in the political process can help empower residents. “When you are involved in a process as citizens, you take ownership of it,” she said.

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Other suggestions from his organization include training officers in different communities to expose more residents to the officers hired to serve them.

“People want to believe in this process,” she said. “Some of us are tired of talking.”

Akron police officers join citizens for the forum at Burning Bush Church.

Horrigan said he supported some aspects of the modification of the proposed charterbut thinks an order his administration unveiled Aug. 30 will achieve the same goals.

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Mylett said efforts to work on his department’s relationships with the communities it serves are hampered by a shortage of officers.

“We are sorely understaffed,” he said.

The police chief argued that confrontations involving the use of force are relatively rare.

Of 150,000 contacts recorded in 2021, Mylett said, only 52 complaints were successful. If other disputes arise, they should be brought to his attention, he said.

Akron Police Chief Steve Mylett answers a question Saturday.

“If I don’t know something, how can I correct it?” he said.

Horrigan said he couldn’t answer a question about the Jayland Walker case due to the ongoing investigation.

“There are questions I have that I can’t get answers to yet,” he said.

Akron attendees voice concerns over racism

One attendee said police departments in the United States and Ohio had been infiltrated by racists and Ku Klux Klan members, and Mylett vowed he would remove any officer who held such views.

“If an officer shows racist tendencies or KKK behavior, he won’t be in (the department),” he said. Mylett said the forum demonstrated the need for him to connect police with the community.

“I have to find a way to bring senior officers and the community together,” he said. “…It’s a take-out for me.”

An Akron resident takes notes during the forum.

The police chief said he would pray for better relations and continue to communicate with concerned citizens.

“The more we can educate, (the more) we will avoid tragic situations on both sides,” he said.

Kelker said after the discussion it was fruitful.

“I believe everyone’s voice has been heard,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Leave a message for Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj