In the pandemic winter that followed last summer’s racial equity protests, Akron City Council asked Akron University to see if the public was okay with the course that he had put in place to rethink the police.
The legislature had just published a list of possible police reforms in January. Board leadership wanted to know if the community would approve.
This resulted in 21 focus groups with 56 adults who live or work in Akron. Rebecca Erickson, who chairs the departments of anthropology and sociology at the AU, led the community engagement project.
Despite the distance inherent in conducting focus groups on Zoom calls, Erickson was drawn to.
“I’m not the cuddly type,” she told council this week as she presented her findings in a 25-page report. “But sometimes, hearing the stories and experiences of people who, even through the screen, you could feel their pain. You could feel their grief. And you could feel their hope.
Erickson, five other professors, and a small army of student interns attempted to capture that sentiment by replaying and analyzing the 21 hours of commentary.
“The idea of crime and security has always interested me,” said one of the participants in the report. “I feel like we started out as a violent society, continued as a violent society, and none of us really know what to do about violence.”
Another spoke of the latest shooting when the victim went to a gas station and then “died there at the gas station.”
Another spoke of innocent children who are afraid of the police. One participant spoke of moving while others pledged to stay and be part of the change that needs to happen.
“There is pain there. But there is a lot of hope. There were a lot of positive stories about policing in Akron, ”Erickson said. “It’s just that a lot of these stories point to a past that people somehow want to come back to. “
Women and whites overrepresented in focus groups
While at least one adult from each of the city’s 10 wards participated, two-thirds of focus group participants were from wards 1 (Highland Square / West Hill / Downtown), 2 (North Hill / Chapel Hill), 7 (Firestone Park) or 8 (Northwest Akron).
Women and whites were overrepresented. Only one black participated.
“Not all voices were included or heard in this work, in part because of the limitations of our approach, the timing, the screens, the way we collect data and also the means by which we engage. in awareness, which was limited in this regard, ”Erickson said.
Support for what the city does
Erickson said the research, despite its limitations in recruiting more diverse voices, confirmed the city’s first steps towards police reform.
Since city council released its eight recommendations in January, Mayor Dan Horrigan has increased the authority and budget of the Police Auditor, checking off one of the eight.
The council funded – and the mayor supported – a special unit to get more guns off the streets. New police extra shifts patrol high crime areas on Friday and Saturday evenings.
And council moved Reimagining Public Safety meetings from understanding problems to formulating solutions, which often align with what the mayor’s new task force on racial equity and social justice has suggested.
“Overall, the community is very much in line with the recommendations of your task force and the work you’ve been doing since January, when those recommendations were released,” Erickson said.
What the community wants
Focus group participants said they wanted to foster mutual trust and respect with the police, who need more training and resources. At the same time, they are concerned about the excessive surveillance of some areas, especially by officers who mostly live outside the city.
They prioritized alternatives to the police response, a solution that city council began exploring this month with a possible “community responder” program. The mayor said he had spent the past nine months mobilizing community actors for a better response to mental health crises, which are now managed by armed officers.
Focus groups also want more community policing. Many have named recently retired patroller Mike Gould Sr., who has shaped community policing out of his car and into schools and communities to build relationships.
“There really is something – something – about the police going in cars that community members experience and perceive, they don’t feel safe,” Erickson said. “It came from black residents, residents of color and white residents – of all ages. “
In addition to more transparency and accountability, participants also noted “the need for more in-depth and comprehensive police training,” which the police union and administrators support.
What residents had to say about public safety
There was also terror and despair in the voices.
“I’m on the point now, I think I’m ready to move,” said one participant.
“The amount of gun violence that we have seen in our neighborhoods in the past year since the pandemic has kind of skyrocketed and is in the news every day,” said another. “… I don’t know if I would feel the same kind of security in those neighborhoods where I might have felt good to go for a walk in the morning before working in the past. … People have been pushed beyond their limits and it’s not as safe as it used to be.
They spoke of public safety in a larger context.
“What public safety would look like to me is housing, good, safe and reliable housing for all, healthy food and food, access to transportation and good jobs for those who want it.” , said one participant.
“The participants in our focus group really see public safety as a community issue,” Erickson said. “And what I mean by that is that they’re ready to get involved. They don’t see it as just a question of what the police are doing or what you and the city government are doing. They consider that everyone should be involved, and they want to be involved.
“They see all of these dimensions of community life as really fueling their public safety experiences,” she said.
When legislating, Erickson said city council would benefit from tying work supporting small businesses, youth recreation, housing and other issues seemingly unrelated to their positive impact on public safety.
Erickson said she heard a desire “to get the job done as opposed to more thinking and more imagining what can be done.”
And the community, she said, is well aware of the $ 145 million the city is receiving from US federal bailout law. They want public safety to be a priority in how it is spent.
“Children are afraid”
Moved by what he said, Erickson read aloud to city council the words of this black male participant, a longtime resident in his late 20s who grew up in the east and west. from Akron.
“I feel like it was more community when I was younger, now it’s not so much. Even as a child, I remember that around the corner, the police were distributing stickers, ”he said. “You would look forward to this, but now you don’t even want to go near them. When I was a kid, if you went to the store on Friday, they [the police] would park near the convenience store distributing stickers. And now they don’t do that anymore.
“Now the children – the children are afraid. Like, it’s a different conversation now… with kids, how to behave with a policeman, ”he said. “You can’t even just play with a toy gun. No, that’s not it now. They couldn’t even enjoy that when they were kids, you know. “
Contact Doug Livingston at [email protected] or 330-996-3792.