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Akron seeking help with ‘sensitive’ incidents

8/28/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Mayor, police chief requesting FBI involvement

DOWNTOWN AKRON — Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic early this month sent a letter to FBI and other federal officials calling for a change in federal policy for investigating “sensitive” police incidents, such as police shootings.

Akron Police Chief James Nice, a former FBI agent, also signed the letter and said he thinks the FBI should have the authority to step in at the request of a police department in sensitive police investigations.

Currently, there has to be an allegation of a civil rights violation in order for the FBI to get involved, he said. However, he added, not every instance in which a police officer shoots someone would be considered a “sensitive” matter, and it would tax FBI resources to have to investigate every police shooting.

A “sensitive” incident is one that causes a public outcry, he said. Most times race plays a role, he added. In addition, if the victim does not have a weapon, that can add to the sensitivity of a case, according to Nice.

Though there have been police shootings in Akron during Nice’s three-year tenure as chief, none have been incidents Nice would classify as sensitive, he said.

He said it’s possible the last time there was a sensitive police shooting in Akron was in July 2008, when Celina Avenue resident Jeffrey Stephens was killed. Officers shot multiple times after seeing Stephens reach for his handgun in his waistband, according to the police report.

An autopsy revealed Stephens died from a bullet he shot himself, but during the investigation, neither the officers who had been on scene nor the public was aware of that.

By bringing in the FBI to investigate such incidents, it could instill confidence within the community, nullify the appearance of local bias in investigations and protect innocent police officers from false accusations, according to Plusquellic.

“At a time when tensions are high, facts are assumed and oftentimes inaccurate and ‘police haters’ are active, swift action by an authoritative unbiased third-party is imperative,” said Plusquellic.

The Aug. 4 letter to the FBI also suggested Akron be considered for a pilot program and to develop a working model for other large cities.

Plusquellic wrote another letter Aug. 19 to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, requesting support in bringing about the federal policy change.

“Over my 28 years as mayor, I have personally made calls asking the FBI to take over cases where there were police/civilian shootings so that our citizens can see that local control has been relinquished to the federal government to dispel the outcry of unfair or biased treatment,” said Plusquellic. “Such an independent review would also protect police officers who are fulfilling their lawful duties from false accusations. In each case, the FBI did not step in for various reasons, including lack of jurisdiction or authority. I strongly believe that laws and policies can and should be changed so that the FBI automatically has the authority to insert themselves in these serious matters.”

Morial’s response on behalf of the National Urban League included an offer to join the cause, noting the change would make “the very best sense.”

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