While calls for police reform were in the news following Jayland Walker's fatal shooting on June 27, Akron's death toll from gun violence skyrocketed in July, increasing from 20 murders to 30 in just four weeks.
The victims included two people at a vigil for a 2021 murder — one was a 4-year-old child — and a woman killed by another woman after an argument in the bathroom of a North Hill bar. Police shot and wounded the escaping suspect.
Protests and calls for police reform became a top priority among many Akron residents after eight police officers shot Walker dozens of times after police said it appeared he threatened them with a gun.
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And police reform remained the main issue for a crowd of about three dozen Ward 4 residents at an Aug. 2 meeting with Akron Police Chief Steve Mylett. Residents wanted to know what the police department was doing to increase recruitment from the community and whether police were reconsidering use of deadly force policies.
Mylett said the department is increasing efforts to recruit locally and that in addition to performing his own administrative review, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is independently investigating Walker's death.
But residents also discussed how times have changed since they were younger, when firearms were not so prevalent. Several said that anti-violence measures are going to require a special emphasis.
Resident Barbara Brown said the community needs to find a way to deal with violence among young people.
"We've got issues in our own community, and we've got to start addressing them now," she said.
Record numbers of deaths
While 33 murders were reported in 2019, the number jumped to 50 in 2020, just over the city's previous record of 48 murders in 1974. Last year's count was 42, an average of one per week until the killings ended in mid-October.
After nearly three months without a violent death, fatal shootings started again in January, and as of Aug. 4 there had been 32 murders in the city, almost all of them involving firearms.
Not all violent deaths are classified as murder. Homicides are deaths that include instances where someone acts in self-defense, or when the perpetrator is charged with a lesser crime, such as manslaughter.
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Residents at the Ward 4 meeting also noted a recent incident, where a 17-year-old was arrested after being found with an AK-47, AR-15 and pistols.
In another incident, Mylett said police drove up to a gunfight in progress between two women and managed to resolve the situation.
"Our officers are routinely placed in situations where they could use deadly force, but they don't," Mylett said.
Fighting a culture of guns and fear
Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville says reducing violence and police reform go hand in hand.
"The conversations have to happen simultaneously," she said, describing the fear of gun violence as so pervasive in some young people's lives that in her business as a funeral director, she's heard family members talk about how one deceased young man loved to leave the city.
"He loved to get out of Akron because he felt free. It was peace for him because he didn't always have to look over his shoulder and watch his back all the time — things that we take for granted," she said.
"Things have changed so much, it's like, they don't fight anymore. It used to be you'd fight and make up and be done with it. Now they just shoot and kill you in broad daylight."
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She noted the city has taken steps to put tools in place to build community, including the hiring of Denico Buckley-Knight, youth and community opportunity director for the city. Buckley-Knight was hired in March to manage violence reduction initiatives, community-based intervention, and coordination of a comprehensive effort to address youth violence.
“It was a priority to hire someone who will get up every day thinking about how we can reduce gun violence in the city of Akron,” Sommerville said. “We’re funding more innovation. We’ve hired someone to focus on bringing our numbers of gun violence down. We’re investing in our community centers, our outdoor places, really trying to create safe places for our young people to go and hang out in a safe way."
Plan for the future: Programs get funded
But due to lockdown orders following the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, it took until March for the city to announce 11 organizations would receive $1.3 million in funds to combat youth violence. Another four organizations were awarded $230,000 in July.
The funds come from Akron’s $145 million in federal stimulus dollars designated by the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the nation's response to the pandemic.
The city has set aside approximately $10 million in ARPA funds for violence prevention, one of the six major focuses Horrigan outlined for spending these dollars, which are intended to assist with economic recovery in communities affected most by the pandemic.
For the most part, the programs are just getting started.
"It's still pretty early in the process, so it's not like we're going to be getting some reports back from them yet," said Stephanie Marsh, Akron's chief communications officer. "We're still in the process of issuing the funds."
Much of the money is going to organizations that employ or will hire mentors, outreach coordinators, trainers and other people who are working or who will work with young people. Recipients include the Battered Women's Shelter, Victims Assistance Program Inc., 100 Black Men of Akron and South Street Ministries, among others.
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"It's basically, what can we do from the mayor's office to provide opportunities for our youth?" said Buckley-Knight, adding he's impressed with the number of organizations that have signed up.
"The biggest win is in how many organizations are willing to provide ideas, proposals, programs because they are aware of the mayor's initiative around violence reduction. A lot of organizations are interested and excited about being a part of what this plan is going to look like," he said.
He said the administration is hoping to provide an update on how the programs are proceeding by the end of the year.
Can neighborhood-based 'ambassadors' work?
Ward 4 Councilman Russ Neal said his future ward meetings will focus on efforts to build "wraparound support for the children and families."
He said the distribution of ARPA funds would be helpful if they were also earmarked to benefit specific neighborhood-building efforts.
"Where other communities have dollars allocated specifically to the wards, so that councilmen and their constituents can address the specific needs, here in Akron we have failed to do that," he said. "Yes, we've given money to organizations ... but what they do, is they fulfill their mission. Those missions don't translate to what the ward wants all the time."
He said one such local program might be patterned after the Neighborhood Ambassadors program established by Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters in his city after he took office more than eight years ago.
"We'll modify it for ourselves," Neal said. "We'll have community volunteers as ambassadors, but the goal is to have designated, paid folks to work in that position as well."
The program in Cuyahoga Falls has about 120 unpaid ambassadors who do everything from organizing basketball tournaments to setting up block parties and sharing information about city programs to residents who may not otherwise find out, according to Falls city spokesperson Kelli Crawford-Smith.
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She said one initiative, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, was started by a resident to bring families together at his local park. The tournaments are now held in multiple neighborhoods, some involving just a few blocks, others including larger areas.
"There's one neighborhood ambassador who has a neighborhood garden, and there are neighborhood block parties that will happen every year. One of our neighborhood ambassadors has an annual pig roast ... and we have another group that has a weekly dessert night, they all get together and share desserts," she said.
Building police-community relationships
Ward 5 Councilwoman Tara Mosley also said she's interested in the neighborhood ambassador program, but said relationships between the police and the community should also be a priority.
Mosley said the city should look at reducing the number of traffic stops for minor infractions, noting police should be able to cite offenders based on license plate identification and dashboard-camera evidence, once the city installs them.
She also said the police department could be more accessible to the community if it set up substations in neighborhoods, noting there are many vacant buildings around town that could be used for such outposts.
"What are we really going to do with concrete ways to make people feel safe and respect our officers?" she asked. "While we have the funding, these ARPA dollars, we need to figure out what to do."
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.
Groups awarded funds
The following organizations were granted money under the program to help curb violence:
Battered Women’s Shelter was awarded $100,000 to hire outreach coordinators to educate the community about its services and domestic violence prevention.
Dreams Academy was awarded $100,000 to hire personnel to expand mentoring services to young men, ages 10-15, and create a family resource center hub in the Middlebury neighborhood.
Citizens Akron Church was awarded $100,000 to provide mentoring and after-school care for up to 100 families whose children attend Mason Community Learning Center.
Victim Assistance Program was awarded $150,000 to fund a victims' advocate and an attorney stationed in Summit County Domestic Violence Court to help domestic violence victims navigate the judicial system.
Fallen Fathers Foundation was awarded $100,000 to create an Original Gangsters Mentoring Program to deter youth violence in the community. This program will also provide internships to youth to help deter violence.
Guys and Gals Community Partnership was awarded $100,000 to provide mentoring, job training and after-school programming to 150 youth in Akron.
Pastoral Counseling Services of Summit County was awarded $166,244 to support mentoring services to school-age youth in Akron Public Schools. Funds will provide financial support for an unfunded portion of the iCARE Mentoring program.
Project Grad was awarded $169,500 for mentoring and after-school programming for approximately 50 students beginning in eighth grade until 12th grade at: Buchtel Community Learning Center (25 students) and East Community Learning Center (25 students) and gradually increasing this number of participants every year until 2025.
South Street Ministries was awarded $119,558 to fund a reentry program for youth.
Williams Challenge was awarded $33,900 to support multiple six-week mentoring programs for youth who have been incarcerated at the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center.
Alchemy was awarded $213,000 to provide professional development to grassroots organizations that have been awarded ARPA funds to reduce violence.
100 Black Men of Akron, an organization that will work to enhance educational and economic opportunities for Black teenagers, will receive $20,000.
Greenleaf Family Center, which will receive $30,500, will work to strengthen families in Akron through counseling, education and support, as well as increase education and support to EMT first responders and mothers.
South Akron Youth Mentorship will use $80,000 to expand its mentorship services and build capacity for goal setting and relational accountability for youth mentees.
Students with a Goal (SWAG) will receive $100,000 will expand its after-school academic tutoring and leadership mentoring to serve students from all parts of Akron.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: 10 Akron murders in July: Deadliest month renews focus on violence