DOJ to investigate Akron Police Department

March 11, 2009

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights division is planning to look further into the circumstances surrounding Akron Police-involved shootings.

Akron City Council President Marco Sommerville said at the close of Monday night's Council meeting that the DOJ notified him of the decision to return to Akron after a representative from its Community Relations Service met with families of slain residents and city leaders in late February.

"The Justice Department gave the city a list of things it wanted to see done with regard to repairing the relationship between police and residents when Kenith Bergeron, a senior conciliation specialist with the department, visited," said Sommerville (W-3). "The department made a decision on its own to get the Civil Rights Service involved."

The Civil Rights Service is the investigative arm, which has on rare occasions recommended that the DOJ take over a city's police department if it has found extreme cases of civil rights violations. Cincinnati became the only Ohio city to fall under harsh DOJ scrutiny after it investigated a number of police-involved shootings. The most notable was the 2001 police shooting death of an unarmed suspect that sparked uproar and days of civil unrest in the city.

Sommerville invited Bergeron to meet with the family and advocates of Mark McCullaugh, Demetrus Vinson and Jeffrey Stephens during his trip to meet with Akron officials. McCullaugh was killed by deputies during a Summit County Jail scuffle in 2006, and Vinson and Stephens were shot by Akron police in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

The department's Community Relations Service was created in 1964, in response to the often brutal responses to civil rights protests in the South, Bergeron said. The service assists local law enforcement in addressing racial and class tensions in their communities.

Sommerville said he was unaware that Bergeron's visit would result in further department investigation, but he hopes that the Civil Rights division's involvement will eventually lead to better police-citizen relations.

"I have no idea how they do their investigations, but I'm confident they've conducted enough that they know what needs to be done in Akron," Sommerville said. "We do have a good police department, but some things need to improve. Maybe we can get a fresh start and get the department on the track where it needs to be."