Munroe Falls group pushing for civilian oversight of police

Krista S. Kano
Akron Beacon Journal
Ross Widenor and Antoinette East-Jenkins stand in front of Munroe Falls City Center Complex on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 in Monroe Falls. Widenor and East-Jenkins are two of four Munroe Falls residents who are working to form a civilian oversight commission of the Munroe Falls Police Department.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

A small group of Munroe Falls residents is looking to develop a citizen-run police oversight commission to collaboratively review department procedures, make recommendations for improvements and address any future police-related concerns.

"The primary goal is prevention," organizer Linda Piccirillo-Smith said. "It's identifying where there may be potential problems and how we could prevent it from actually becoming a problem."

Organizers say they have no intention of making the commission an investigative body like Cleveland's Civilian Police Review Board or Cincinnati's Citizen Complaint Authority, and in many ways, it would operate more similarly to a charter review commission. 

More:What happened the last time Akron wanted a civilian review board for police oversight?

In response to Black Lives Matter

The core organizing group — including Piccirillo-Smith, Antoinette East-Jenkins, Ross Widenor and Lea Jenkins — formed after Piccirillo-Smith urged Munroe Falls Mayor James Armstrong to publicly denounce racism in the wake of summer 2020's Black Lives Matter movement. 

When the city did not do so, Piccirillo-Smith brought the group together to discuss policing in the city.

The group eventually decided to push for a civilian oversight commission that would be more preventative than reactionary in nature, and began meeting with city officials in late August.

"Their point so far has been that we don’t have these big issues in Munroe Falls that we see in bigger cities that spark these things and that there's not evidence of a racism problem," Widenor said. "Some of us who are pushing for this framework are saying 'Just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it couldn’t so we need to have the right accountability in place and transparency of use of force.'"

"We're not in a position to tell officers what to do, but to point out things that maybe they're not seeing," East-Jenkins said. 

While Munroe Falls has not had an incident such as the killing of George Floyd, nor like the more recent Columbus killings of two Black men Andre Hill and Casey Goodson by law enforcement, the city police department has had at least three allegations of officers violating the department's Law Enforcement Database System (LEADS) policy.

In those cases, one officer received a one-day suspension, a second received a five-day suspension and a third, former Sgt. Bob Post, was fired. Post was charged with four counts of unauthorized use of LEADS, all of which were dismissed in August 2018. 

Additionally, between Jan. 1, 2020 and June 30, 2020 the city's mayor's court — which hears cases about traffic violations, minor misdemeanors and other offenses that cannot result in jail time — saw a disproportionate number of counts against people of color compared to the local population.

While less than 1% of Munroe Falls residents are Black, of the mayor's court's 185 counts during those six months, 13% were against Black people. 

MORE: ACLU: Mayor’s courts in Ohio should be reformed, eliminated in some cases

"You have people driving through here to get to Kent State, and that's an issue, but it doesn't make sense statistically,"  East-Jenkins said. "As an African American with friends visiting me, I can't tell you how many of them have left my house and been pulled over after driving for two minutes. It's a real issue." 

Potential structure

As presented during a November City Council meeting, the commission would consist of seven Munroe Falls electors who do not hold a city office. Widenor emphasized that members of the organizing group would not necessarily be members of the commission. 

The initial commission would be appointed for a term of six months to review police training, procedures and accountability with a particular focus on the role of implicit bias training, the policies surrounding appropriate use of force and the way use-of-force incidents are monitored and reviewed. 

Following the review and recommendations process, the commission members would serve three-year terms and council would appoint a member to an eighth non-voting position.

"There's a lot of ways police can benefit from a civilian oversight board. It's a way to build trust and have a stronger connection to the community it serves," Widenor said. "We can help create systems that will make situations less likely to happen and make sure they don't happen here." 

Officials' responses

Council discussed the group's proposal during their December meeting, shortly after member John Hegnauer, President Chris Ritzinger, Police Chief Jerry Hughes and a few officers met with the group virtually.

Hegnauer, who has been serving as a city liaison to the group, said that his vision seems to differ from their objectives. 

"I envision this to be something beneficial for police. Not an oversight committee, but a collaborative committee, a group of citizens that will want to understand what police do so they can tell their fellow citizens 'No, it's actually right when they do this or that,'" Hegnauer told council. "I got the impression that some people want this to be an oversight committee, which I personally don't think is the right approach [...] I made it very clear that I'm not here to tell a police officer how to do their job."

Ritzinger added, "Even though these issues aren't here in Munroe Falls, they want to make sure that issues happening outside in the rest of the world don't come to Munroe Falls."

He suggested that the group request a police ride along "and then come back and tell me you can treat every instance the same way."

"I don’t want to say police are going to war with the public and the people they’re going out to but in a small sense, that's what they’re doing," Ritzinger said. "We’ve given these people a gun and asked them to protect us. So, I think the worst thing we can do is give your enemy your game plan to let them know exactly what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. I don’t know that's very safe for police officers. That's my opinion but hopefully we have more talks and more meetings about it."

Hegnauer said he would like to see the commission "back" the police department when citizens question officers who "do the right thing," but Councilman Mike Barnes questioned what happens when officers act improperly.

"This whole thing sprouted out of national events, and I guess my concern is that if we have a situation where we have a Trayvon Martin or an incident that turns violent and our officers are in the wrong," Barnes said. "We need to be sure, as council, that we're giving them the training they need. Our officers don't experience what Akron or even Stow officers do on that frequency. How do we ensure they get ongoing training that keeps them focused and prepared?" 

Hughes, who has met with the group, said that he is not yet clear what they hope to accomplish, and so cannot say whether he is in favor of a commission.

"It all depends on how the civilian committee is set up. We had even discussed that we don't want it to be adversarial. We would want it to be cooperative," he said.

Future of the commission

The group had hoped to form the commission by the end of 2020 in order to begin gathering input from community members and the police department between Jan. 1, 2021 and Feb. 28, 2021.

The commission would then review policies and recruit standing commission members between March 1 and May 31, and form recommendations for policy revisions and initial commission membership between June 1 and June 30. 

Law Director Tom Kostoff could not be reached for comment as to whether council approval or an election would be required to establish the commission.

East-Jenkins, who works for the city of Stow, noted that they are already behind schedule, and that she believes progress is slower than the typical pace of local government. 

"I don't know that there's a buy-in [from city officials]," East-Jenkins said. "I think it's absolutely intentionally being stalled [...] This is not an attack of the police department, but an effort to make it better, to make it a better place for everyone."

Piccirillo-Smith said she is still encouraged that city leadership is continuing to speak with them and have been "generally very responsive."

"Munroe Falls is a community in transition with older members moving out and a real influx of younger community members who tend to be from more diverse backgrounds. It's really important and proactive to consider the needs of new community members we move forward into the third decade of the 21st century," Piccirillo-Smith said. "We really need to, instead of maintaining the status quo, embrace diversity in all entities that exist in our community, including the police." 

Munroe Falls residents who would like to join the discussions can contact the organizing group at MFCommunityPolicing@googlegroups.com.

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.