'We are losing confidence.' Akron leaders upset by officer shoving snow in man's face during arrest

Seyma Bayram
Akron Beacon Journal

Local leaders shared their pain Friday after watching footage released by Akron police of an officer shoving snow in the face of a man during a forceful arrest two months ago. 

The tactic was condemned by the city's acting police chief and mayor, who released the video during an abruptly called news conference Thursday afternoon following pressure from the media and local leaders.

More:'Yes sir. I can’t breathe.' Akron officer shoved snow into restrained suspect’s face after takedown

More:Watch Akron police body camera videos of Charles Hicks' arrest, snow shoved in his face

“When I saw the video, it actually brought me to tears,”  Summit County District 5 Councilwoman Veronica Sims said. “I think there was just such a deep sense of sorrow watching that in light of everything that is still going on across the nation around the work of police officers as it relates to our communities." 

Veronica Sims

Officers responded to a domestic violence call on Feb. 7, when they arrested Charles Hicks. Body-worn camera footage shows officer John Turnure repeatedly shoving snow into Hicks’ face as the man lay face-down with multiple officers restraining him. The police department launched an investigation, but Turnure resigned on March 31 before the use-of-force probe had concluded.

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Sims described what viewers and Hicks endured as “traumatic and humiliating."

“It’s very difficult to watch bodycam footage like that, especially as we are all reliving the murder of George Floyd,” said Kody Cross, co-founder of the Akron Minority Council. “It’s a traumatic experience even for the viewers in the general.”

“From my perspective, there was an overly excessive use of force, an abuse of power, even some cruelty, in throwing the snow in Mr. Hicks’ face,” Cross added.

Councilman Shammas Malik of Akron Ward 8

In a statement issued on Facebook, Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik, who, along with Ward 5 Councilwoman Tara Samples and Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky, had urged the police department to release the body-worn camera footage ahead of Thursday’s news conference, described his concerns.

“It certainly seems that Mr. Hicks' breathing was obstructed,” wrote Malik, who serves as co-chair of the Accountability and Transparency Working Group of the Reimagining Public Safety committee.

He acknowledged that the video appears to not show Turnure placing his knee on Hicks’ neck, which Hicks and his attorney, Eddie Sipplen, had alleged. Police say that the footage shows Turnure’s shin pinning Hicks’ shoulder.

Nevertheless, Malik described Turnure’s actions as unacceptable.

“This excessive, dangerous force is troubling,” Malik wrote.  

He went on to express concerns that the local police union supported Turnure’s actions in a press release, referring to his conduct as “objectively reasonable” and in accordance with APD policy. 

“Officer Turnure's resignation does not resolve this issue — APD needs to take concrete steps around training and messaging to make sure other officers do not see this conduct as acceptable,” Malik wrote. 

The Rev. Ray Greene Jr. of Freedom BLOC

In the aftermath of the bodycam footage release, the Rev. Ray Greene, executive director of the Freedom BLOC, issued a statement calling for Turnure’s immediate termination. 

“Shoving a human [being’s] face in the snow and then putting snow in a human [being’s] face causing him not to be able to breathe is a clear case of unnecessary use of force and blatant disregard and disrespect for human life,” Greene wrote. 

“An official reprimand should be placed in Officer John (Turnure's) file and he should be subsequently terminated barring him any future employment in any other police departments,” he wrote.

Harrison: Police, city 'showing disregard for our community'

Akron NAACP President Judi Hill said that the police department’s handling of the investigation, including allowing Turnure to resign before the investigation’s conclusion, did not reassure the public, nor did the fact that the news conference excluded community leaders and the public.

“I don’t think it was the right message. It was more of a tit for tat instead of a real engagement for the community, and I think people saw through it,” Hill said. 

Judi Hill, president of the Akron NAACP

Hill took issue with the tone of the news conference.

“I feel that the tone was very defensive … Defensive, and less about information. Had it been about us giving us information, I think it would have been better received,” Hill added. 

The Rev. Greg Harrison

The fact that the body camera footage does not appear to show Turnure placing his knee on Hicks’ neck does not absolve the police department of the presence of serious wrongdoing, said the Rev. Greg Harrison, a retired Akron police officer. 

“They used the video to dispute that the knee was on the neck. Blocking the airway is just as bad as a knee on your neck,” said Harrison, who described Hicks as “being waterboarded with snow.”

“You disprove one thing but you basically show a suspect getting waterboarded, and I think when you release bodycam footage — the citizens, we have to make the decision, is that better than a knee?” Harrison said.

He asked why the department did not address the issue of other officers who were present at the scene of the arrest apparently not reporting Hicks’ misconduct. 

“At this point I have little faith that the city really understands the problems that go on in the community with its officers,” Harrison said.

“They really are showing a disregard for our community … We are losing confidence,” he said. 

Call for building community trust

Several leaders reiterated that the case illustrates why an independent police auditor is crucial to the integrity of investigations into police misconduct and necessary for building trust with communities, especially Black communities. 

“Community trust is at the heart of this … and the community needs some mechanism of being confident that the situation is being addressed adequately, and again, the auditor’s office is one way of doing that,” Malik said in an interview.

Earlier this month, council voted on two recommendations during its annual budget adoption meeting that would strengthen Independent Police Auditor Phil Young’s role and provide him with the resources required to do his job more effectively. In addition to making Young’s position full time, the city is hiring an administrative assistant to support Young. 

The recommendations were first brought forth by council’s Reimagining Public Safety committee and adopted by the criminal justice subcommittee of the mayor’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Task Force.

A key area of reform concerns Young’s authority and access to police records. By Thursday morning, before the news conference, the city and police department had not provided Young with body-worn camera footage, even though the incident occurred on Feb 7. Young told the Beacon Journal he had received no information that an internal investigation was taking place.

Akron’s city code and charter currently does not include legislation that defines the police auditor’s access to police records and investigations, including body camera footage. 

Malik stressed the urgency of drafting this law.

“Ultimately, this is something that we should do in the next month or two,” Malik said. 

“The legislation by itself is not complicated. Making clear that the auditor should have access to a number of things is not complicated, and I think there is a lot of consensus around that idea,” he said.

'What happened in 2020 isn't dead'

Reflecting on the events of the last two days, Harrison described a disconnect between the police department's stated commitment to transparency and accountability and its handling of the Hicks case. 

Though it was painful to watch the videos, Hill said they served an important purpose and provided clarity. 

“I'm really glad that they showed it so that we don’t forget why we are trying to make change,” Hill said. 

“I don’t want people to get complacent and forget. And this was a reason to remind us that even in 2021, what happened in 2020 isn’t dead,” she said. 

Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at sbayram@gannett.com or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.