Pubdate: Sun, 23 Jul 2000
Source: Akron Beacon-Journal (OH)
Copyright: 2000 by the Beacon Journal Publishing Co.
Author: Gregory Korte


Police Have Yet To Make An Arrest Under Year-old Law. Akron Council Members 
Want To Know Why

One year ago this week, the Akron City Council passed the so-called drug 
loitering law, a get-tough measure that supporters said would give police 
an important tool to get drug dealers off the streets.

A year later, Akron police have yet to make a single arrest under the law, 
and City Council members want to know why.

"It is a kind of a showdown situation, where City Council has passed it and 
they haven't enforced it," said Council President Marco Sommerville. "It's 
been a year. It hasn't been enforced. Why hasn't it been enforced?"

The answer to that question lies somewhere in the political debates over 
racial profiling, jail overcrowding and the accountability of the Akron 
Police Department to the mayor and other elected officials.

The drug loitering law allows police to make drug arrests even when there's 
no direct evidence of drug dealing -- as, for example, when a known drug 
dealer standing on a known drug corner runs when he sees police.

"Loitering or remaining in a public place for the purpose of drug related 
activity" carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail.

But police say the City Council loaded the law with too many oversight 
provisions -- requiring police to track every arrest under the law and 
creating a review board to ensure it isn't unfairly targeting minorities.

"The police officers basically don't trust that law," said Fraternal Order 
of Police President Paul Hlynsky. "To me, it's another method of attack on 
the rights of police officers. Every day, we get handcuffed more and more."

Police Chief Michael Matulavich said he was unaware that the law wasn't 
being enforced and referred questions to the department's Street Narcotics 
Uniform Detail, or SNUD unit.

Capt. Mike Madden, who supervises the unit, said that there was no official 
department policy not to enforce the law, but that decisions about arrests 
are made on a case-by-case basis.

"A lot of officers see it as an unwieldy law," he said.

On Paris Avenue in the Summit Lake area, Phillip Talty stands on his front 
porch and points to three drug houses.

As one of the city's most vocal anti-drug activists, he pushed for passage 
of the drug loitering law last year and has a framed copy of it in his 
living room.

"This empowered the police . . . to arrest the street dealers," he said. 
"If you attack the street dealers, you're attacking the runners for the 
houses, and that cuts off the income flow for the houses. That affects 
their customers. And most of the customers are white people driving their 
Jeep Cherokees in from Bath Township at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Talty blames jail overcrowding for the lack of enforcement.

"The bad guy out here knows that unless you commit an act of violence, 
you're not going to go to jail," Talty said. "There's no room at the inn. 
There are 9,000 bench warrants in this county. People collect them like 
Pokemon cards."

A violation of the loitering law is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, which can 
result in jail time.

Councilman Robert Otterman, D-at large, chairs the Public Safety Committee. 
He said the City Council knew about the revolving jail door when it passed 
the law. But council members said that even a couple of hours off the 
street would send a message to residents that police were doing something.

The first time the Akron City Council passed a drug loitering law was in 
1989. The law, based on a similar one in Detroit, came in response to 
citizen complaints that police couldn't arrest known drug dealers unless 
they caught them red-handed.

Akron police made 132 arrests under the law in the first three months. 
About 87 percent of those arrested were black.

First law struck down

In 1993, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, 
saying the law as written was too vague and likely to target minorities.

Later court rulings defined what sort of law would pass constitutional 
muster, and last July the City Council passed a revamped version of the law.

The vote was 12-1, with Sommerville casting the lone "no."

At the time, Sommerville said he voted no because the law would give 
residents of drug-infested neighborhoods "false hope." He now supports it.

Sommerville, D-3, also insisted that any law protect against racial 
profiling, or targeting people based on their race or ethnicity.

The new law requires police to keep specific records about each arrest, 
including the officer's name, circumstances and location, and race of the 
suspect. The yet-to-be-appointed review board -- made up of a council 
member, the mayor, a police officer and two citizens -- would compile those 
statistics in a report to the City Council every three months.

It's that provision the police union finds most objectionable.

"We do not acknowledge any civilian review board and with the last dime in 
our pocket we will fight any civilian review board that any officer has to 
appear before," Hlynsky said.

"It's just another form of political correctness. It's a way of saying, `Go 
ahead and do your job, but make sure the statistics are correct.' Crimes 
are happening right in front of police officers, but the officers are 
hesitant to take action. If you're a black officer in a white district, 
common sense will tell you that most of the people you arrest are going to 
be white. The same goes for the white officer in a black district, and the 
law makes no provision for that."

Accountability at issue

Councilman Michael Williams, D-at large, was a key sponsor of the law. He 
said the refusal of the Police Department to enforce it shows why voters 
ought to approve a charter amendment to make the police chief more 
accountable to the mayor.

"This is a classic illustration of why there needs to be a greater control 
over the Police Department," Williams said. "The Police Department . . . 
has to be responsive to the citizens, and the way to do that is to make 
sure that the people elected by the voters have the power to direct police 
resources where they need to be pointed."

Williams supports Mayor Don Plusquellic's controversial proposal to change 
the city charter to limit police chiefs (and fire chiefs and building 
superintendents) to renewable four-year terms. Supporters say it will 
restore integrity to the scandal-plagued Police Department; opponents say 
the measure will bring City Hall politics to the Police Department.

The City Council will vote tomorrow on whether to send the proposed 
amendment to the November ballot.

Plusquellic stays out

For now, Plusquellic is staying out of the debate over the drug loitering 
law. He declined comment last week.

Sommerville said the reason the Police Department won't enforce the law is 
clear: "They dont want to have other people looking over their shoulder, 
looking at who they arrest and how they do their jobs."

He said he would meet with the police chief this week to discuss the law, 
and suggested that police may need a civics lesson.

"We pass the laws. They enforce the laws. It's that simple," Sommerville said.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart