Ohio UCC congregation backs citizen voice in police oversight

The word “truth” drew applause from the people gathered at a Sept. 6 news conference calling for police oversight in Akron, Ohio.

“Growing up in South Africa, I learned that healing and reconciliation cannot begin without truth,” said the Rev. Nanette Pitt, pastor of Akron’s First Congregational United Church of Christ. The truth she was speaking of — probed by a famous commission in 1990s South Africa — had to do, in part, with how police treated Black people. That, too, is what’s at issue in Akron.

If city voters approve, a Citizens’ Police Oversight Board will be empowered to investigate citizen complaints and police officer misconduct.

The proposal comes just weeks after the killing, by Akron police officers, of a Black citizen. And though that death underscores the need for oversight, the current proposal has been years in the making, news conference speakers said.

The reason for the media event, held at First Congregational, was to announce that citizen groups — including the church, the Akron chapter of the NAACP and others — had gathered 7,000 petition signatures to put the proposal on the November ballot. That’s more than twice as many as they needed. If the measure passes, new police oversight provisions will be added to the city charter, including the creation of a nine-member review board.

A Sept. 6 news conference addresses police accountability in Akron, Ohio. Video by Bob Lormor.

‘Meaningful change’

“I’ve petitioned for this charter amendment because we need meaningful change in our city,” Pitt said. “We need an independent police oversight board comprised of Akron residents that represent the breadth of our community.”

Speakers at the church said the June killing of Jayland Walker is just one example of a cycle that begs for change. News reports and police statements have said Walker was unarmed when he was shot dozens of times by eight officers. He had fled a traffic stop on foot. Officers said they had pursued him after seeing a flash from his car that they believed was a gunshot.

Seven of the eight officers who fired shots at Walker were white. Many other details of the 8-minute event remain unclear. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is assessing the case.

Speakers noted there have been other killings — followed by demands for reform — in years including 2007, 2008, 2014 and 2019. Pitt, a member of the Akron Civil Rights Commission, is among the leaders who helped research and draw up the new proposal. “The community and civic leaders have been calling for changes for decades, and this petition finally comes after years of recommendations and diligent work,” she said.

First Congregational UCC proclaims one of its values with a sign on its front lawn in Akron, Ohio.

The proposal continues to follow a complex path toward adoption. The next step is for the Akron City Council to pass an ordinance ordering the county board of elections to place the charter amendment on the ballot.

‘Make that difference’

Hosting and speaking at the news conference were just the latest examples of civic involvement by members and ministers of First Congregational. They also supported this summer’s protests of Walker’s killing.

The church sees such work as part of a ministry that “doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the talk,” Pitt told UCC News. “And that’s what we’re doing with this issue here today in Akron, as a church. And that’s why, as a congregation, we got involved. Because, as a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ, we believe that we should make that difference. We should step into the breach. We should be the change that we want to see in the world.”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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