Akron’s mayor is asking federal authorities to investigate potential civil-rights violations by a former police officer accused of secretly recording and concealing hundreds of videos.
Mayor Don Plusquellic said Wednesday that he is requesting the probe by the U.S. Department of Justice to determine what — if any — laws former officer Donald Schismenos might have violated during his tenure with the department.
The action comes after a series of reports by the Beacon Journal that showed Schismenos failed to tag many of the covert recordings as evidence, thus withholding the images from defense attorneys for possible use at trial.
“If somebody did something wrong in this department, versus a heckuva lot of other departments out there, this department has taken action to do something,” Plusquellic said.
“The problem with this, from everything that I know, no one really knew he had all this stuff. Should they have known? Everybody can ask that question.”
Schismenos first was placed on paid leave in August 2011, when about 1,900 videos and 38,000 images were discovered stored on the city’s computer system. More evidence was found after a search of his home.
The officer resigned in December and was not charged with any crimes.
The full extent of his recordings and potential concealment of evidence is just emerging.
Critics of the original investigation — conducted by the Ohio Attorney’s General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation at the request of Akron police and county prosecutors — are concerned that more video evidence normally afforded to defendants before trial continues to be withheld.
The BCI probe ended in early 2013.
Summit County prosecutors in 2011 were notified of three or four defendants where potentially exculpatory video evidence recorded by Schismenos had been concealed by the officer.
The Beacon Journal has since found at least two other examples in which secret videos made by the former officer never were submitted into evidence or provided to defense attorneys.
In one instance, an Akron man was convicted of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. The video secretly recorded by Schismenos was never made available to the man’s defense attorney or prosecutors. Nor was it shown to jurors, who found him guilty.
Gregory Harrison, a former Akron officer and a member of the Akron and Vicinity Baptist Ministers Conference that was formed in 1975 to track civil rights and social issues, applauded the mayor’s call for a federal probe.
He said no agency has looked at the entire recording library and connected it to citizens arrested by Schismenos — or other officers — in order to ensure no civil-rights violations took place.
“That’s what needs to be created. That will tell the story and determine perhaps who should be officers and maybe who shouldn’t be officers,” Harrison said.
“I think the problem from the beginning, what they were really concerned about, was not only Schismenos, but the fact that the culture of the entire department would come out through these recordings,” he said.
In response to the Beacon Journal’s reports, Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh’s office this week contacted BCI to again ask about potential video or audio evidence that the officer may have withheld.
Walsh’s chief assistant said this week that BCI has never created a catalog linking videos to defendants. Instead, prosecutors were alerted to only three or four cases in which video evidence was withheld. They then immediately notified defense attorneys.
Nearly 400 felony cases
Schismenos has been involved in some fashion with 370 felony cases from 1999 to 2011.
In normal circumstances, videos taken by police are routinely shared with defense attorneys as part of the county’s evidence discovery process, prosecutors say.
In an interview Wednesday, Plusquellic called Schismenos a “rogue” officer whose actions need to be fully investigated to determine if there are still unknown violations of laws.
He also questioned whether a true, full accounting of the officer’s actions can ever be attained because of the possibility that Schismenos did not retain more incriminating recordings.
“I think about the practicality of the officer operating like a rogue cop, on his own, with his own rules, not following regulations, and I wonder in his mind, how he keeps some things and perhaps destroyed others. And we will never know that because we don’t know what he destroyed.”
Schismenos could not be located for comment. His attorney, Tom Dicaudo, has not returned several messages seeking comment.
Akron City Council President Garry Moneypenny, a former law enforcement officer, noted the reports from the Beacon Journal and said the public needs to know the full impact of Schismenos’ actions on citizens and the legal system.
“These articles, whether it’s true or not, what may or may not have happened in the articles, surely puts the perception out there of possible wrongdoing,” Moneypenny said.
“There’s no better way to know than to have somebody come in, independent, and investigate. The cards will lie where they lie.”
Police chief responds
Police Chief James Nice, who learned of the recordings within a few days of taking the job in June 2011, said federal investigators were contacted early on to determine if any civil-rights violations occurred.
Nice conceded, however, that the scope of the review by the FBI was limited to two videos and federal investigators “never viewed the other tapes.”
He said BCI’s investigation also “flagged” 15 other videos as potential problems needing further review.
It is unclear what those videos showed or what action was taken. Nice said, however, that he doesn’t believe BCI made prosecutors aware of those tapes.
“You’ll have to ask [BCI]. They did the review,” Nice said.
A spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in an email Wednesday that BCI was asked to “determine whether there was any criminal activity by Schismenos and whether there were any links to pending or closed felony cases.”
Investigators, spokeswoman Jill Del Greco said, did “fill out forms regarding the contents of each video,” which were then provided to Akron police.
Del Greco said the office is processing the newspaper’s request for disclosure of those forms.
Nice cautioned, however, that he doesn’t believe a majority the tapes will prove to have any evidentiary value nor reflects any civil-rights violation.
“We know that Schismenos was doing things we’re not proud of, hopefully that he’s not proud of, and we brought that forward,” he said. “Everybody knew early on: This is a problem.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.