Sarah Watkins flashed back to 2009 when she heard the recent news about a former Akron police officer’s secret recordings.
It was Watkins whose arrest that year triggered a closer look at the work of Akron police officer Donald Schismenos.
Her crime: refusing to hand over a camera she used to record the officer making a misdemeanor arrest outside a public housing complex.
All irony aside, Watkins spoke out Saturday during a Community Witness Safety forum at the Akron Urban League.
“My life has been torn apart, and these things that have come to light now were known back then when my case went through,” she told the gathering.
Watkins, then 48, spent parts of two days in the Summit County Jail before being released. The charges were later dismissed.
It was learned later — through a police internal investigation — that Schismenos defied a sergeant’s order to leave Watkins alone. Instead, he charged her with felony tampering with evidence and obstructing justice and had her arrested.
For that, Schismenos was suspended 45 days in 2010, but he later returned to the force. It wasn’t until June 2011 that Police Chief James Nice learned of the officer’s collection of recordings being stored on a city computer.
More than two years later, after being on paid leave while dual investigations dragged on, Schismenos resigned. He was never charged with any crime.
However, a review by the Beacon Journal of the internal affairs police investigation, as well the criminal probe by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, exposed nearly a dozen cases in which the officer withheld recordings from people he charged.
Those recordings remained withheld by law enforcement until last week.
More than a year after the original BCI investigation closed, Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh announced plans Friday to contact 10 defendants and share the previously withheld evidence.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also looking at the officer’s conduct to determine if any civil-rights violations occurred.
Watkins said her experience with Schismenos forced her to leave Akron. The recent news, however, prompted her to return. She said she never collected any compensation from the city for her unwarranted jail time.
“I left town. But when I heard about this in the papers, I came back, because I need justice. I need closure in my life,” she said.
Civil-rights attorney Ed Gilbert, president of the Akron-Canton Barristers Association, is part of a group of Akron-area leaders who began hosting the witness forums in the fall of 2012.
Gilbert contacted Walsh’s office after news accounts revealed instances of still-withheld evidence. He is proposing a task force of attorneys who will take a closer look at the investigation and the subsequent actions or inactions of law enforcement.
Gilbert reviewed a 30-page summary that Walsh’s office released to the media Friday and raised concerns about the people shown in recordings who have not been identified.
Walsh’s office has conceded that a number of people cannot be identified in the recordings. Gilbert said more work needs to be done.
“We have to do something to identify the uncharged individuals and the unidentified people because these people could have had their civil rights violated and they are entitled to some type of relief,” Gilbert said.
“Our goal here is to obtain justice for these people.”
Philip Young, the city’s independent police auditor, was at the forefront of the original Schismenos investigation and the case the officer brought against Watkins.
He said he has closely watched the events unfolding the past two weeks.
“It’s just a sad day in the history of Akron and the Akron Police Department,” Young said. “I just think that when everything comes out, we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”