Over the years, Akronites have seen a number of anti-crime initiatives, from neighborhood crime sweeps to hot-spot enforcements.
And despite the “get-tough-on-crime” campaigns, the city still ranks among the state leaders in the number of repeat violent-crime offenders.
On Thursday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine visited the city to announce a new program that targets those repeat offenders, a small group of criminals who are responsible for the majority of Akron’s violent crimes.
DeWine, who appeared at a news conference with a battalion of local politicians, law enforcement leaders and clergy, promised his “bold, new, holistic initiative” will work to reduce crime in Ohio’s cities.
Akron has been chosen as the pilot location for his Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.
It involves a multifaceted approach to fighting violent crime, from social and jobs programs to housing demolition to increased penalties for twice-convicted violent-crime offenders arrested for gun possession.
The program, DeWine said, is a collaborative effort between law enforcement and community leaders that involves reaching out to individual violent offenders on the streets to “lead them to resources that will assist them in breaking the crime cycle.”
Potentially lurking behind the initiative is a bill announced last month in the Ohio Senate that calls for an 11-year prison term for repeat violent offenders caught carrying a firearm.
Much of Akron’s violent gun-crime problem centers on the city’s illegal-drug trade, where dealers constantly combat rivals over territory or robs for their wealth, authorities say. The business is often socially and economically driven.
DeWine said he knows it won’t be easy to persuade an armed drug dealer to close his lucrative business and look for legitimate employment, especially in the current work climate where options are few.
“So, we’ll make the choice easier to make,” he said. “We’re going to give them an out. They may not make as much money as they would dealing drugs, but the risk won’t be there. That’s what the program does. We’re going to up the risk.”
DeWine said the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative is “not about locking people up” nor is it a “one of these bills that’s just a knee-jerk reaction” to crime. The program involves bringing community and clergy leaders into the mix with law enforcement.
Local leaders attend
At Thursday’s news conference outside the House of the Lord church, DeWine was joined by a number of local leaders, including Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, Bishop Joey Johnson, local NAACP leader Ophelia Averitt, Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh and Akron police Chief James Nice.
The speakers included Akron mother Veronica Greene, whose son Phillip Anderson, 24, was killed by gunfire in 2011.
The program is modeled after community-based anti-crime programs that DeWine said have been effectively used across the country. The goal in Akron, he said, is to offer resources and “target offenders who have a history of gun violence and [then] work with those offenders to prevent future crimes.”
“This is not just about locking people up,” he said. “Everything we have is going into this community.”
Those resources include grants, manpower and assistance in vacant and abandoned house demolition, which DeWine called “a cancer that must be cut out.”
Bob Fiatal, a former FBI agent who heads the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy, was tapped by DeWine to lead the initiative in Akron.
In researching ways to fight violent crime, DeWine said his staff tracked historical data. Researchers found that people with two or more violent-crime convictions are responsible for nearly 60 percent of the state’s violent felony convictions.
Ohio gun laws
Tougher gun laws are exactly what Chief Nice has been clamoring for since leaving the FBI two years ago to lead the city police force. Nice has been critical of the state’s current gun laws and the tendency of judges to give probation for illegal firearm possession.
“It’s on the right track,” he said. “We need legislation with a little teeth in it.”
State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, who introduced the gun bill with Republican state Rep. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus, said the legislation should not be confused with California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law that resulted in mass incarceration for people with nonviolent offenses.
Rather, he said, the bill is aimed at repeat, violent criminals.
“We need to make sure we make our neighborhoods safer by taking those people out of the equation,” LaRose said. “I believe that we can do it. I believe that we have to do it.”
Support for program
Bishop Johnson pledged his support for the program. He said the black community can no longer sit back and watch the violent crime that’s impacting the city, particularly young black males where homicide is the leading cause of the death for men ages 15 to 34.
He said violent crime is just one example of America’s lost morality.
Change, he said, must come, values must be restored.
“We cannot sit silently and idly by and watch a generation get destroyed,” he said. “We need more conversations, we need more creativity, we need more community initiatives like today to address genocide.”