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Ohio ACLU looking into Akron police response to Jayland Walker protests

Protesters hold red carnations over their heads in silent protest.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Protesters hold red carnations over their heads in silent protest on Monday, April 24, 2023, in Downtown Akron against a grand jury decision not to indict eight Akron police officers who fatally shot Jayland Walker. Later, some of the demonstrators joined a caravan of vehicles in a separate protest where several drivers were reportedly cited or arrested. The ACLU of Ohio is concerned police officers stopped the cars to retaliate against protesters.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio is looking into the Akron police’s response to ongoing protests in the city over a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officers who killed Jayland Walker.

Several people who participated in protests in Akron over the past few weeks have contacted the organization, said legal director Freda Levenson.

“We’ve received credible information that Akron police have been seizing people’s cars in retaliation for their protest activity,” Levenson said.

The concerns include police reportedly stopping people after protests and impounding their cars, she said.

Additionally, Ideastream Public Media has reviewed videos circulating on social media that show potentially two incidences of officers getting in individuals’ vehicles and driving them away from the scene.

In one video, taken at a Circle K in North Hill on April 24, an officer gets in a blue car and drives away from the gas station, with several police vehicles with their lights on following behind.

Akron police had observed the driver "driving recklessly" earlier that evening, including driving standing up with the vehicle’s door open, said police spokesperson Lt. Michael Miller. Police arrested the driver at the gas station for illegally having a firearm in his vehicle, and his car was lawfully towed, he said.

An officer drove the car to a “safer location” for the tow truck to pick it up, because it was a “tense” situation at the gas station, Miller said. Several individuals were filming and shouting at the officers, according to the social media videos. It is legal to film police in public places.

Miller said nothing legally prohibits an officer from driving a person’s car to another location to be towed.

“The procedure does not prohibit them from moving that car in order to enhance safety ... and minimize interference, in order to do that,” Miller told Ideastream Public Media.

The police department confirmed the policy with city prosecutor Craig Morgan, Miller added.

Police can impound vehicles if drugs or weapons are found, Levenson at the ACLU said.

However, she has heard instances of Akron police allegedly stopping and towing cars in the hours after protests without a reasonable justification, she added.

“If [a car is] being used to commit certain offenses, it can be seized, but police may not retaliate against someone for their lawful exercise of their First Amendment rights, and it appears that that is what is happening here,” Levenson said.

There is also concern over officers citing or arresting drivers for protest-related infractions after the demonstration is over.

“For instance, if someone was committing the infraction of driving too slowly and their vehicle was blocking traffic at the protest, it doesn’t make sense to impound their vehicle when they are not driving too slowly at another time and another place,” Levenson said. “In that case, it appears to be retaliation against the person for protesting.”

"If [a car is] being used to commit certain offenses, it can be seized, but police may not retaliate against someone for their lawful exercise of their First Amendment rights, and it appears that that is what is happening here."
Freda Levenson, ACLU of Ohio

Miller denied that officers are stealing cars or trying to cause trouble.

“I understand what it feels like, what it looks like, and in a perfect world … if it wasn’t as tense, maybe there would have been an opportunity to have an exchange of information to provide some context,” Miller said. “If the officers can’t perform their duties in a manner with minimal interruptions, or they’re made to feel unsafe to do so, that’s the only reason that they moved it, not to cause any inconvenience or anything like that to anybody.”

ACLU lawyers are currently gathering more information from both protesters and the police department about the towing incidents, Levenson added.

Another video posted to Twitter on April 27 appears to show an officer driving a vehicle away from a protest. Miller was not aware of the incident but reiterated that officers can drive cars away if they feel it is unsafe to tow them directly from the scene.

Akron police were previously criticized for their response to a protest held April 19 on Copley Road, during which officers used tear gasto disperse participants. Police said they used tear gas after protesters threw water bottles at them, but some footage shows the bottles being thrown after tear gas was deployed. The department is under an injunction preventing the use non-lethal force such as tear gas and pepper spray to break up peaceful protests.

Corrected: May 5, 2023 at 9:03 AM EDT
The photo caption on an earlier version of this story said the protest at which drivers and cars were reportedly cited or arrested was a continuation of the red carnation demonstration. They were two separate protests organized by different people, though some from the earlier march joined the later gathering.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.