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Canton community discusses need for police reform after death of Frank Tyson

Mount Olive Baptist Church Rev. Eric G. Howard speaks from the pulpit. Four folding chairs sit in front of him with mics on them.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Mount Olive Baptist Church Rev. Eric G. Howard says a prayer before a community discussion on policing in Canton on May 1, 2024.

Canton community members filled the pews of Mount Olive Baptist Church Wednesday night to discuss policing and grieve the death of Frank Tyson.

Tyson, a Black man, died while being arrested by Canton police on April 18.

About a dozen members of the Tyson family filled the first two pews of the sanctuary.

"You occupy those seats today," Peoples Baptist Church Rev. Walter Arrington told them, "but they have been occupied by others, and there are yet others waiting in line to take your place cause it ain't over yet."

Dozens of community members expressed their condolences to the family and offered their support.

"We're hurting with you. Our ancestors are hurting. People not yet born are hurting," Arrington said, "but we are in the fight. And we're going to fight to the finish."

Many community members said they were upset by how police handled Tyson. Police pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him while an officer pressed his knee on his back. Tyson repeatedly yelled, "I can't breathe." He lay motionless on the ground for seven minutes before officers checked for a pulse.

"Ban the knee. Ban the knee," Pastor James Chester said. "Why put your knee, 20 pounds, on somebody's neck? On somebody's back?"

Tyson was leaving from a crash site when police encountered him.

"Had somebody asked Frank Tyson if he was OK that night, had they walked in that bar and said, 'Whoa buddy, what's wrong? What's going on? I see there was an accident. Was that you?' The outcome may have been different," community activist Sierra Mason said.

The NAACP has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking the department to investigate the Canton Police Department, Stark County NAACP President Hector McDaniel said.

Some residents criticized city leadership for not doing enough to reform the police and encouraged others to put pressure on the mayor and city council.

"Your mayor talked about some of these policies being in office, and look where we're at right now," community activist Jolanda Jackson said. "I need y'all to start showing up to city council."

Mayor William Sherer II discussed rebuilding trust between the community and police while campaigning, after the fatal police shooting of James Williams in 2022.

Ward 4 Councilmember Chris Smith appeared to take issue with this rhetoric, saying that she and other city officials have been working behind the scenes to ask questions about Tyson's death and pushing for reform. She's brought her specific concerns about Tyson's death to the mayor and police chief, she said.

The Tyson family left shortly after Smith spoke, to applause and cheers.

Greater Stark County Urban League President and CEO Thomas West agreed that the city has made great progress toward police reform, including electing four Black councilmembers and a Black county prosecutor.

"We're moving. We're progressing," he said. "Let's not get it twisted, alright? Let's build on our success."

Community members offered potential solutions to policing in the city, including de-escalation policies, instituting a citizen police oversight board, having mental health professionals and community members respond to mental health crises and funding grassroots organizations.

Smith said she wants the city to adopt 8 Can't Wait, a national campaign calling for police stations to adopt eight use of force policies.

"If they had, then Mr. Tyson would still be alive," she said. "I really feel like he would still be alive if they took it seriously and wanted to make a change."

Joe Fouche with DiCello Levitt, the law firm representing the Tyson family, encouraged the community to start the process of creating a citizen police oversight board.

"We've already started writing the verbiage for it, and we're hoping that every one of you can leave here today talking about what can you do to sign a petition, who's going to help pass those petitions out," he said. "So that we can help get this on the ballot in November and make sure that there's some accountability held to these police officers.

Smith said she supports an amendment to create a citizen police oversight board, and she has a positive outlook on the change she believes Sherer's administration can accomplish, she said.

And Rev. Arrington said "Canton has the opportunity right now to be a model city, to model how you deal with this kind of struggle."

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.