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Akron City Council took an hour Monday to meet administration officials in a special public session about ways to improve the city’s permitting process for park space and bolster safety for privately organized events.

The discussion came nearly a month since a 7-year-old pee wee football player and 19-year-old bystander, who are both recovering, were hit by gunfire at Lane Field in the Sherbondy Hill neighborhood. Pee wee football games resumed in Akron two weeks after the shooting with all leagues now requiring members to hire police or private security.

But there’s no requirement for security at most of the 200 events held annually on rented city spaces.

To meet a state requirement, the city requires renters to have off-duty police or private security lined up for events at city parks if alcohol is being served.

Since the shooting last month, Mayor Dan Horrigan’s administration and President Margo Sommerville, whose ward includes Lane Field, have expressed the desire to require hired security at any youth sporting event held at city parks.

Deputy Public Service Director Eufrancia Lash said the city is waiting to hear from “other voices” before enacting that plan, which would come at an extra cost to the organizations that rent the parks. The plan might also be untenable in some situations due to severe staffing shortages in the Akron Police Department.

“We routinely have overtime on our patrol shifts, and the majority of that goes unfilled,” Deputy Chief Jesse Leeser, who commands the department’s patrol division, said in response to Councilwoman Nancy Holland’s attempt to help her colleagues understand the gravity of the staffing dilemma.

“We might be in a situation where we’re looking to have to pull cars off patrol to staff an event, right?” Holland suggested.

“Yes,” Leeser said. “That very well could be the case.”

Only for the Akron Marathon are police mandated to work overtime. Extra jobs at pee wee football games, public housing complexes, celebrations and more are offered but officers are not required to work them.

‘We have to do something different’

Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, called the special meeting following a challenge last week by Ward 4 Councilman Russ Neal.

“We have to do something different. We have to move in a direction where our city is safe, where our parks are safe,” said Kammer, who called the discussion to order.

Neal was shocked that council returned from summer recess a week ago without talking about the shooting or adding safety into the permitting process. Neal said this Monday that he’s been asking for this conversation since a 15-year-old boy was shot in the chest at Stoner Hawkins Park in his ward during the annual Akron Juneteenth Festival, where there was little police presence and no officers hired to work the event.

Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik addressed the elephant in the room: large crowds.

“When it comes to large crowds,” the presumptive next mayor of Akron said, “xthe sense that I get — and I was there at Juneteenth before the shooting happened — was that when you get large crowds, there tends to be some teenagers who end up congregated on the outskirts of the crowd. And sometimes these teenagers are carrying weapons. And if they see someone from a different group or someone they have beef with, that can escalate.”

Council pitches ideas to improve safety

Several council members agreed with Kammer’s request that the administration notify ward council members of every event permitted in their respective wards. Kammer said he did the math and was only unaware of 9% of the events this year in his neighborhood, which mainly covers Firestone Park

Officials from the mayor’s office, Public Service, the Office of Integrated Development, and Parks and Recreation form a committee that oversees park permits.

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Council members also were in general agreement with a proposal by Wards 5 Councilwoman Tara Mosley that security be required for events that expect large crowds, which Mosley set at 100 or more attendees. Mosley and others pushed for the security requirement while raising concerns about the cost for organizers.

Mosley said she pays $300 for liability insurance at each of her organized gatherings and $40 an hour for each Akron police officer. The officers don’t get overtime but are guaranteed the above-entry-level rate for the extra-duty detail.

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Summit County Sheriff’s deputies can also take the off-duty shifts. But there aren’t enough officers to go around, officials said of any proposal to increase the number of events that require security. Leeser said the 40 reserve officers in the Akron Police Department are already taking the jobs but can’t work more than 40 hours a week to avoid burnout.

Longer-serving council members talked about prior alternatives. Neal referenced male volunteers who worked security at the African American Cultural Festival when it was held annually at Lane Field, which was then known as the Sandpile. It was the largest event at the city’s largest venue outside of Lock 3, and the men kept the crowds safe at little to no cost, Neal said.

At-Large Councilman Jeff Fusco recalled Akron Basketball Plus, a program from 2005 or 2006 when the city provided security at basketball games and police wanded everyone entering the gymnasiums for weapons.

“It all comes down to cost,” Fusco said, noting that the program fell victim to budget cuts during the Great Recession.

Reach reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.