KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Newly elected Clay County Sheriff Will Akin is not new to the sheriff’s office, where he has worked for years.
He's lived in the area since Dec. 1, 2012, but he shared glimpses of a much longer journey, growing up in California, with 41 Action News.
In a tweet he posted on Thanksgiving, Akin described how eating in the car with his brother reminded him of a time in their childhood when they lived in their mother’s car.
As my brother and I sat in the parking lot eating, it dawned on me. The last time we shared a @McDonalds meal in a car, in a parking lot, was 36y ago. He was 6 and I was 9. We were homeless and living in our mom’s station wagon. Look at us now! 😂👍🏼 pic.twitter.com/BzBsrwHmGR— Sheriff Will Akin (@DrWillAkin) November 26, 2020
“Some say happiness is the result of hardship. When ppl ask me why I’m always happy, I tell them it’s b/c of my perspective on life,” he added in a subsequent tweet.
The father of three said he shares that message with his children, too.
"No matter how hard you think it is right now, it's not always going to be that hard. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep, keep, keep making it happen," Akin said.
Akin said it wasn’t until adulthood that he realized they had been homeless for about two years when he was a child.
“We, growing up, went through a lot of hardship, and growing up, it was really just me, him, and my mom,” he said. “We went through so much that even today in our 40s, we're still very close, extremely close... Being homeless for us, being homeless in our circumstance, living in the back of our mom's station wagon — we don't remember it being homeless. We remembered it as an adventure. We were sleeping in the car, camping every night, waking up the next morning and going to McDonald's and getting an Egg McMuffin. And so that's the way we remember it.”
His brother shared similar memories.
“I remember sleeping in a car and then eating out of garbage cans,” said Robert Akin, who works as a custodian for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and was hired by the previous Sheriff, according to Will Akin.
One Christmas, they said when there was no money for a tree or presents, they woke up to find a tumbleweed in their screen door. They brought it inside.
"Instead of singing 'Oh, Christmas Tree,' I said how bout we just sing 'Oh, Tumbleweed!'" Robert said. "We sprayed it with white Christmas foam all over it, and we decorated it, and then we put candy canes on it."
Will Akin said an anonymous donation later helped their mom buy presents and food to make a Christmas they would never forget.
Growing up, Akin said he had a small group of teachers who kept track of him.
“I had five teachers who, they just kept an eye on me like a hawk," Akin said. "I actually refer to them as ‘the five’ today because they would actually come to my house when I wasn't in school and made me get in the van and take me to school."
Akin said he has had contact with at least one of those teachers since. He said juggling several jobs made staying in school difficult.
“I got my first job when I was 12 years old, and I was climbing palm trees with a chainsaw,” he said.
“I know he was really young,” Robert said. “Taking care of me and my mom and stuff, you know, being my brother but also being a dad at the same time.”
Will Akin said he dropped out of high school at 16 "to help support my mom and brother." He got his GED and joined the Army when he realized there was little opportunity where they lived.
“I finally realized, ‘I have to get out of here. Otherwise I don’t know where my future lies.’” he said.
Akin said he kept going to school while he served and later began a career in law enforcement, where he continued his education.
Now, his framed GED and recently-completed doctorate hand in his office. His experiences, more than his titles, shape how he serves.
“I understand what it’s like to live under those circumstances,” he said.
He said his mother, who died at the age of 55 in 2007, also shaped the person his is today.
"I think about her all the time. Yeah, I'd like to think that she's proud of me for the things that I've done, and the way that I still conduct myself, because a lot of the things that I can attribute to the way that I am now today is because of her. She was such a selfless, selfless person."
Akin also teaches some courses at a local university.
“There is a tremendous amount of dialogue about, you know, recent events and I actually challenge my students to talk about the things that are so hard, so difficult to talk about,” he said.
Last year the death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes, sparked protests nationwide and locally over social injustices and police brutality.
41 Action News asked Akin what his message is to the Black community and Clay County as a whole about his office's efforts toward racial justice and equality.
He said transparency is key.
“I think for me at the Clay County Sheriff's Office and our organization, especially now moving forward, this is not a secret organization,” he said. “I invite members of the public, regardless of the color of skin, to come in and learn more about us.”
“When we're able to actually start having citizen’s academies again, that's when we invite people to come in and then we take the time in this room to tell them ‘this is who we are.' I have all of my commanders come in and I tell them to give a presentation or introduction of themselves, and then we open it up and we allow them to ask us questions.”
“We try to be as much as possible involved in our community, not just Liberty, not just Gladstone, but everywhere,” he said. “Opening ourselves up to the community to let them know, hey it's okay to know who we are. It's okay to, to ask questions because the more everyone knows about our organization and our community, the better off we are.”
Akin said the last year has been "extremely challenging year for communities and law enforcement," and called it one of the toughest of his 18-year career in law enforcement, but "we're in this together."
“For our community and for the Clay County Sheriff's Office and the municipalities around in our county, ... we've built trust with the community because we didn't wait for a critical incident to happen,” he said.
Akin said when possible, they will open space for community meetings.
Changes have been implemented over the last year at his office, Akin said.
"We don't wait until a critical incident happens. We're constantly reviewing our policies,” he said.
One of the policies reviewed was that on chokeholds, Akin said.
“With all the input from our federal partners and all of our regional partners, we have changed the standard of when you can apply a chokehold to when it's — when lethal use of force is warranted. That's the highest level,” he said.
“Now, we don't want to completely remove that option because sometimes when you're in that situation, you have to survive, but you have to do it in the best way possible,” Akin said.
“Chokehold is very ambiguous because there are different ways to get someone under control when you apply that technique,” he said. “Now, for example, if it's a straight bar across the esophagus, you can cause damage,” he said.
“If you use a technique where you place the corner of your elbow, right here it doesn't apply pressure on the esophagus, so it doesn't cause permanent damage, but it allows your forearm and your bicep to restrict the blood flow which will render someone unconscious very quickly,” he said.
"But it's not just hold it there,” he said. “You have to be trained in doing that, and so our deputies, what we're doing is assessing the training aspect. What are you going to do and how are you going to apply it? What is the history of our training?” he said.
“We're in the process right now of evaluating all that and making those changes to be in line with our policy.”
Some people believe chokeholds should never be used. Akin said he'd respond to those people by having a conversation with them about situational awareness and preparedness.
“Lethal use of force is just that, but it's not apply a LVNR. It's not use your firearm and then just let them there. We still have to render assistance,” he said.
“If my option was between a choke, chokehold or using my firearm, but I'm in a better position, better advantage point to use a chokehold, I know that we can save them a lot easier than shooting them,” he said.
“If I can't use a chokehold, do you want me to shoot when this is a better option? Even though it's a use of force that reaches the lethal category? Because I know it, especially trained, we would be able to mitigate the circumstance a lot easier than actually potentially losing someone's life,” he said.
“That should be something that would be left in reserve for that lethal use of force scenario,” Akin said.