It’s four o’clock on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon. I’m driving down Euclid Avenue just past Shaw High School. Up ahead, I see four police cruisers in the middle of the road.
Good, I think. They’ve got a DUI checkpoint, and they’re enforcing the law. I grow impatient with the car ahead. The driver doesn’t seem to want to proceed into the checkpoint. So I beep my horn. She turns her car around ahead of me and heads back toward my leave.
“You fool!” she shouts at me. “They got their weapons drawn!”
Ahead, I can see the situation. The police are standing behind their cruisers, service revolvers gleaming in the sun, wild-eyed with the realization that they may already be on the other side of no tomorrow. But there they are, ready to make a stand with someone who is obviously a nasty perpetrator holed up in a bar.
Time for a detour.
While necessary, DUI checkpoints are largely the stuff of suburban settings. But the police in urban environments and disadvantaged neighborhoods can hardly be bothered. They are forced to confront life and death on a daily basis.
The story above, while true, also illustrates an important point. Anecdotal evidence is often used to make the point that crime is increasing. In many media outlets, such stories are told with headlines like “Skyrocketing Crime” or “Shootings Explode.”
Fear sells — and so does scandal.
While crime is on the uptick nationwide, Northeast Ohio law enforcement is slowly gaining an upper hand. So it’s time to take another look.
Violent crime, including felonious assault and homicides, are actually on a downward trend in Cleveland, according to the official Comprehensive Environmental Review Process (CERP) data from the city of Cleveland’s Division of Police. Through Sept. 20 of this year, when comparing it to the same time frame in 2021, homicides with a firearm are down 8.26%, rapes are down 7.25% and felonious assaults (with or without a firearm) are down 16.89%.
Much of the decline is being attributed to Cleveland Division of Police Chief Dornat “Wayne” Drummond’s strategic plan to lower violent crime.
“That plan involves working with our partners at the federal, state and local levels, but we are also targeting hot spots in a strategic way,” says Drummond. “Sometimes, these hot spots will just pop up, and we have to deal with them accordingly. But we also target individuals who are crime drivers — the ones who are pulling the triggers. We need to identify, research and target these individuals and remove them from our community.
“Some are gang related, and some are not. We have a group of talented detectives who are assigned to our gang impact unit who are really good at putting together gang-related cases.”
Gang related activity is increasing
“Gang participation and gang violence is on the rise,” says Gregory Nelsen, FBI Cleveland special agent in charge of the crime trends impacting the nation. “We’re seeing gangs participate in drug activity, violent crime such as homicides and carjackings and white collar crime such as Pandemic Unemployment Fraud and money laundering. We’re also seeing a rise in juvenile participation in gangs. Neighborhood gangs pose the biggest threat to communities across the U.S. Each FBI field division is addressing neighborhood gangs with its partners through the Safe Streets and Gang Task Forces in its area of responsibility.
“FBI Cleveland has assessed this as an important issue and has recently approved our gang task force to be a permanent fixture in the Cleveland office.”
The FBI is primarily focused on serving as a “force multiplier” to local, state and other federal law enforcement partners to investigate and eradicate violent street gangs, adds Nelsen. Through programs such as the Safe Streets and Gang Task Force, the FBI assists partner agencies by sharing resources, manpower and gang intelligence and information. Additionally, this allows for federal prosecution of gangs and their membership, which can result in more severe sentences and penalties for the entire gang. It also enables the entire criminal enterprise to be dismantled or disrupted instead of the prosecution of a few low-level members.
Although strategic partnerships with federal, state and local law enforcement are key to Cleveland’s strategy, so is technology — especially in Cleveland Division of Police’s Fourth District, where new ShotSpotter technology is being used. ShotSpotter technology uses strategically placed microphones throughout an area to help triangulate and locate suspected gunfire. Once an incident has been identified and verified as a gunshot (and not a firecracker or some other source) an alert goes directly to a squad car, which is then dispatched to the location, often in under a minute.
“We received grant funding [from the Cleveland Police Foundation] to try it out for two years,” explains Brandon Kutz, Fourth District commander. “The funding that we received basically covers about 3 square miles, which is about 18% of my district.”
The pilot program is centered in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, radiating outward from that point.
“When we started the pilot program in 2020, that 18% of my district accounted for 37% of shots fired, 37% of our felonious assaults and, at that time, about 45% of all my homicides,” says Kutz. “So, it was a very disproportionately affected location.”
When tracking the number of alerts from ShotSpotter to how many calls it gets from the public, the statistics are a little disconcerting, admits Kutz. Police received about 15% of “shots fired” calls two years back, but that number has come down to single digits — a sign that the neighborhood has grown more desensitized to gunfire.
With ShotSpotter, “we are responding to a lot more gun incidents than we have before,” Kutz says. “We are saving lives, gathering evidence for making arrests, and we are recovering guns. So far, we have recovered 50 guns and made 45 arrests, which isn’t a ton, but it’s 50 guns and 45 arrests that we wouldn’t have without the technology.”
The technology also has helped police retrieve shell casings, which can then be used in other crime investigations using telltale ballistics markings. In addition, it has also had a deterrent impact on the neighborhoods where the technology is being used.
“I’m also tracking crime stats in the areas that compare the Fourth District to the city as a whole,” says Kutz. “In most cases, we are seeing a disproportionate reduction in crime when compared to other places in the city.”
As of press time, Kutz and Drummond were assembling data to present to Mayor Justin Bibb and Cleveland City Council to justify expansion of the ShotSpotter program across the city.
“However, I think we should just use the technology in ‘hot spots’ in other districts,” says Kutz. “I don’t think we can justify the expense across the entire city.”
The technology doesn’t come cheap, with a price tag that amounts to about $65,000 per square mile, plus an additional $10,000 for the setup for ShotSpotter analysis centers in Washington, D.C., and California. However, it can also be used in conjunction with other technologies, such as security cameras, license plate readers and, in the future, possibly drones.
“While ShotSpotter technology can give us alerts in under a minute — which is lightning fast, if you’re pulling a trigger on a gun — it still doesn’t take very long to get out of Dodge,” Kutz admits. “Technology is not a panacea for solving crime — that just doesn’t exist. We have to use a multilayered approach, using technology, reinvestment in the community and the work of other organizations like social service agencies.”
But new technologies like ShotSpotter will no doubt continue to help answer the question “Are we safe?” in a positive way.