Anyone remotely concerned with the city knew that sooner or later, the Cleveland Police Department would be revealed as a force plagued by indifferent management, incompetent performance and excessive violence. Apparently, Mayor Frank Jackson was not among the concerned.
When the U.S. Justice Department delivered its devastating report in December on the pathetic state of the department, the revelation shamed the mayor into denial. The federal government charged that the city's law enforcement arm had been allowed to turn into a rogue operation.
You did not need a federal investigation to know the Cleveland Police Department was troubled. The fact that Jackson did not act, and that so few of his fellow leaders have held him accountable on police issues should make us deeply concerned about the very quality of leadership here and government's attention to the people it is supposed to serve.
For me, the telling incident occurred in April 2010, when two police officers were dispatched in the early morning to Interstate 90 at West 41st Street to check out a report of a dead body. The officers drove by and radioed that the body was a dead deer. They then retired to the West Park Cemetery, where they spent the last two hours of their shift presumably resting. The body was later identified as a 28-year-old woman, a robbery victim.
Though then-safety director Martin Flask suspended the officers for six months, the case raised questions about how the police are managed and how the city is governed.
Problems have haunted the Cleveland Police Department for decades. It goes back to the 1930s and 1940s, when corruption riddled its ranks and Eliot Ness spent seven years as safety director trying to reform it. Drugs, the racial strife of the 1960s and the proliferation of guns made the streets even meaner for police. The 1968 Glenville shootout created a bitter divide between police and the black community, and left an indelible mark.
Every mayor in my lifetime has had nightmares over the police, the toughest city service to manage. Police function in their own culture. The nature of the work promotes cynicism, fraternal bonding and daily fear.
In 2011, The Plain Dealer examined police violence and found that police leadership was lax in its investigation of officers' use of force. November 2012 brought the bullet-riddled chase involving 62 cruisers, some 100 officers, 137 rounds of ammunition and the killing of two people. After investigating the shooting incident, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine warned Jackson there were systemic failures in the police department he commanded. Jackson denied it, despite the city paying $10.5 million in the past decade to settle lawsuits over police violence.
Despite the numerous warnings that all was not well, Jackson placated and promoted police leadership rather than confront it. He sided with Flask and Michael McGrath, who served respectively as safety director and chief during the period that the federal investigation covered. In 2014, Jackson promoted McGrath to safety director and Flask to a special assistant position.
Then came November's killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who brandished a toy pistol. Rice was shot by a rookie policeman who had been found unfit for duty in a suburban police department. The incident finally alarmed a somnambulant community. Protesters have called for the mayor to fire McGrath and Flask. He has refused.
Rice's death and the November 2012 shooting were worse than the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the strangulation in New York, both of which brought nationwide protests. I suspect Cleveland was spared a violent reaction like the one in Ferguson because the latest incidents came as no surprise. A mismanaged police force and an insensitive mayor tolerated a culture of police brutality to the point where it became not only the norm, but also the expected. The Justice Department report confirmed that.
Much recent reporting about police violence has focused on race. But in Cleveland, the issue goes deeper. The death of Rice, like the conviction of dozens of public officials in the Cuyahoga County corruption cases a few years ago, reveals the lack of quality leaders in office.
Two years ago, I wrote that Jackson's City Hall had failed at so many efforts that his judgment was questionable. The fire department endured a scandal over work rules, the water department regularly overbilled and Jackson wasted money and effort on flawed, ill-fated plans to move the Port of Cleveland, light the city and convert garbage to energy.
Jackson won his third term as mayor in 2013 against a weak candidate, Ken Lanci. Although the police union supported Lanci, the challenger wanted to fire McGrath and Flask. The two black candidates that could've offered a challenge to Jackson, councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, have court convictions (Johnson for extortion, Reed for drunk driving) that mar their political futures.
The police issues are yet another example of careless City Hall policies. Recently, Jackson backed a plan to have his brother, who heads Cuyahoga Community College's Public Safety Institute, take over firefighter training in a no-bid contract. With former politicians serving decades in prison, one would think that any public official would avoid even the hint of a conflict of interest.
In Cleveland, police violence is a symptom of the general decay of public service, a result of single-party politics interested in get-along, go-along management and self-preservation. In time, I could see a county government swallowing City Hall out of necessity to preserve the city.
A prime example of our decaying politics was U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge's gratuitous comment congratulating the mayor's cooperation with the Justice Department. If Jackson had been doing his job, there would have been no federal investigation. The same could be said about City Council. A few have spoken out, but overall, council has failed to perform as a check on Jackson's benign attitude.
Now, Jackson's reputation and future are under scrutiny. The Call & Post, the black weekly newspaper, published a scathing editorial accusing the mayor of having the blood of Rice on his hands.
The federal mandates to remedy the situation will be a bitter pill for a police force that stubbornly clings to its independence and political clout. Restive police on the eve of the 2016 Republican National Convention do not bode well for Cleveland's reputation.
The coming months promise to be filled with angst, recriminations and bad headlines. The story here is that a city is more than new bridges, parks, restaurants and apartments. A flashy urban setting cannot come before the safety of the city's people.