How Should We Police Cleveland? How Should We Police Cleveland?
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May 12, 2021 begins like any other day for Cleveland City Councilman Joe Jones. As he sits at his desk in his ward office, along Lee Road on the city’s Southeast side, he takes part in a Zoom meeting of city council’s safety committee. Suddenly out of the window he sees the unthinkable: a man with a gun. Dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, the man had just emerged from a convenience store across the street when he starts rat-a-tat-ing rounds at another man in the parking lot, who returns fire. 

On Jones’ computer screen, Councilman Kevin Bishop is in the middle of floating the idea of confiscating the dirt bikes of people who drive them while ignoring all traffic laws in the city, when, Jones who had been sitting and nodding along, suddenly stands up and goes to his office window. 

At first, he thinks the noise is just firecrackers. He comes back in-frame, grabs his phone and leaves again. He returns on camera with a frantic look on his face. 

“I need to break through on this call real quick, Mr. Chairman. I’ve got a gun fight going on, right over here,” Jones says, pointing off-screen and interrupting Bishop. “I’ve got an armed gunman shooting currently, right across from my office building. It’s an emergency. He’s firing off.”

Karrie Howard, Cleveland’s public safety director, second only to the mayor in the city’s law-enforcement hierarchy, asks for the address, which Jones reads out quickly. Then Jones stands and goes off-screen again. 

Jones watches out the window as one of the shooters ambles up to a red Camaro and gets in. With no Cleveland officers in sight, Jones, on the phone with dispatchers, runs out of his office, gets in his truck and follows the Camaro. He stays on the phone as he follows the Camaro south on Lee Road into Maple Heights.

The operator transfers Jones to Maple Heights police, and Jones watches as they swarm the parking lot of another convenience store where the gunman has stopped. They arrest him. 

Jones returns to his ward, after the arrest, to find Cleveland police finally taping off the original crime scene. Later, according to a police report, after some investigation and an anonymous tip from the public, Cleveland police catch the other shooter. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the shooter who had instigated the gunfight, a 16-year-old, was arrested and charged. 

It seems incredible: a shooting just offscreen, right in the middle of a city council meeting being broadcast live on YouTube. But for all its seeming unusualness, such an incident is, sadly, not so unusual in Cleveland. Amid the pandemic, violent crime has been on the rise across the nation, compounding what has been an already-insistent problem in Cleveland. 

2020 was the worst year for homicides, with 177, since 1982. The pandemic’s arrival in Cleveland only made a bad situation worse. Since 2014, Cleveland has consistently logged more than 100 homicides each year with most years rising above more than 120. 2021 is already on track to not be any better. As of July 31, police have already logged 98 homicides this year — 92 of them with a gun — putting 2021 on pace to be the city’s worst year yet. In the first seven months of the year, police took 2,041 guns off the streets, roughly twice as many as they had by this time last year and in 2019.

Meanwhile, the people responsible for staunching that tide — the police — are in the midst of a reckoning. The death of George Floyd galvanized the already-nascent Black Lives Matter movement in Cleveland and across the country. Activists are demanding more accountability after police shootings and pitching alternative policing methods to traditional law enforcement. 

In Cleveland, the police department is under an extensive consent decree with the Department of Justice until 2022. A coalition of community groups called Citizens For A Safer Cleveland, which includes organizations such as Black Lives Matter Cleveland and the Cleveland NAACP, along with several parents whose children have been killed by police, including Samaria Rice, have placed a measure to beef up civilian oversight of the department on the Nov. 2 ballot. 

Buffeted on one side by a rising wave of violence, and on the other by a parallel wave of demands for police accountability, Cleveland, like so many other cities across the country, is in the middle of a radical re-evaluation of its relationship with its police department. On Nov. 2, voters are being asked to vote not only for a new mayor who will determine how aggressively and by what method the city should be policed, but on the ballot measure, which will decide how they wish the police force to be governed. 

For Jones, the stakes of the election are personal. He is up for re-election this year, running on a public safety platform similar to the one that propelled him back into the Ward 1 seat in 2018. 

“If we had police visibility stationed here, if we would have assets in the area, they would have been here a lot faster,” says Jones of the May 12 shooting.

To correct the response problem Jones experienced first-hand, he wants to add 400 more sworn officers to a department that has already budgeted for more than 1,600 members. He also wants to bring more traffic enforcement to his ward so people see police out and about and interact with them. The fourth district, which includes Jones’s ward and is also the city’s most violent, only has two traffic enforcement cars, says Jones.

“That’s unacceptable,” says Jones. “If we are a police force that enforces the rule of law in this city, we should be doing that.”

But at the same time, Jones has also been a consistent advocate for reform in the department. In nearly every city council safety committee meeting he attends, Jones urges the department to add more training for officers and recruit more minority officers. Unlike many of his council colleagues, Jones has also endorsed the Citizens For A Safer Cleveland ballot initiative, which will empower several civilian boards to impose discipline on problematic officers, a process that right now is handled by underlings of the mayor: the chief of police and the city’s public safety director. 

“Good law enforcement is having a balanced system in place,” says Jones. “Right now, our system is not balanced.”

“I don’t feel safe calling the police for anything,” Sam Pierce, a Black woman from Collinwood, says into the camera. She sits in front of a couch with polka-dot pillows. “I fear that when I call the police for, say, noise in the neighborhood, I actually put my neighbors in danger by calling the police. That this could be an issue that causes the death of one of my neighbors. I’d like to know what you as mayor would do to make people like me feel safe again, and rely on those that are supposed to be there to serve me.”

It’s the first pre-primary mayoral debate, in which questions are sourced from everyday Clevelanders. Ideastream’s Rick Jackson poses Pierce’s question to a handful of the candidates: Councilman Basheer Jones, former Councilman Zack Reed and attorney Ross DiBello. 

Pierce asks the key question of the whole race, a question that hangs over not only the primary, but the general election and the first term of whichever candidate wins: What will the next mayor do to ensure people like Pierce feel they don’t have to fear police, and that they can rely on police when they need justice? It’s a question tied up intimately with the twin waves of crime and police reform crashing over the city.

But instead of taking her question head-on, the candidates trod on all too familiar ground and move on: Jones talks up the need for community policing, Reed expounds on the need for more violence interrupters and DiBello raises up his support of the Citizens For A Safer Cleveland ballot initiative. 

To the candidates’ credit, it’s an exceedingly difficult question to tackle in Cleveland, the city of Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson and so many others who have died at the hands of police, and a police force that has for the last few years solved only about half of its ever-larger stack of homicide cases. 

It is by now cliche to say that the rift between the city’s Black community and its police force yawns both deep and wide. In Cleveland, that rift goes back at least to the 1960s, to the Hough riots and the Glenville shootout and beyond. More recently, the use of excessive force in cases such as the shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, among others, sparked a Department of Justice investigation, the second in a decade, that found that Cleveland’s officers regularly engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing and excessive force. 

As a result of that investigation, the city and the feds came to an agreement, called a consent decree, to reform the department in 2015. That agreement, administered by a federal judge, has 255 separate provisions, from adding a police inspector general to more officer training to setting basic standards for when officers can use force. 

The force still operates under the agreement, and progress has been slow, painful and expensive. A tally this July, completed by the think tank Policy Matters Ohio, shows that the department is in compliance with only 37% of the decree’s 255 monitored reforms. Originally set to expire in 2020, the decree has been extended until 2022. 

But for all the good it has done — and it has unquestionably done at least some good for both officers and community — the consent decree has also proved a poor forum for tackling questions of police legitimacy and public perception like the one Pierce posed at the mayoral debate. 

When the consent decree was young, some of the city’s most vocal proponents of police reform hoped that its existence would translate into a mandate for changing the department beyond the bounds of the document itself. Its very presence, they hoped, created an opportunity for the city to tackle policing-related problems with complex roots such as police illegitimacy, community trust and violent crime. 

“I want transformation,” Rhonda Williams, then a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Community Police Commission’s inaugural co-chair, said back in 2015, a few weeks after the commission’s first meeting. “I don’t want just reform and tinkering of a system that remains unjust.”

But since then — through attrition, institutional conflict and the passage of time — the consent decree has been winnowed back to the narrow goal at its core: getting the department into constitutional compliance. What few reforms beyond the agreement’s scope that the consent decree ushered in — such as giving police body cameras — have been far from transformative, and haven’t adequately addressed Pierce’s question. 

So then: what will?

Charmin Leon was tired, so tired. A 13-year veteran of Cleveland’s police department, she had done it all: she patrolled the fourth district (the city’s most violent), she investigated officer misconduct, and made rank of sergeant. She even rose to administrative leadership, heading the city’s public safety recruiting team. In high school gyms across the city, she tried time after time to win skeptical youngsters over to police, fire and EMS work. 

But by mid-2020, she had reached a breaking point. She had long been an advocate for reform inside the department, but she had grown tired of trying to change things that way. She had seen the benefits and changes that came from the consent decree, she says, but had also seen too many city leaders pass the buck on too many proactive decisions that went beyond the consent decree’s text. 

“I grew weary,” Leon says. “I felt like I was undermining my own integrity to continue sitting at the table with folks who could make a difference and didn’t do it, and continued to kick the can down the road.”

So in September 2020, Leon quit. By December, she had become the representative of the Black Shield Police Association on the Community Police Commission, and had started a new job at the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that seeks to measure and stop bias in policing. The insider-game reformer had become the outsider advocate.

 Meanwhile, a group of other activists known as Citizens For A Safer Cleveland was assembling a ballot measure that would do what Leon had long hoped, and that the city’s current crop of elected leaders have mostly balked at: add civilian oversight to the department beyond what’s mandated by the consent decree. That group of 21 organizations assembled enough signatures to get their measure on the upcoming November ballot. 

If passed, it would give additional powers to two existing civilian boards, the Civilian Police Review Board and the Community Police Commission. Right now, the CPRB, which reviews civilian complaints against police, can only suggest officer discipline to the chief, who ultimately makes the final decisions. Similarly, the CPC can only suggest changes in police policy. 

The Citizens For A Safer Cleveland initiative would change all of that, empowering the CPRB to override the chief and public safety director on officer discipline, and giving final authority on whether to discipline officers to the CPC. The CPC would also be given the power to set police policy, handing it outsized power to implement systemic change.

The measure’s supporters say it adds oversight that’s needed to address the concerns of community members, such as Pierce, who fear an unaccountable police force. Danielle Sydnor, the Cleveland NAACP president, uses the example of a classroom. When a student has an issue with a teacher and has no one to report it to, they tend to shut down, she says, and are no longer the vibrant student they once were. 

“Unfortunately, in our communities, sometimes the relationship between community members and police is the same way,” says Sydnor. “Unless you have an independent, unbiased person that you can go to and say, ‘This is what happened to me and this is why I need someone to come in.’ ”

The new measure has garnered scant support from the city’s elected officials. It has been endorsed by Shontel Brown, the shoe-in candidate for the 11th Congressional District seat, Joe Jones, Councilman Kevin Conwell and mayoral candidate Justin Bibb. But most others, such as Cleveland City Councilman and public safety committee chairman Blaine Griffin and Mayor Frank Jackson, have opposed it, saying it would place too much power in the hands of unelected leadership.

The Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents the city’s 1,300 patrol officers, is similarly opposed. The charter modifications the measure proposes would conflict with the CPPA’s contract with the city, says Jeff Follmer, CPPA president, and officers are already over-disciplined and over-scrutinized under the consent decree as it is.

“We have cameras on every day, there are cellphones all over the place. If we do wrong, we are caught and we are held accountable for our actions,” says Follmer. “It’s not fair for the citizens of a civilian group to come in that is anti-police and try to pass something like this.”

Leon, however, is a cautious supporter. The measure is not without its flaws, she says. The members of the two boards will still be appointed by the mayor and city council, rather than directly elected, leaving room open for the kind of political chicanery that drove her out of the department in the first place. And, with the sense of realism that can be carried only by a former beat cop, she isn’t holding her breath that one policy change, even one so far-reaching as this, is going to rewrite decades of police force culture or change the rocky history between the police officers she once worked with and the community she loves dearly. But she says the measure is still a step in the right direction. 

“The administration has no one to blame but themselves,” says Leon. “At this point, they can’t be trusted to get it right.”

A while ago, while working an event in the city’s Central neighborhood, Myesha Crowe, the executive director of the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, encountered a young boy. He couldn’t have yet been in his teens. He wore 12 necklaces around his neck, and when Crowe asked him why he wore them, he told her that each was for someone he knew who had been killed. He knew the sites where each had died by heart: underneath this tree, on that stretch of sidewalk. 

“On every single one of these necklaces was the face of a friend he had lost to gun violence,” says Crowe. “I didn’t experience loss of a friend or family member until I was 24, and this person, who was maybe 12, has experienced the loss of friends, family.”  

There is likely more than one cause for the recent rise in violence, says Dan Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University. But the pandemic created a series of cascading factors that contribute to violence, such as severing many people from the institutions and services that they needed and placing them in close quarters with guns readily available. “In the last year and a half, that’s a recipe for what we’re seeing now, people experiencing this combination of things and having firearms available to them,” he says.

Amid the spike in violence, the city’s homicide unit continues to struggle to solve the cases it receives. After much pressure from city council and repeated media reports about inadequate staffing, the unit now has 21 investigators, four supervisors, an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, an FBI analyst, a city crime analyst and a victim advocate working in it, according to a July presentation Chief Calvin Williams and other police brass gave to city council. But the rate at which it solves cases hovers around where it has since at least 2016: 50%. According to the same presentation, the unit’s 2020 solve rate was 52%, and its 2021 solve rate is 54%. 

About half of the murders that happen in Cleveland are going unsolved every year. It’s a striking problem for the department, especially given who is dying. Year after year of annual reports from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner show most of those killed by gun violence in the city are young Black men.

City leaders have pinpointed what they believe is the source of the clam-up: the city’s “no snitching” culture. Indeed, after a spate of particularly tragic homicides, it is by now something of a sad tradition for the mayor, council members and the chief to hold a press conference to decry that culture and beg the public for tips. 

The further implications of such a press conference are worryingly clear. The issue is not just the city’s “no snitching” culture, but the relationship between some in Cleveland’s Black community and the police department, which is so fraught that witnesses are not only scared to call police because police might bring harm to them, they see police as an illegitimate source of the most basic right a human can hope for — justice when someone they know is heinously wronged. 

It’s a pattern Crowe sees all the time. The Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, a nonprofit with a staff of 17, uses a violence interrupter model to attempt to stop violence before it happens on the streets. They send out trusted intercessors, who are separate from and have no contact with law enforcement, to talk people down before they do something they’ll regret. Many of the people impacted by violent crime that the Peacemakers work with simply don’t think talking to law enforcement will do much good.

“Based on our experience in the communities, there’s a lot of doubt. There’s a lot of hopelessness,” says Crowe. “There’s a lot of, ‘How do I figure this out on my own?’ — not in a sense of retaliation, but in the sense of elevating their loved one’s name to be heard and using forms of protest.” 

Often, the community marshals its own resources without involving police at all, says Crowe, holding remembrances, building memorials. “Our people in our community have found power in numbers to, at a community level, get their message across where they are not heard,” she says. 

As the journalist Jill Leovy writes in Ghettoside: “...where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” It’s a system that “hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

Re-establishing the legitimacy of the department in the eyes of skeptical citizens by taking on the city’s homicide crisis directly —  by staffing up the homicide unit further, dedicating more resources to investigations and community-based models of tackling violent crime like the Peacemakers, and simply creating a narrative that the city is doing something to bring justice where it is lacking — will be not only the most critical police reform issue facing the city’s next mayor, but the most critical law enforcement one as well.

“With a regional approach, with a collective human love, we’ll be able to count every life lost to gun violence as a problem,” says Crowe, “not just those who come from outside the inner city.”

When it comes to policing, Cleveland is clearly ready for change, from the officers themselves to the community they serve. Even those skeptical of the calls for further reform, like the CPPA, are excited by the prospect that the Nov. 2 election could usher new leadership into the mayor’s office and the upper echelons of the city’s public safety department. There is something palpable in the air, a feeling that this election, the first truly competitive one in a very long time, will bring to Cleveland a form of policing that’s a departure from the last 16 years. 

“There definitely needs to be a change. In this upcoming election, the majority of candidates are looking at or talking about law enforcement or the safety of citizens, which is very important,” Follmer, the CPPA president, says. “We welcome change.”

What form that change should take, however, will continue to be the subject of debate right up until every ballot is cast, and for some time afterward. Will change mean more civilian oversight, or tweaks to the current system under the consent decree, or a return to a pre-consent decree structure once the agreement is over? Will it mean finally confronting the epidemic of homicides head-on by dedicating resources where they’re needed, or continuing to use the city’s epidemic of violent death as a convenient political pincushion? Will it mean a new view of policing that includes sending more social workers on police calls, which the department has experimented with in the past, and several mayoral candidates support? The voters will decide. 

For Crowe, that fact translates into a call to action: this Nov. 2 is an election in which everyone should vote. As a nonprofit leader, Crowe has no official dog in either race. But not casting a vote, she says, only contributes to the city’s ongoing violence. 

Crowe says she doesn’t want to have to meet more children like that boy from Central. And by casting a vote, by participating in the city’s community and making your voice heard about which path the city should take on how it is policed, and how the police should be overseen, each Clevelander can do their part to make a city where that boy, and you, can live in peace and security.

“Our outreach efforts are to educate people on voting, and the police component of this election is really, really huge. With the two issues that are on the ballot, they will understand where their power is,” Crowe says. “So that’s our goal, because a lack of voting leads to an increase in violence.”

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