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.”