'Our Land': A Conversation With The Head Of Cleveland's Community Policing Unit

Cleveland Police Commander Ellis Johnson Jr. (Nick Castele/WCPN)
Featured Audio

by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Today we continue our occasional series Our Land: a conversation about community policing in Cleveland.  We’ve been gathering diverse perspectives on what community policing should look like, and how far are we from that ideal.  And today, we gain another law enforcement perspective.

JOHNSON: “I don’t think we’re too far away from it.  I think the ideal—because most officers already they do do it.”

Cleveland Police Commander Ellis Johnson Jr. heads the division’s community policing bureau.

JOHNSON: “We started a program where we have kits, and what we do is we put coloring books, crayons, pamphlets, fliers, little plastic badges, and zone cars have it, and when they go out and about they stop and you know see a kid, ‘hey, how you doing, da da da,’ they start that contact, they start that interaction.  And that impact not only for the youth, but for the parent of that youth seeing that interaction between officers which is not a ‘well get off the corner’ or ‘come here...’ it’s a simple human communication.”

Johnson is an African-American police commander in a division of police that has a strained relationship with some poor and minority communities.  His office is layered in paperwork, recruiting posters, and on the walls posters saying ‘Cops for Kids.’  Community policing for Johnson centers heavily on the interactions between police and the public. 

Previously ideastream's Tony Ganzer interviewed Cleveland writer RA Washington, and here’s an edited clip from that interview:

RA WASHINGTON: “I feel like the police have to earn a pass, like they don’t get a pass for the leadership being able to ape a certain rhetoric with community policing, they have to earn that […] I mean the whole concept of police is policing one’s, like, community goods, making sure nothing gets broken or stolen, or people don’t get bopped upside the head.  It’s hard to trust a police force that does a lot of the bopping.”

Ganzer asked Commander Johnson to reply to these thoughts:

JOHNSON: “That’s part of a mindset, I’m saying, that has to change on both parts. Again that goes back to the percentage of what you’re looking at, and those interactions that you’re looking at with the ‘police doing the bopping.’ Okay, in close to that million contacts that we have, how many incidents is that?  On the whole, police officers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they’re doing it well.  And we do have those bad elements that do occur, and need to be eliminated from the division. Because what you’re saying is ‘they don’t deserve a pass, or they need to earn a pass,’ how about those officers who’ve  been on the job for the past 30+ years like myself who hasn’t had those incidents?  And the majority of us have never had those incidents.  The majority of us have never had to shoot anybody.  But it’s that broad brush that’s coloring all police officers as opposed to those few who have violated either rules or the law in saying that, well guess what that’s all of us.  So I can't prove anything to you, unless you're open to it.”

Johnson says people who are vocal against the police are heard more than people supporting police, when incidents of people getting hurt or shot in involvements with the police are a small percentage of overall interactions.  He says there are bad cookies in the force that need to be rooted out, and recruitment and training need to help equip the department to find a new way. 

He says officers can police very well, but there needs to be more focus on customer service.

JOHNSON: “Customer service is, when I get out I am truly totally professional, but I am courteous in my profession. It’s not the idea that, yes I know how to write a ticket, that’s part of policing.  I know how to make an arrest, that’s part of policing.  I know how to use what’s on my belt, from Taser, to my firearm, I know how to do that. It’s the treatment that we have with the people.”

Commander Ellis Johnson Jr. heads the bureau of community policing for the Cleveland Division of Police. 

Find more perspectives on community policing here.

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