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Cleveland Safety Forces Aim To Keep Numbers Up In 2020

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams (right), Mayor Frank Jackson and Safety Director Michael McGrath speak at a news conference in 2018. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams (right), Mayor Frank Jackson and Safety Director Michael McGrath speak at a news conference in 2018.

Cleveland public safety officials Wednesday faced questions from city council on diversity and plans keep the ranks of first responders from being thinned by retirements.

Cleveland spends more than half of its $670 million general fund on public safety, with about 3,100 employees budgeted for 2020 across police, fire, EMS and other divisions. Leaders of those divisions presented their plans – and faced questions on diversity and plans keep the ranks of first responders from being thinned by retirements – as part of the city’s annual budget process Wednesday.

The administration budgeted for an EMS staff of 332 this year, roughly the same as in the 2019 plan. But by December of last year, the division was 47 people below full strength.

The division plans to bring on two new classes of cadets this year, Commissioner Nicole Carlton said. Paramedics are in high demand across the country, she said, and some have left Cleveland EMS to join the fire department.

Council members asked city officials how they plan to retain workers in the division. Councilman Charles Slife encouraged officials to consider raising pay.

“To make it to be a steady, middle-income household these days often requires two parents working and very, very expensive household costs,” Slife said.

C.A.R.E. ILA, the union representing dispatchers, EMTs and paramedics in Cleveland, is in the midst of  a contract dispute with the city centered on pay and mental health support. City officials told council they value the work done by EMS employees.

“We appreciate them and acknowledge it,” Interim Chief of Staff Sharon Dumas said, “and we would never have any disparaging things to say about them or to do to them.”

Cleveland’s fire department is also trying to gain ground against attrition. The department saw 38 retirements last year, according to Fire Chief Angelo Calvillo. A new class of 40 cadets will join the division later this year, he said.

Councilman Basheer Jones pushed fire department leaders to work harder to hire more women and minority applicants.

“I have some serious concerns about where we stand in regards to diversity,” Jones said. “Actually, we are failing in regards to diversity.”

All of this year’s incoming cadets are white men, Calvillo said, but the next 40-person class in the pipeline does include several women. They could be ready to join the force by 2021, he said.

The fire department has made strides in diversifying the ranks, Calvillo said. The department is now roughly one-quarter minority, he said.

“This is not going to be a quick turnaround,” he said. “It’s going to take time in regards to diversity, not only for African Americans and the first Latino fire chief in 153 years, but everybody else, including Asian Americans and other ethnic backgrounds.”

The Vanguards of Cleveland, an association for black firefighters,  sought a meeting with city officials last year after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report accused the city of discriminating against black, Hispanic and female applicants.  The city has disputed these findings.

The mayor is again planning to staff the police department with about 1,600 officers. The city has been working to hit that mark for several years, bringing on new cadet classes as retirements reduce the ranks.

Counting cadets, the division of police is now above the 1,600-officer water line, Chief Calvin Williams told council. He said the department will now focus on keeping that number steady.

“That 1,610 is what we’re budgeted for,” Williams said. “It’s what we plan to stay with now, and stabilize that number. And then we’ll talk to the administration and we’ll talk to council about upping that number in the future when we’re confident that we can reach over that number and sustain that number.”

But a few special investigative units remain understaffed, Williams said—an issue that has plagued Cleveland police for years.

The domestic violence unit is staffed at 10, below its budgeted strength of 15, Williams said. The sex crimes unit has 18 detectives, fewer than the full strength of 23. The homicide unit is also budgeted for 23 detectives, but currently has 20.

Williams said he plans to rotate officers into those units to bolster their ranks. Council President Kevin Kelley asked for regular updates on the units’ strength.

“If we tell people we’re going to get to full staff, we have to get there,” Kelley said.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.