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Cleveland City Council unsure about Mayor Bibb's plan to cut police vacancies

Black man in white button down with Cleveland Police emblem on shoulder speaks into microphone
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Police Chief Wayne Drummond gives testimony on the budget to City Council.

Cleveland City Councilmembers questioned whether Mayor Justin Bibb’s proposed 2023 includes enough uniformed officers to effectively police the city.

Bibb is proposing eliminating 142 vacant positions compared to last year’s budget, while keeping 206 open spots open positions to be filled this year.

During a budget hearing Thursday, Public Safety Director Karrie Howard told councilmembers the city has been unable to fill all the empty spots in the budget for years.

“You have to draw a line in the sand with real bodies, real action and doing something different,” Howard said. “You’re not going to draw a line in the sand with 400 vacancies.”

Overall, Bibb’s budget calls for 1498 uniformed officers, down from the 1600-plus budgeted since city voters approved a half-percent income tax increase in 2016.

The city is increasing its reliance on technology, including a new video management software that helps patrol officers access surveillance video in the field and an ARPA-funded, 10-square-mile expansion of the gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter.

The mayor is also proposing millions in ARPA funding for non-police streetworkers who seek to prevent violence before it occurs, known as violence interrupters, and the expansion of a co-responder program that sends out social workers with police officers to respond to some calls for service.

“We don’t really understand the plan,” said Councilman Mike Polensek, who chairs council’s Safety Committee. “I know no social worker is going to roll around the street with a carjacker. The violence interrupters aren’t.”

Overall, the police budget is increasing by close to $7 million over what was spent in 2022. City officials attributed that increase to a 5% pay raise agreed to in the new patrol officers’ union contract.

The city hasn’t been able to train or hire enough officers to keep up with the number that leave, mostly through retirement or to another department, every year. In 2022, 200 officers left the department and just 98 were hired to replace them.

Howard told council the city is working to bridge that gap by hiring a marketing firm and ramping up recruiting in schools, going for potential officers as early as the 7th grade.

It’s also unclear how many officers the department needs. The city is considering responses to a request for proposal, released in November, to hire an outside expert to study the department and come up with a number of uniformed officers.

Council President Blaine Griffin said the city needs to address the perception among some residents that it’s unsafe, and one way to do that is with more officers on patrol.

“I hope that whatever we do that it is statistically and fundamentally sound of what we’re trying to do to try to make sure the public understands that we’re safe,” Griffin said.

Council has another week of budget hearings with city departments this coming week. Then members will discuss potential changes to the mayor’s budget.

A passed budget is due by April 1.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.