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Cuyahoga County Council pushes back against sheriff's Downtown Cleveland patrol

Man in police uniform speaks at podium
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Cuyahoga County Sheriff Harold Pretel speaks to County Council about progress in his first year on the job.

The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department’s new Downtown Safety Patrol is facing pushback from county council members over the cost and concerns of new legal liabilities for the county.

At Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Michael Gallagher, the public safety committee’s chairperson, told Sheriff Harold Pretel the patrol may be too expensive to make permanent.

“Unfortunately, out of trying to do something good, I think you've created a monster and the monster is going to get bigger,” Gallagher said. “We need to control how we do this, where we do this and why we do this. And who's paying for it.”

In September, Pretel told media outlets he was considering operating the patrol permanently.

Pretel announced in July he would assign eight deputies and one sergeant to patrol Downtown Cleveland. At the time, the city was experiencing a spike in violence, including several high-profile shootings Downtown.

Pretel told council this week the patrol was his idea, and he approached Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb about starting it. It will cost the county about $1.1 million per year, the county estimates.

“If we don't do it, then we really jeopardize the core of our county — where the county seat is; where the investment in our county is — going into just Wild West chaos because that's where it was going prior to that intervention,” Pretel said.

The day after the meeting, a spokesperson for the county executive’s office said Executive Chris Ronayne supports the Downtown unit and plans to keep it.

“A safe Downtown Cleveland benefits the people who live in the area and those throughout Cuyahoga County who come Downtown for work or entertainment,” said Kelly Woodard, Ronayne’s communications director. “The Downtown Safety Patrol creates a secure environment for residents, businesses, visitors and stakeholders.”

On Tuesday, council members expressed concerns that Pretel was at risk of neglecting the primary duties of the sheriff’s department. State law says the sheriff is responsible for the county jail and security at the courts. Deputies also are tasked with serving bench warrants and enforcing court orders.

It’s not clear what impact the new patrols have on department staffing. Sheriffs in the past have sent an “impact unit” to assist with spikes in crime at the request of municipalities but only for short periods of time.

“This is something different,” said Gallagher. “We're now in a world of where we're backing up a city that's not doing their job.”

Overtime spending in the corrections division, which handles the jail, is already $55,000 over where it was at this point last year. The deputies, which includes the new Downtown unit, is about $37,000 over last year’s number, according to Pretel. Overall, the sheriff’s department spent $20 million on overtime last year but is only budgeted for $8 million this year.

“When you were sitting here looking for this job, I think you heard from the council – ‘Jail. Jail. Jail. Jail,’” said Gallagher, referring to Pretel’s confirmation hearing at council in July. “This doesn't do anything for the jail other than maybe put more people in it, which is a good thing if they're bad guys. And my whole thing comes down to: Where's the money coming from?”

Gallagher added that judges in the Justice Center in Downtown Cleveland have asked for additional deputies to provide security and questioned why the eight on the Downtown Safety Patrol couldn’t be reassigned there.

The county plans to find a way to do both, said Woodard.

“The Sheriff's Department will work with the courts to manage the assignment of deputies to maintain safe operations. Through responsible resource allocation, the Sheriff's Department can have deputies in the courtroom and maintain a Downtown Safety Patrol,” Woodard said.

Some councilmembers were skeptical, including District 11 Rep. Sunny Simon.

“I'm going to affirmatively state that I am not going to approve anything with OT unless this stops,” Simon said. “I'm questioning why you didn't stay in the city of Cleveland to address this crime when you had an opportunity to do that.”

Pretel defended the deployment in Downtown Cleveland. He said he based the decision on crime data and the sheriff’s responsibility under state law to “preserve the public peace.”

During budget hearings in November, Pretel proposed expanding patrols countywide and requested 90 additional deputies to make it possible.

Council did not add money for the deputies but left the door open for the executive to come back for additional funding. Council members appeared ready to close that door Tuesday.

“You asked for 90 more guys. You didn't get them,” Gallagher said. “I can almost assure you we can't afford 90 more guys going forward.”

Gallagher also raised concerns that other municipalities — he named East Cleveland, Newburgh Heights and Bedford — will be calling for similar patrols.

“You can't treat Newburgh Heights different than Cleveland,” said Gallagher. “And you can't treat East Cleveland different than Cleveland. So, we need something in writing... or this is going to get blown out of control.”

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