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Activists Call For Transit Police Funding Cut, GCRTA Not Considering Change

Some Cleveland residents are calling on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority to cut funding for its police force. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
A bus moving through Cleveland.

Clevelanders for Public Transit gathered outside the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) headquarters Tuesday, calling for budget cuts for transit police.

The riders’ advocacy group wants 50 percent of RTA police funding to instead pay for fare reduction and route restoration.

The GCRTA Board of Trustees received roughly a dozen public comments calling for cuts to the agency’s transit police force. But board members were resistant to the idea.

“I appreciate the comments about transit police, but keep in mind, our most important responsibility is to keep our riders safe,” Board President Dennis Clough said.

Comments submitted online decried a drop in ridership and the increased police presence on RTA vehicles in recent decades. Commenters and CPT also called for decriminalizing fare evasion. The transit authority did not allow in-person public comment during the meeting.

“Riders are looking to RTA’s Board, staff and local leaders to take action,” Clevelanders for Public Transit said in a press release. “For too long, resources have been poured into policing our communities instead of our well-being. It’s time to see well-funded transit that supports a better quality of life for all Clevelanders.”

GCRTA spends more than $14 million annually on 125-member, full-time transit police force, CPT said in the release, and that funding could go toward reducing fares or making other improvements to the system.

The Board of Trustees did not make changes to the transit police budget. Board member Leo Serrano called for a cost-benefit study of transit police for future reference.

“We need to show that cutting isn’t going to save, or going to put resources anywhere else,” Serrano said. “Because people are going to throw out their own numbers, I would like us to have a set of numbers and facts.”

While funding is not changing, the transit police force is making some policy changes this week, according to Chief John Joyce.

The department’s use of force policy has banned chokeholds since February 2019, Joyce said, but the policy was updated Monday with additional changes based on the video of George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent death in Minneapolis, Joyce said.

The new policy bans neck constraint or pressure and “piling on” anyone who is already handcuffed. Anyone handcuffed by police must also be placed on their side, Joyce said, rather than on their stomach.

“It will be circulated to the officers, and officers will be trained on the new use-of-force policy,” Joyce told the board.

The department is also setting aside a 40-hour block of time to revisit de-escalation training available from the state, Joyce said, as well as cultural bias training.

Plans to purchase body cameras in 2021 is being expedited, Joyce said, to happen as soon as possible.

“We’re reaching out to CPD, of course, and the sheriff’s office, state highway patrol and some other local departments,” Joyce said. “We will be looking for a product that we can procure via state contract.”

The transit authority is also taking steps to promote diversity and inclusion, according to Chief Operating Officer Floun’say Caver. The initiative includes short-term methods like Zoom meetings to discuss diversity in the workplace, the first of which was held last week.

“In the long term, we want to be able to implement the strategic plan and make sure there’s cycles of learning,” Caver said, “so that as contemporaneous things come up, our team is able to modify the diversity and inclusion strategy.”

However, Caver said, the transit police serve an important inter-jurisdictional authority role in the GCRTA system, protecting customers and company assets across city limits and boundary lines on the regional map.

“I’m not making a normative judgement,” Caver said, “but this group is uniquely situated and has a singular focus of protecting the essential function of transportation throughout our community.

“I think some of the narrative has been they’re only out giving fare enforcement tickets, but I think that if you look at the breadth of the work, they’re a valuable asset to this community,” Caver said.