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Cleveland Police Address Diversity, Civilian Oversight At Budget Hearings

Wednesday and Thursday's budget hearings in Cleveland City Council tested the patience of Public Safety Committee Chair Blaine Griffin, as council members pressed the administration on a number of issues with little effect on the budget.
Cleveland City Council

Cleveland City Council members had questions for Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration about diversity in police, fire and EMS during Wednesday and Thursday’s marathon public safety budget meetings. There was widespread concern about whether the division could meet its hiring goals in 2021.

Councilman Mike Polensek opened the discussion with Chief of Police Calvin Williams by questioning whether his proposal for hiring 180 officers from three cadet classes would be enough to address Cleveland’s surging violent crime.

“Your numbers don’t add up, and that’s the problem,” Polensek said, adding he didn’t think they’d have enough officers to fully staff specialized units including homicide and sex crimes.

Williams grew frustrated at Polensek’s criticisms.

“Your statement was that you don’t have confidence in this command staff,” Williams said, and Polensek confirmed that he doesn’t. “If you have a better idea of how we can recruit and retain more officers, we’re open to that. We’re putting as many police officers in our academy as humanly possible.”

Williams said the department has had trouble finding enough people who want to be officers. And three classes a year – one at the local training site, one at Cuyahoga Community College’s training facility and one in Columbus at the Highway Patrol’s – is about all they can schedule.

“A lot of folks aren’t going to want to be police officers if we keep bad-mouthing the profession, so that hampers our recruitment efforts,” Williams said. “But I can tell you, when we give a test in this city for police officers, we hire as many people off that list as possible.”

In 2020, 131 officers left the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) through retirement or for other reasons, and, because of COVID-related challenges, CDP was only able to hire 107 new officers. The budgeted uniformed police staffing for 2021 is 1,610, an increase of 75 officers over the end of 2020.

As in years past, council seemed unlikely to make substantial changes to Jackson’s $371.5 million public safety budget for 2021. The proposal includes an increase for each department within public safety, with police getting $7 million, or 3 percent more, and fire and EMS each seeing bumps of 2 percent over 2020 spending.

Leadership from the fire department, EMS and police were all pressed, particularly by councilmen Basheer Jones and Joe Jones, about diversity in each of their departments.

“I’ve been here for four years,” Basheer Jones said. “And we are still getting the same answers back that we have gotten in the first year. It’s the same.”

According to Fire Chief Angelo Calvillo, 15 percent of the department’s 697 uniformed employees are African American. In EMS, 26 percent are African American and in CDP, 70 percent of the uniformed officers are white men.

Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard described a plan to bring in more African American cadets for training. He said they’re working on a cadet program, recruiting in high schools, and increasing their presence on TikTok and Instagram.

“It’s not just that folks aren’t applying,” Howard said. “It’s outreach can’t fall short. Guiding people through the process, especially when they’re first generation, can’t fall short. And then making sure we have a welcoming environment can’t fall short.”

Crime, Community and Complaints

During Wednesday’s budget hearing, Safety Director Howard said the police department plans to start using drones for surveillance sometime in 2021. 

“Drone problems are in several other major cities,” he said. “We are looking at those cities – there are Los Angeles, I believe Memphis, Seattle have drone programs – so we don’t reinvent the wheel.”

The city is still figuring out how to use the surveillance equipment, Howard said. It’s not clear how many drones the police would acquire or how they would use them.

In one city Howard mentioned, Seattle, city officials planned to adopt drones before public backlash over privacy concerns led them to abandon the plan.

Council members also pressed safety officials for a plan to reduce the city’s high rate of violent crime. 

Williams described general plans for more arrests but said more police officers is not the solution.

“You know we need community groups out there sowing the seeds so that we don’t have to arrest four juveniles for killing a person,” he said. “You know we need community assets out there so that mother that’s having issues gets some help before that juvenile gets to the point where they think they have to pick up a gun and rob or kill somebody.”

Cleveland Division of Police saw a 25 percent increase in citizen complaints in 2020, but the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) reported most of those complaints are for lack of service such as refusing a request to file a police report.

OPS Director Roger Smith noted most places don’t accept that type of complaint, including New York City where he was previously employed.

“If they did, the 5,000 complaints that they receive every year might turn into 20,000,” he said. “It speaks well of the process here that people have been willing to make lack of service part of the allegation structure here.”

Smith said his office is not at risk of a years-long backlog of complaints that used to be typical at OPS.

Permanent Civilian Police Oversight

Cleveland City Council members spent more than an hour arguing over the future of the Community Police Commission (CPC). The consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department established the CPC as a venue for community input on the police.

CPC Executive Director Jason Goodrick encouraged council to consider establishing a permanent, independent citizen oversight body after the consent decree is over. 

“There is no denying that the community wants to have a voice in this process,” said Goodrick. “How we do that remains to be seen beyond the consent decree. You’ll hear the term civilian oversight thrown around a lot.”

Right now Cleveland has no true civilian police oversight, Goodrick said, because there’s no independent body focused on policing.

Some council members were supportive, others thought the Community Relations Board in the mayor’s office should take over after the consent decree. 

A group of citizens has started a charter amendment campaign for a permanent citizen oversight body and hopes to get the proposal on November’s ballot. 

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