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Cleveland Faces Long-Stalled Efforts to Diversify Police Ranks

A new class of police officers lines up in Cleveland city hall in 2015. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
A new class of police officers lines up in Cleveland city hall in 2015.

by Nick Castele

This weekend, Cleveland’s association for black police officers held a recruitment fair to encourage African Americans to apply for law enforcement jobs. As Cleveland carries out its police reform agreement with the Justice Department, many residents say they want the police force to look more like the community.

“If you get a black officer that grew up in a project neighborhood, they understand,” Cleveland high school student Robert Roberson says. “They won’t just take everything in a bad way. If they see some kids play-fighting, they’ll just tell them to stop. Because they knew what they used to do.”

But diversifying the police has been a long-running struggle for the city.

Retired Cleveland police officer Rich Decembly, who worked in recruitment, says he was led to the force in an unlikely way years ago, when he was working at a department store.

“I witness this police officer, who was an off duty police officer working in Federal Department Store, he was smacking around this little black kid for no reason,” Decembly says. “And then smacked his head up against the wall. Cracked his head, and the kid just walked away.”

Decembly says he was then roughed up, too.

After that, he says, he wanted to become a police officer to act as “check and balance” on police who abused their authority. But for many residents, he says, a history of police using force on black citizens has long made it more difficult to recruit.

“The police department is not in a good place with the black community right now, it’s just not,” he says. “And it hasn’t been for some time. This is nothing new. Police brutality has always been in existence.”

Detective Lynn Hampton leads Black Shield, a group for black police officers in Cleveland. He organized the weekend’s recruitment fair, which drew about 30 people interested in applying for police jobs.

“You have to ask yourself a question,” Hampton says. “Being as it may that you have unemployment to where it is in the inner city, so who wouldn’t want a 50,000-plus job? So why aren’t they applying?”

Research isn’t clear on whether a more diverse police department is less likely to use excessive force. But Stanford law professor David Sklansky says police departments do themselves a disservice by remaining homogeneous. 

“When a department becomes more diverse, it gets less insular and the discussion inside the department tends to be more vibrant,” Sklansky says. “That means that it’s easier for the department to engage in real partnership with the community and with groups outside the department.” 

Cleveland made its biggest strides in hiring black and Hispanic officers when the city was under a federal consent decree to integrate. In 1972, NAACP attorney James Hardiman and others sued the city.

“We were ambitious, we were young, maybe we didn’t know the tiger’s tail that we were biting off,” Hardiman says, “but we decided to take them on.”

After years of litigation, a judge found there was discrimination in recruitment, the entrance examination and post-exam screenings. The parties reached an agreement to hire more black and Hispanic officers.

Officer Decembly says success depends on working year-round building and maintaning lists of contacts. 

“You got to go get them when they’re in school,” Decembly says. “You got to go there, you got to go to those churches. You got to go there all year long. Fill up your databases with all the numbers. That way you can pick the best of the best. You get the cream of the crop.”

After the lawsuit, the number of minorities on the force grew, and when they made up 33.7 percent of police in 1995, the consent decree expired.

Twenty years later, that percentage is barely any higher at 34.1 percent, even though black and Hispanic residents now make up more than half the city. And only 14 percent of Cleveland’s police are women.

“That has to be improved, and the decree has said that we have to improve it,” says Commander Ellis Johnson, who leads community policing in Cleveland and oversees recruitment.

Today, officers focus on recruiting when there’s a civil service test coming up, rather than year round— but city officials say there are plans to change that. Cleveland’s new consent decree says the city must develop a new recruitment plan by December.

The city once operated a minority recruitment unit, required by the court. Now, it’s just the recruitment unit.

Johnson says good community policing, showing empathy for residents and building ties with them, can help overcome reluctance among potential candidates.

“You don’t look like me, you don’t sound like me and you’re treating me bad. Well that’s three strikes. I don’t want to be an officer,” he says. “As opposed to, you look like me, you’re coming to my neighborhood, you’re policing our neighborhood and you’re treating me with respect.”

Officer Cesar Herrera, the president of the Hispanic Police Officers’ Association in Cleveland, says reductions in community policing make it harder to have that interaction. Herrera says when he attends community meetings, he goes in uniform to drive home the point that he’s both a police officer and a neighbor.

“I was raised in Cleveland, I went to school in Cleveland, I work in Cleveland and I still live in Cleveland,” Herrera says. “So am I really that different from you and the rest of the community? I don’t believe so.”

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