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Cleveland Public Safety Officials Provide Update On Violent Crime In City

Shootings are on the rise in Cleveland this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
The Cleveland skyline.

The Cleveland Division of Police met with city council members Thursday to discuss an increase in violent crime around the city as part of a safety committee meeting.

A shooting in Cleveland Thursday night left one Cleveland police officer dead. A statement released by Council President Kevin Kelley and Safety Committee Chair Matt Zone expressed condolences to Det. James Skernivitz’ family.

“It's with our deepest sympathy that we offer condolences to the family and friends of Det. James Skernivitz, a more than 20-year veteran of the Cleveland Police Department, who was shot and killed last night along with a still unidentified passenger in his car,” the statement read.

Council members discussed the rise in shootings and violent crime with public safety officials at the Thursday meeting. Shootings are increasing in the city, though felonious assaults are on track with previous years.

Crime often follows a cycle of a few years, said Chief of Police Calvin Williams. Shootings are up in the city, he said, but felonious assaults are at the same level as the last five years.

“We look at crime on a cyclical basis. Everything that happens, comes back around,” Williams said. “We’re seeing that cycle come around in these past five years.”

Many factors could potentially be contributing to the spike, Williams said, including stay-at home orders and unemployment due to the pandemic. The city is partnering with federal and state agencies to cut down on crime levels, he said.

The uptick in Cleveland is in line with what’s playing out in other parts of Northern Ohio, said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman, including Toledo, Akron and Youngstown.

“This is not something that is unique to Cleveland, and it’s certainly not a reflection of anything,” Herdman said.

While some areas experienced a drop in crime around the start of the pandemic, Herdman said, Cleveland saw an immediate spike in March that hasn’t gone away.

“Once the violent crime cycle starts to tip up, it’s very hard to get it to move back down again because so much of the violence today in every large American city is driven by retaliatory shootings,” Herdman said.

Getting those numbers back down to previous levels will take a concentrated, focused effort, he added.

Local officials need more communication from the Division of Police about what’s happening in their neighborhoods, said Councilmember Phyllis Cleveland.

“We really need information and we need to be able to talk to our residents and be frank with them about what’s going on and how they can protect themselves as well as how we can work with the police to protect them,” Cleveland said.

The police also need to better engage with the community and get to know the residents, she added.

The pandemic has brought a “tsunami of crime” to some areas of Cleveland, said Councilmember Michael Polensek. The Division of Police does not seem to be adequately staffed to crack down on that, he said, and without a strong police presence, residents feel as though they can get away with crimes.

“We need more police on the street, we need more community engagement, more real community policing, which I don’t see happening,” Polensek said.

But engagement is difficult during a pandemic, Williams responded, where face-to-face interaction isn’t as common. The current political climate creates additional complications, he said.

“Right now we’re kind of walking that thin line in law enforcement and trying to make sure that we don’t further add to the problems that our communities are facing out there,” Williams said.

Residents and officials need to communicate with the police if they see or know of anything happening in the community, he said. From there, the division can engage and combat any crimes taking place, he said.

During budget hearings earlier in the year, the Division of Police discussed a desire to increase staffing of its homicide and sex crimes units, said Council President Kevin Kelley.

“Where are we with the specialty units as a part of the solution to this problem?” he asked. “I understand this is national, I understand this is bigger than us, but we can’t rest on that.”

The division is working to fully staff its units as proposed in the 2020 budget, Williams said, but has not met the goals for either the homicide or sex crimes units. Officer retirements and promotions have impeded that effort somewhat, he said.

“It’s a process that continually evolves, it’s a process that continually goes on,” Williams said.

The division is currently rotating some staff into the homicide unit to help meet the demand. It’s difficult to tell when the specialty divisions will be properly staffed, he said.

“It’s tough to take too many resources from a district operation that a lot of your colleagues are worried about also, to staff homicide and sex crimes and other things we need,” Williams said.