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In Buckeye, Memorial Park Aims To Improve Police-Community Relations

Capt. Keith Sulzer (left) worked with Wayne Owens to conceive a park in honor of Owens' son, Cleveland Police Officer Derek Owens. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Capt. Keith Sulzer and Wayne Owens talk at Officer Derek Owens Memorial Park in Cleveland.

At first, Wayne Owens was uncertain about the idea of a playground occupying the exact spot where his son, Cleveland Police Officer Derek Owens, was fatally shot in November 2008.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh boy, I don't know’,” Wayne Owens says, remembering the day several years ago when the Cleveland Police Foundation and several neighborhood groups first approached him with the idea.

He'd long avoided passing through or even near the Buckeye-Woodland Hills neighborhood where the shooting happened because the memories were too painful, he says. Transforming the crime scene into a place of whimsy struck him as incongruous.

But when he mentioned the playground idea to his wife and daughter-in-law, they convinced him it was exactly right.

"They said that's where it should be," he says. "You know, [Derek] took an oath to protect and to serve, and he didn't run from the situation. We want people to never forget that."

The playground is one element of a nearly half-acre park dedicated Nov. 9 on Parkview Avenue, off Martin Luther King Boulevard. The park occupies the former site of three vacant houses and also features a labyrinth, a spiral-shaped earthwork and a performance area. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy helped assemble the property.

Aside from memorializing Derek Owens, the park will host programs and talks designed to bring kids and cops together in a casual and comfortable setting, says Capt. Keith Sulzer of the Cleveland Police Foundation, the charity arm of the city's police department, which raised $180,000 to build the park.

Such interactions are critical in a neighborhood — and city — where police-community relations have been strained, Sulzer says, and have received increased attention since 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.

"We have a lot of tragedies where kids are just afraid of the police and run from them and things happen," Sulzer says. "And this might be a spot where we can bring those conversations up and we can talk openly about it instead of covering it up and hiding it."

A sign at the park's entrance memorializes Cleveland police officer Derek Owens. [Keith Sulzer / Cleveland Police Foundation]

Cleveland’s police department is currently under a consent decree to change what the federal government called  "a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment."

In addition to active programming, Sulzer says he'll be encouraging officers to hang out in the park casually – not as part of their active patrol but simply to get to know neighbors.

"When you know a policeman's name and they know your name, the relationship is already a ton better," he says.

Kim Fields, who lives in the house directly across the street from the park and was involved in its planning, says she's already seen people slowing down as they walk or drive past, curious about what the park represents.

"I'm hoping it encourages people to want to move into the neighborhood because there's a nice safe space for kids to play," she says.

The park will have a grand opening and begin to host events starting in May, Sulzer says.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.