“Listening Tour” Themes Included Fear, Mistrust of Cleveland Police

Cleveland Public Safety Director Michael McGrath and Police Chief Calvin Williams answer questions from City Council's Public Safety Commitee members. (Joanna Richards/Ideastream)
Cleveland Public Safety Director Michael McGrath and Police Chief Calvin Williams answer questions from City Council's Public Safety Commitee members. (Joanna Richards/Ideastream)
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Building trust between the community and the police was a big theme Wednesday during a discussion between Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee and police leadership.

The discussions centered on a new report summing up comments from more than 600 people who turned out for a "Listening Tour" on police issues in December and January. The committee hosted the four public sessions across Cleveland after the U.S. Justice Department released its scathing report on the city's police in December.

Committee Chairman Matt Zone read from major themes identified in the brief review: "Lack of community policing...fear of the police...abuse of police powers..."

Zone said people want better officer training, stronger civilian oversight, and more criminal accountability for wayward officers. He said Clevelanders have little faith the police leadership can fix problems that happened under its nose. 

Both public safety committee members and the public comments highlighted a need for community policing – when officers build relationships in the neighborhoods where they work.

Police Chief Calvin Williams said the department is heading that way. But without more resources, it will have to lower the priority on non-urgent, nonviolent matters, "which means some of our citizens may have to make more reports online, more reports over the phone," he said.

As committee members urged the department to build community trust and treat people with respect, Public Safety Director Michael McGrath pushed back a bit.

"Probably 90 percent of the homicides that take place in this city – somebody knows who did it," he said. "So not only does the police department have to treat the community with respect, but the respect also has to come back to the police department. We need their help."

Councilman Kevin Conwell argued anti-snitch culture goes both ways. He said there’s “culture of blue” among police to shield fellow officers, even in cases of wrongdoing.

"A police officer might mistreat one of my residents. And when you go to the review board and you try to get justice, they don’t get any justice," he said.

Conwell said that discourages people from trusting and helping the police.

He also pointed to a high black-on-black murder rate – and a low rate of solving them.  He said African-Americans will trust the police more when the department starts demonstrating that "black lives matter."

The public safety officials and committee members agreed a variety of social ills contributed to the police department's challenges. Committee member Joe Cimperman said Cleveland's high African-American infant mortality rates were another symptom of the same core problem that demands a broader, holistic approach beyond police reform.

In working toward that goal, though, committee chairman Zone emphasized City Council can’t hire or fire police leadership. He said it will advance reform through legislation, including a measure in the works to reduce racial profiling.

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