'Our Land': Cleveland Writer RA Washington On Community Policing

Writer and co-founder of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore RA Washington. (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Today we continue our occasional series on community policing in Cleveland. The city has been working to reform its police department within and beyond an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.  This series is featuring many diverse Cleveland perspectives beginning always with the same questions: What should community policing look like, and how far are we from it?  Today we hear ideastream's Tony Ganzer speak with RA Washington, a writer and co-founder of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore on Cleveland’s West side.

WASHINGTON: “That’s real easy, I mean, we’re extremely far from it. The concept of community policing, you know, the first thing I think of is: to what standard are you policing the community? Are you saying that the community can’t police itself? Are you saying that you know what the community needs, and what makes the community feel safe across a huge strata of diversity and socioeconomic situations.  So, community policing is kind of a misnomer.  I mean, essentially what they’re saying is, with that catch phrase is that ‘we won’t kill you.’ Yeah, community policing means we won’t get killed. Okay, that’s good.”

GANZER: “I talked to the head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, Steve Loomis, and he said there used to be community policing units in Cleveland, where officers could spend time in the communities, build relationships, and he says he wants to have them back, but there just aren’t the resources for it now.”

WASHINGTON: “Of course the union’s going to say ‘well, there’s no resources, we want that back.’ I mean, you know, how hard is it for you to get out your car? Especially in the summer you see these cars, they’re rocking the air conditioning real tough.  I mean, how are you going to connect if you’re not out of the car? ”

GANZER: “To that they said that they are more reactive than proactive because there are so many calls, too few officers.”

WASHINGTON: “So now they need more officers.  You know, of course it’s always going to come down to economics.  And, like, a healthy community can police itself when there’s jobs.  When you have a bunch of kids, young people, old people, everybody in between looking for work, thinking about work, it’s kind of hard to take the time to imagine what it would be like, what your community could be like because you’re living day to day, and check to check.  I feel like the police have to earn a pass, like they don’t get a pass for the leadership being able to ape a certain rhetoric with community policing, like they have to earn that.  And they’ve lost a lot of credibility within African-American, Latino communities, within poor communities.  I mean, we feel a certain way about police because they act a certain way.  And that’s not to say their job’s not tough, it’s not to say they don’t deserve the resources to do their job effectively, but to what standard is that.  I mean the whole concept of police is policing one’s, like, community goods, making sure nothing gets broken or stolen, or people don’t get bopped upside the head.  It’s hard to trust a police force that does a lot of the bopping.”

GANZER: “I’ve heard from a lot of people, they put the rift between the community and police on different things, be it generation, some said there is a racial divide, maybe a class issue. What do you think about it?”

WASHINGTON: “The police force has increasingly become militarized, so when you have these armies of civil servants it kind of makes it difficult to even begin to figure out why there is a disconnect.  Of course I think there’s a race issue, and of course there’s a class issue, but it’s way more nuanced than that, because there are some police that understand that.  But the reason that they understand that is also the reason why they can’t really push against officers that don’t. You know these guys are like good guys, and get along guys.  So it’s hard to put them in the position where they have to critique the guys who are too aggressive, or racist, or sexist, or whatever it may be.”

GANZER: “There have been a lot of conversations, especially in the last year.  It looks like there is some action coming, especially with this consent decree with the Department of Justice.  What do you think of the process? Are we moving in the right direction?”

WASHINGTON: “We’re moving in the right direction from the standpoint at least there’s a process.  I don’t know if the consent decree has any teeth.  It’s kind of disingenuous to tell us ‘hey, here is this consent decree, everything’s gonna be alright, but by the way you’re gonna have to pay for it.’ Having said that, I don’t think the people who entered into the conversation weren’t being malicious, they have genuine hope and they were trying to be pro-active as they could be. You know, I know a lot of the people that helped craft that document, and I consider them to be good people.  I just don’t think those documents have that much teeth.”

Find more parts of this series here.

Web Extra




GANZER: “One of the things that you’ve done in the last year when Cleveland has faced a lot of very tough cases of police shooting people in various situations, is you opened up your space to some of the activist groups.  Can you talk about why you did that, what you wanted to accomplish by doing that?”

WASHINGTON: “You know, space was needed and we had space, so we wanted to give everybody an opportunity to use the space.  But the very first thing we did was we had a community forum where people could just talk about how they felt about it, about how they felt about Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson, how they felt about the situation.  And that was moderated by local activist, and writer, poet M. Carmen Lane, and that was beautiful to watch because people stayed after to talk to Carmen, and there was a great connection amongst the diverse populace.  And you could tell that everybody was really shocked and upset about what had happened to Tamir especially.  And the role of spaces like Guide to Kulchur is to provide space for hard conversations, and I think that we did a good job with that part of it, but ultimately it’s on the community to kind of lead themselves.  I don’t think that this is a time for leaders, like some one individual is going to lead us to a solution.  It’s going to be a group of us.”

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