'Our Land' Special: A Conversation About Community Policing
by Tony Ganzer, ideastream
In the last year, Cleveland has found itself among cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, or New York, at the forefront of national soul-searching on the relationships between police and the communities they serve.
In November 2014 alone, Cleveland saw the shooting death of an African-American boy, 12-year-old Tamir Rice:
News clip: “…officers claiming Rice pulled a BB gun that looked real out of his waistband before one officer fired…”
Also in November was the death of an African-American woman, Tanisha Anderson:
News clip: “…the medical examiner ruled her death a homicide, citing factors including the physical restraint of police, as well as her mental illness and a heart condition…”
News clip, Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General: “And the employment of poor or dangerous tactics that placed officers in situations where avoidable force became inevitable…”
This year a white Cleveland Patrolman, Michael Brelo, was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter for firing the final 15 shots in a 137-shot barrage, in which police killed two unarmed black civilians after a high-speed chase in 2012.
The verdict prompted various, largely peaceful protests in Cleveland’s downtown.
For many, community policing is broader than just interactions between police and civilians. It includes the broader idea of feeling safe and secure in neighborhoods. In September and early October 2015, Cleveland saw a rash of shootings:
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, from press conference: “As you remember, little Ramon Burnett was killed September 4th, on Louise Harris Drive; Major Howard was shot and killed on September 15th, on E. 113 St; on September 19th Donte Padgett Jr. was shot, and his father was killed, on MLK and Shaker Blvd; and then, of course, most recently on E. 4th there was a shooting, three people were shot, one person was killed; and we believe connected with that also, there was a shooting on Way Ave. that very same night, in which Sidney [Smith] was killed, in her living room while she slept on the couch; and of course last night, another tragedy, a 6-month-old killed, for no reason.”
These were just some of the shootings Cleveland has seen in the last year, there are sadly too many to mention them all.
But with this backdrop we can begin to explore the idea of community policing with a diverse group of Clevelanders. We begin in the Cudell neighborhood, at West 99th and Madison:
“Baddour: ‘Yeah, that’s where he was shot, the police came from here.’”
Faouzi Baddour is a community activist, standing where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by an officer last November.
“Baddour: ‘And the police car was right here, so they were too close.’”
Baddour says he knew Rice, as he knows many of his neighbors and some of the officers who have patrolled here. I posed to Baddour the questions driving our exploration into community policing: what should community policing look like, and how far are we from it?
BADDOUR: “Community policing is a great thing, is good things. How far are we from it? We could be as close as hair thin and we could be as far as the ocean. It’s up to our attitude and our mentality, how we’re going to approach it. Personally I supported it, and I’m willing to help with it, because I have a good relationship with the police and I have a good relationship with the teenagers. That is the problem: it is, in my opinion, not black and the police. It is teenagers and the police, somehow they are afraid of each other.”
GANZER: So you think it’s more generational than racial?
BADDOUR: “More generational, that’s what I think, yes. I work with teenagers, black and white. When they walk by me, ‘Hello Mr. Baddour,’ all of them. I mean, you know, I love that, I respect that, I respect them back. And I have good relation with the police, I have too many friends with them.”
GANZER: Do you like what you’re seeing so far with the consent decree with the Department of Justice, and reforms that are starting?
BADDOUR: “Of course, because as I said, I have too many friends with the Cleveland police department. They are honest, they are good, they have conscience, they leave home in the morning and want to go back to their families, and they don’t want to hurt—but there are some who they act like macho men. And those, they need to be forced into reform. They don’t like it, but, too bad.”
Baddour is fast on the phone, and begins to contact neighbors who all have something to say about the police. Frank Caffrey says his views on community policing are best given in examples of things he doesn’t like:
CAFFREY: “In January, it was morning, I was doing the dishes. My brother came down, and he was at the door, and I remember my brother was like, ‘Whoa!’ And there was a policeman with a gun at his face, right in his face. Right then, another policeman came from my backyard and told this one, ‘oh, there’s nothing happening here, let’s go.’ And they just took off. And we were like, you know, ‘what’s going on?!’ Absolutely ignored us.”
GANZER: So you think that we’re far from being where we need to be, in terms of the community dealing with…
CAFFREY: “Oh yeah, they won’t even talk to you. They won’t even answer a simple question like ‘why do you have a gun in my face.’ I don’t get it, I just don’t. I used to always respect the officers and stuff, but now I just, I can’t stand them. I just can’t.”
"Baddour: 'Hey Willie, where are you on 104th…'"
Community activist Faouzi Baddour and I head next to Willie Jones’ house. Jones says he isn’t home very often, but police seem to respond when he calls. Still, he’d like to see more engagement:
JONES: “Well, I think community policing should look more like getting out of the squad cars, interacting with the public, you know, walking back the beats like they did back in the 70s and the late 80s. Just interacting with the people.”
GANZER: “Some people think that the rift between police and the community is more generational than racial. Do you agree with that?”
JONES: “I think if you hired more people of the ethnic background and stop going out in to the suburbs and getting everybody who do not live in the city, and hire them first. I mean, of course they’re not used to dealing with people of ethnic background, they come from a different type of culture. And if you have two different types of culture, or three different types of culture in the city, and you’re not properly trained to deal with that, fear is going to set in. When you come up against certain situations, and you’re out there alone, and the camera’s just rolling, you’ve got to be able to think, you know.”
GANZER: “Are you optimistic at all for what we see coming down the pike: we’ve got this consent decree, a lot of talk about reform in how Cleveland police do business, but [also] the city at large does business. Are you optimistic for all that?”
JONES: “I am. I always believe that change begins with the head, okay, and if the head’s not operating correctly how can the body function correctly? Okay? And right now our head is not operating correctly.”
Jones says getting younger people involved in politics may be part of the solution in transforming neighborhoods.
JONES: “You know, when I first moved here to Cleveland, I used to always ask the question ‘why do the minority neighborhoods look like they look?’ I’ve always asked that question. You’ve got the telephone wires hanging all over the place, all this chaos, and the streets are all messed up. But you go out into the suburbs, and you see it looking totally different. You are a product of what your neighborhood looks like, you know, I’m a firm believer of that. Change, I do believe, begins at home, okay, but also you’ve got to have some role models in your neighborhood, okay, and a lot of role models begin with who we put in office.”
The role of politics in the community’s relationship with the police came up again and again among the residents of the Cudell neighborhood I spoke to, including Terri Pohorence. She says the neighborhood has come a long way from how it was in decades past, though there’s work to do:
POHORENCE: “Now I don’t think it’s bad, but the city and the councilmen have to understand that we have to live here, and we know what needs to be done, and somebody that lives two or three blocks, or a mile away, is not going to know what we need to have done.”
GANZER: Are you optimistic for the consent decree, and the reforms that appear to be moving forward with Cleveland police?
POHORENCE: “Well, I’m optimistic that they’re gathering a panel of people from outside, I don’t know, the government, or whatever. I’ve actually applied for a position on that, myself. And we’ll just have to see how it progresses, because historically when these groups are formed, the politicians try to get in there and direct it however they want it. If they leave it alone, it will be great. But if they try to micromanage everything, if they try to pull politics and make it a political thing, it’s not going to work any better than the stuff recently has been working.”
That was Terri Pohorence, preceded by Willie Jones, Frank Caffrey, and Faouzi Baddour, all residents of the Cudell neighborhood of Cleveland.
Tamir Rice was 12-years-old when he was shot by an officer near the Cudell recreation center. He was a little younger than two African-American Cleveland high school students with whom ideastream’s Nick Castele spoke. They gave their perspective on police, community, and hope for the future…
NICK CASTELE: Johnny Holloway and Robert Roberson meet regularly with other students at Outhwaite Homes in Cleveland to take part in Teens Achieving Greatness, a leadership program for young people who live in Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority apartments.
Robert is in the 11th grade, and Johnny is in the 10th. We sat down recently to talk about police.
“I think community policing, it should be like the police interacting with the community more often, instead of using deadly force all the time,” Johnny says. “They can take the necessary approach before using deadly force or even—like, using their strength that they don’t need to use, and they can put it toward something else that can better build a relationship between the police and the community.”
He says Cleveland isn’t close to that yet.
Robert says police can see young people playing around and misinterpret the situation.
“You can’t just be doing stuff,” Robert says. “Because the police can take anything wrong, make a big situation, make a big thing out of nothing, make it seem like you did a whole bunch of bad stuff, but it wasn’t no big deal…Say you’re playing with your friends, and they thing you’re fighting and just come slam you or something like that. Police do something like that.” He adds, “I got slammed by them before. They’ll take anything, especially when it’s close to nighttime, they’ll take anything the wrong way.”
He says when he hears about cases like the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police, he thinks, that could happen to him.
And despite the police reform agreement Cleveland signed with the Justice Department, Johnny says he thinks police will still do what they’ve always done.
“The Justice Department is not really doing nothing in Cleveland to change what’s going on with it,” he says. “They’re just saying it so we can feel safer that the police are out, but in actuality we’re scared that if we call the police, either they’re not going to come, or they’re going to get the wrong person…And you just think, when you see the police, to either stay away from them or try to be as respectful as you can, so nothing bad happens to you.”
Johnny also says when people hear about encounters with police, they may not always hear the full story from the officer’s perspective.
If police have a bad reputation in the community, Robert says it’s because force can affect many people.
“When you slam somebody for no reason or kill somebody for no reason, yeah people are going to hate you, because you’re killing somebody that could have been them,” he says.
But Robert says police do have a role to play in Cleveland.
“They need to protect more little kids, because more little kids really get shot,” he says. “Little kids shouldn’t be getting shot…and they ain’t doing nothing about it.”
But interactions with police don’t define the lives of these two students. Robert says he likes doing projects in science class—the other day, he learned about DNA. Like a lot of high schoolers, he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do later in life. But he does want to have ownership of something.
“I’m going to go to college for like marketing or business. I want to own something,” Robert says. “Like a company or—I don’t know, but it’s going to be something that I can call mine, though...I feel that I should own something. I don’t know, I feel that, why do other people got the right to own something or tell somebody else what to do? I want to be a boss and to make my own money.”
When Johnny graduates from college, he says, he wants to give back to Cleveland.
“I always wanted to become a paramedic, or I was thinking if not becoming a paramedic becoming an emergency room doctor,” he says. “I’ll be watching TV shows, and the adrenaline, you got to to think at that time what you need to be doing, and how you need to do it, so you can save that person’s life.”
He says he wants to succeed so, in his words, “they can stop building prisons for us.”
“Instead of building other prisons somewhere, we can build a school and let people who don’t have a lot of money come to that school and study to become a doctor or something that they want to do,” he says, “instead of them thinking that African Americans are just bad people, because we’re not.”
GANZER: Cleveland has dozens of neighborhoods, each with its own personality, its own flavor…and its own lens through which community policing can be defined and assessed.
TERRELL: “I think that it should look like that officers care. That police know the people that they are involved with.”
Gregory Terrell heads the non-profit Society 4 Non-violent Change, which works to mediate conflict and keep the peace in Cleveland neighborhoods. I met him in Cleveland's Central neighborhood, in the courtyard of the Renaissance Village public housing development.
TERRELL: “Befriend the residents, and I think that that will change a lot of things, that the people will begin to trust the police officers. It would help go a long way with what it is that we do. People have a bad taste in their mouth about the city police, but I think it can change, I really do. I'm not a person or an activist who don't like the police, I think that we need the police. Okay? I'm not screaming 'screw the police,' I'm screaming 'we need more police.' But we need good police to police our neighborhoods. And I need more people like myself to come out and to help them to be able to do their job.”
Terrell credits the police of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, or CMHA, for community policing efforts, but he says there could always be more visibility, and more outreach to get to know residents from all police.
Because Terrell says it’s the cooperation between officers and residents that will help tackle violence in Cleveland neighborhoods.
TERRELL: “Right now we're being held hostage. We're being held hostage not just because of what the police doing, but by what the residents aren't doing. You know, we have to own up to that as well. I think that the police that we have that don't respect the rights of its citizens need to be kicked off the police force, okay? But I honestly believe that there is more good cops than there is bad.”
Terrell invited some residents to his nearby office to share their views on police, and violence in their neighborhood. Kamille Johnson is a mother of 7.
JOHNSON: “Community policing for me would be actually getting out of your vehicle, and walking around, and interacting with the community. I have had a bad experience myself where my children has went and said 'hi police, hi police' and they keep walking like they're not even talking to them. That creates a problem, because when they get older you want them to talk to you. You want them...'hey did you see somebody run through here with a red shirt on?' and you want them to say yes or no and they're going to look at you, and they're not going to say anything, they're not going to help you, they're not going to be their friend, because when you had the opportunity you didn't take it. I do think that we're very far from it, I think that we're very far from it, just because of the different things that are going on not in just this community but the city as a whole.”
Johnson wants more overall cooperation between residents, police, churches, non-profits, all working toward making neighborhoods safer. She says it's a terrible feeling to fear for your children interacting with police...or even just playing outside.
JOHNSON: “When we first came we heard gunshots they ran in the house, now they hear a gunshot and I have to push them in the house--'come on, let's go, let's go'--because they've gotten used to it. When we first came here the gunshots at night would wake them up out their sleep, now they sleep through it. So it's become like they're immune to it, it doesn't really bother them, it doesn't faze them. And then the amount of gunfire that you hear it's like a war zone. There are some nights that I don't sleep, because I'm walking and looking at all the children, making sure everybody's still breathing, making sure there's not a bullet hole coming in, making sure everybody okay. I've seen someone get shot more than one time down here. One time we were sitting right in front of my house, combing hair, talking to the kids, laughing, eating popsicles, nice day outside, everybody talking having a good time, and all of the sudden we hear 'pow, pow pow' and it's like right in front of my face, I can even see the fire from the gun. That's not good. And once again here I am, I'm pushing kids, not just my kids, all the kids 'come on, come on, in the house, in the house' my neighbor came, Ms. Kim she was out there, her daughter, and we're all laying on the ground and they're having a free-for-all right outside my door.”
Kim Benefield is known as Ms. Kim to the neighborhood. She also calls for more cooperation between police and others for the sake of safety, but she adds that various public housing units all need to work together, not just individually.
BENEFIELD: “The police need to come down, and knock on doors, 'come on out, let's go to a ballgame.' Do something with the kids to make them comfortable to be talking to them, and make us feel comfortable to talk to them, too. Because right now we run and close our doors. So I'm walking around trying to get everybody, come on let's come together there ain't no separate this place over here, this side over here, this side, we're all as one.”
Benefield says she recently had a bullet shot through a window of her home. While she was affected by the shooting, she emphasizes still her investment in the neighborhood.
BENEFIELD: “When my window got shot, I don’t know if I was in there or gone, but it was a bullet through my bedroom window. I feel uncomfortable, violated, and all that, but I’m not going nowhere. And the first thing they asked me, did I want to move? I said no, I don’t want to move, it ain’t about moving. It’s about change—trying to change it, so I won’t be a drive-by incident. That could’ve been my daughter’s life, or my life.”
Another important piece in the discussion of safety and stability in neighborhoods for these women is family.
CHURCH: “If the focus is black males, because they matter, they're important, they're the head, it should be focused on how they can get to know them, their selves. Their minds are not where they should be. Families were broken. Everyone knows the history of slavery, and how black families were torn apart, starting with the males. That's our rock. They have to know where they come from, their history, and how to get their minds right.”
Church says if women don't stand up and demand a change from men, then men will continue with what she calls shenanigans.
CHURCH: “We have to take an active role, as well. It's not just the males, it's a community, it's a family. Without the father...with the moms accepting the shenanigans, because a lot of women are accepting men you know not having a job, or men acting crazy. If they're accepting it, the males is gonna keep doing it. So that's where women can stand up and say 'no more, it's time to get right.' Because if you're not right, the family's not right.”
Kamille Johnson agrees.
JOHNSON: “The man is supposed to be the head of the household, he's supposed to be the provider, he's supposed to be a lot of different things, so sometimes the young black males don't have that model in front of them. They're being raised in a household with just their mother. So you don't have the model that you're supposed to have, that, in essence, was supposed to be. God made it that way, it was supposed to be a man and a woman coming together to have children and raise their children together. We got away from that, myself included. I didn't get married until after I had children.”
The definition of what ‘family’ is, and how it contributes to safety in neighborhoods can change dramatically depending on your situation. One man, who gave his name as Toby, knows the situation on the streets well…
TOBY: “My friends of course is always going to be my family, besides immediate family. We make that bond with each other, when we spend the night at each other’s house, and eat off the same spoon. My mother go vouch for you, and check you when you’re wrong or right. You know what I’m saying? Of course we build that bond, and relationship: family. You know what I’m saying? Not gang. We ain’t running around, ‘oh, yeah we a gang. We in a gang.’ No, we family. We’re from a hood, we’re from over here.”
Toby denies there are real gangs in Cleveland, and even some of the more high-profile groups like the so-called Heartless Felons are not gangs per se, in his view. And he claims such groups are being blamed for crimes and actions that are not necessarily their doing or design.
Toby says neighborhoods, not gangs, are the support structure for young men, where they look out for each other, vouch for each other, feed each other, when there are few other options.
TOBY: “I could go through the projects right now and say ‘I got an opportunity for ya’ll, let’s go and make this money. You want a job? You want a job?’ Trust and believe it’d be a whole lot of young people following behind me. Who wouldn’t want a job, getting paid some money, for real? Like I said, no peanuts. Money for real. Peanuts don’t do nothing but start trouble for real. You bring home none. You know, child support; I want to look good, you know; gas money to get my kids back and forth to school; school tuition; food, they can’t go to sleep hungry at night; I got to feed myself; probably some people who ain’t fortunate that go to sleep at night who ain’t been fed in days, I might have to look out for them, for real, you know. We is a family in the community, that’s why when they say ‘gang’ I don’t understand that, for real.”
In talking about police with Toby and others in this neighborhood, and many Cleveland neighborhoods, the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice looms large.
In early October, prosecution experts issued an opinion that Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann’s decision to shoot Tamir Rice was reasonable based on the information relayed to him: that a 911 caller said a guy with a gun was pointing it at people, not knowing the gun was a pellet gun.
Again, here’s Toby:
TOBY: “It hurt, because I'm a father at the end of the day. I don't know what I would do if them was one of my kids that that happened to. It's sad, for real, because when you shooting a gun you supposed to know that always check for innocent civilians, for real.”
Joining Toby for a conversation about police and neighborhood safety is Sulieman Thornton…
THORNTON: “…I was a shot caller for the Quarter Boys in W 25th Riverview Estates, and my official title on the streets was Sway.”
Sulieman Thornton now works with the non-profit Society 4 Non-violent Change. He also addressed the Rice case as someone who participated in protests sparked by the situation, but also as a father.
I had asked Thornton about an apparent uptick in gang violence as possibly warranting more aggressive policing.
THORNTON: “This police brutality been going on far before children were killed. We profiled based off the way we dress, based off the way we walk, the way we look, even the music we listen to. There’s gangs in suburbs, listening to the same music listening to the same music, wear the same outfits, but you don’t hear those reports on news about police brutality against them in those communities. I think the police need to be trained, mentally profiled, because you got a lot of police officers coming home from the military, went through traumatic things in their lives, and what not. You’ve got racist police in the police department. I hate that babies being killed. I don’t like it. I think the police should be more proactive, they should use their counterintelligence, because if you can use your counterintelligence to track down drug dealers why can’t you do better investigative tactics to find these criminals and these killers and bring about approaches. How did this guy just pull up? He didn’t ask Tamir Rice any questions. I seen the tape. He didn’t approach that young man properly. He approached that man as if his life was in danger. HIS life wasn’t in danger, Tamir Rice’s life was in danger. And then he shot that boy and killed him in cold blood.”
Toby: “That’s going to add fuel to the fire, for real. If it’s already conflict in the streets already, and then you all add the police to come with it, that’s too much, for real. Now you ain’t got no choice. Just think about the guys trying to do right to protect they fortune, for real.
A couple days ago, I get some gas, I leave, I go across 93rd going towards Union. I see police cars everywhere. I get out the car go in a restaurant on 93rd, I take a seat, 3 or 4 people in the restaurant. Next thing you know, literally about 15 police came with they guns on me. Luckily it was people in here seeing everything going on, for real. Who says that I didn’t have anything on me that could’ve turned this into a violent conflict for real? So when I see them coming with they guns on me, the first thing I think is grab my ID, because it got to be some identity thing going on. I’m reaching for my ID, he like ‘no, no, don’t reach, don’t’ you know. But my whole thing I’m gonna bring out my ID, for real, because we don’t know where this bout to go. You know what I’m saying? So I pull out my ID, give them my ID. ‘Oh, we thought you was a murder suspect of the 3-year-old that was shot.’”
Sitting next to Toby is Maurice Williams, who says he used to be in the Tribe, a gang in East Cleveland. Williams agrees there needs to be more opportunity for young people to bring stability to these neighborhoods.
WILLIAMS: “Instead of spending millions on more police, let's get more jobs here. And us as black people need to just take hold of our community and show these youth today that it's love, unity, and peace will make everything concrete for us. They don’t know no better, out there, they young, they’re following the wrong way. So I call out to like all the older people, all the OG’s from neighborhoods, hoods, from everywhere, it’s time for us to stand up as grown men to let these young men know that it’s a better way.”
These residents want more resources for non-profits like the Society 4 Non-violent Change, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the like, to better help young people stay on the straight and narrow, and even better discover themselves.
And from the police, Breanna Church reiterates that familiarity between residents and officers would go a long way:
CHURCH: “If they got to know me, and if they became a part of the community, because they're policing our community, they wouldn't be so quick to shoot and kill us, and that's how some of it can be decreased...by becoming part of the family.”
For Sulieman Thornton, part of the problem is the general perpetuation of negative news and narratives instead of the positive. By refocusing efforts on hope, neighborhoods can change.
THORNTON: “If you give us opportunities like what the Society 4 Non-violent Change is doing, to be able to go out and get me, Toby, and Maurice, they listened. I listened. It’s effective. These programs are available, but we’re not getting the proper press, or the proper attention that needs to be done, because all the violence is being so perpetuated. We’re just a small piece of the puzzle, but nobody really knows about us, talking to these at-risk youth and children and whatnot to let them know there’s hope. There is hope. You ain’t gotta give—I want the American pie, but just give me some of the crust. You know what I’m saying? Just give me a piece of the crust. I’ll put it in the microwave, and do something with it, and make it happen. Just give me that. These guys want that. They want that.”
GANZER: Cleveland’s Division of Police has already begun to reform its policies and practice within and beyond a consent decree with the Department of Justice. Now, we have a law enforcement perspective on what community policing is, and how far we might be from it.
Detective Stephen Loomis is president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.
LOOMIS: “We’re miles from it. What it should look like? It should look like police officers interacting with the citizens out there, particularly the kids, in a non-enforcement type of capacity. And the only way that you can accomplish that, is by having enough police officers to do that. If you have two police cars in every zone of the city, then you can effectively have community policing because the people in those communities are going to get to know those officers very, very well; the officers themselves are going to know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are. And that is community policing, not, you know right now we have guys walking the neighborhoods. That sounds nice, but it’s not reality…”
GANZER: “Why isn’t it reality?”
LOOMIS: “Well, because it’s, number one you’re taking a police car off the road, and our main purpose in life is to answer radio assignments, and our response times are suffering because of that. You know, it’s not something that’s prolonged, it’s so the chief can say ‘hey yeah, I’ve got guys out walking foot beats.’ Well, no we don’t. That’s the reality. That’s just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that we have, and it is a problem.”
GANZER: “It’s interesting that you mentioned walking the beat, because I spoke to Willie Jones—he’s a resident of the Cudell neighborhood—and here’s what he said:”
JONES on tape: “Well, I think community policing should look more like getting out of the squad cars, interacting with the public, you know, walking back the beats like they did back in the 70s and the late 80s. Just interacting with the people.”
GANZER: “What do you think of that?”
LOOMIS: “Yeah. I think it’s a great idea. If we had the manpower to do that effectively and not diminish the safety of the police officers that are out there answering radio assignments, and therefore the citizens who need us, yeah tremendous idea. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. In 2003, we had a significant community policing unit. They developed relationships, and they got a lot of information, and that’s sorely missed. But we have to be very, very careful not to knee-jerk our way back into that. You have to be willing to throw the resources at it that you need to develop a good, effective community policing. You know it’s all about communication. And I learned very quickly in going to these community meetings that I get invited to, I never really stopped to think about it, but that is really all they see is policemen in police cars zipping back and forth and not stopping. What they don’t understand is that they don’t have time to stop because we’re so understaffed right now, and they literally are from going run, to run, to run. I was able to convey to the folks that: there’s not a policeman out there who wouldn’t love to sit and play basketball with kids for a little while, or throw the football around, or just let them—the little guys really like yelling on the loud speakers. You know, that’s how you develop those relationships and it’s got to start at a very young age.”
GANZER: “I think some people would argue that the bread-and-butter may be reactionary, that we’re reacting to crimes in the community, but some people would like to see more proactive…”
GANZER: “…measures from the police, to where even just a smile or a few minutes, that may collectively make the neighborhood feel a little safer. Do you agree with that?”
LOOMIS: “Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I would love to have proacting police units back. We don’t. You can’t get rid of 500 police officers in a three-year period of time from 2003 to 2006 and then expect things to be the way that they were. Those are decisions that politicians made.”
Detective Stephen Loomis is the head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.
We’ll hear more law enforcement perspectives on community policing in a few minutes, but first we have a discussion with Cleveland writer RA Washington. The co-founder of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore on Cleveland’s West side spoke about his ideas of what community policing is, and he also responded to some of the ideas proposed by Detective Loomis:
WASHINGTON: “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.”
That was Cleveland writer, RA Washington.
When speaking about a law enforcement perspective of community policing, it’s important to recognize the inherent diversity of opinion within the ranks of police.
Cleveland Police Commander Ellis Johnson Jr. heads the division’s community policing bureau, and he spoke about some of the initiatives already underway.
JOHNSON: “We started a program where we have kits, and what we do is we put coloring books, crayons, pamphlets, fliers, little plastic badges, and zone cars have it, and when they go out and about they stop and you know see a kid, ‘hey, how you doing, da da da,’ they start that contact, they start that interaction. And that impact not only for the youth, but for the parent of that youth seeing that interaction between officers which is not a ‘well get off the corner’ or ‘come here...’ it’s a simple human communication.”
Johnson is an African-American police commander in a division of police that has a strained relationship with some poor and minority communities. His office is layered in paperwork, recruiting posters, and on the walls posters saying ‘Cops for Kids.’ Community policing for Johnson centers heavily on the interactions between police and the public.
In my interview with Cleveland writer RA Washington, he said he felt that police did not get a pass for leadership speaking of community policing in a certain way. He said police were, among other things, supposed to make sure people don’t get bopped upside the head, but in his words, it was hard to trust a police force that does a lot of the bopping.
I asked Commander Johnson to respond:
JOHNSON: “That’s part of a mindset, I’m saying, that has to change on both parts. Again that goes back to the percentage of what you’re looking at, and those interactions that you’re looking at with the ‘police doing the bopping.’ Okay, in close to that million contacts that we have, how many incidents is that? On the whole, police officers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they’re doing it well. And we do have those bad elements that do occur, and need to be eliminated from the division. Because what you’re saying is ‘they don’t deserve a pass, or they need to earn a pass,’ how about those officers who’ve been on the job for the past 30+ years like myself who hasn’t had those incidents? And the majority of us have never had those incidents. The majority of us have never had to shoot anybody. But it’s that broad brush that’s coloring all police officers as opposed to those few who have violated either rules or the law in saying that, well guess what that’s all of us. So I can't prove anything to you, unless you're open to it.”
Johnson says people who are vocal against the police are heard more than people supporting police, when incidents of people getting hurt or shot in involvements with the police are a small percentage of overall interactions. He says there are bad cookies in the force that need to be rooted out, and recruitment and training need to help equip the department to find a new way.
He says officers can police very well, but there needs to be more focus on customer service.
JOHNSON: “Customer service is, when I get out I am truly totally professional, but I am courteous in my profession. It’s not the idea that, yes I know how to write a ticket, that’s part of policing. I know how to make an arrest, that’s part of policing. I know how to use what’s on my belt, from Taser, to my firearm, I know how to do that. It’s the treatment that we have with the people.”
Commander Ellis Johnson Jr. heads the bureau of community policing for the Cleveland Division of Police.
While it is difficult to represent all of the opinions of officers, I’d like to present at least two more. Ideastream’s Nick Castele put together this collection of thoughts, including from Det. Lynn Hampton from Black Shield, which represents African-American police in Cleveland.
And Officer Cesar Herrera is president of the Hispanic Police Officer’s Association. Herrera begins, by saying there’s an advantage to employing officers who can speak Spanish
HERRERA: “We have people who might not speak the language, where we come in and help translate, or be able to take a report directly because of a barrier to language. But also being able to understand the culture that you’re serving. So if you have a police officer who’s not aware of some of this cultural differences, you know the conversation or the contact with that family might not go as well as with somebody who’s familiar with that culture.”
HAMPTON: “You know, you can’t ticket your poor community to death to pay for different amenities that make your life comfortable, on the back of poor citizens. It’s the community that’s your eyes and ears, us police cannot be everywhere. You know what I mean? So, how you expect to get people to divulge information that is necessary to solve crime and criminal behavior in your neighborhood and you just piled on a whole bunch of tickets that can be very insignificant in nature , but is, you know, to a poor, working stiff just trying to make it, you know, is huge.”
HERRERA: “The problem with community policing, like everything else, is that sometimes you’re not able to grade it, as to the effects that it’s having in the community, and so therefore sometimes it’s not, it’s disregarded as maybe it’s not an effective program. But we the guys that have been there long enough not only to know the program and understand it, but believe in it, but we have seen the effects, some of the positive effects of the program.”
HAMPTON: “We can do a better job ensuring a little more empathy, you know, because, see, but that happens sometimes in being the police—some people have brought up the suggestion of rotating people from off the streets into other units to give them other perspectives on things. Because you can get into this little rut and ‘everybody is bad, everybody is lying to you,’ you don’t trust them. And you can get into that little rut as being out on the street and becoming desensitized and very numb to the public. That comes with the job, that can happen, if you don’t have other things that bring you back to being a human being again.”
“We don’t want to come into work to shoot nobody, nobody, I don’t think, nobody wake up to want to do that. But you don’t want to, in your whole career, constantly getting engaged in rolling around on the ground with somebody. If you can defuse a situation through good communication, and you leave that situation better than you met it, then you did your job.”
GANZER: That was Det. Lynn Hampton from Black Shield, which represents African-American police in Cleveland. We also heard from Officer Cesar Herrera, the president of the Hispanic Police Officer’s Association.
In Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Pastor Stephen Rowan leads Bethany Baptist Church. I asked Rowan to assess how far he thinks we are from an ideal of community policing:
ROWAN: “As far as light is from darkness, probably. Now I do know that our police chief believes in community policing, I’ve been in several meetings with him, and situations where he’s talked about it. I know there are officers that believe in this, our mayor as well. So I’m hopeful for all that, but I think we’re far from it because I don’t see the police. But I will say some of our staff have told me that they’ve seen some police walking up and down 105th street in recent weeks.”
GANZER: “Over the course of this series I’ve talked to many different kinds of people, and they’ve pointed to a number of things trying to explain the rift between the police and the public. They’ve pointed to race, they’ve pointed to class—where do you think this rift comes from?”
ROWAN: “Oh, I would say both of those are true, but I think it also comes from the fact that I think there is a belief—a stereotypical belief—that people in the community allow criminals to fester and that they approve of the behavior of some of the people that commit criminal acts, and I just don’t think that’s true. But I’ve been a victim myself of police criticizing me saying that I get along with the drug dealers, or that I harbor them and all these kinds of things. Do I know people who deal drugs? Of course I do. And I know mothers, and fathers, and grandparents and others, who don’t approve of that behavior that their children or sons and daughters might be engaged in, but I still have to show them the love of Christ, and so I cannot judge them for what they do, what I can do is try to redirect them.”
GANZER: “It seems like there’s plenty of criticism for everybody to go around: some folks criticize the police, some folks criticize churches, some folks criticize non-profits. Are we all on the same page when it comes to an ideal of community policing, do you think? Or are we moving toward the same page?”
ROWAN: “I think so. I think most people would agree that it’s important—there was a day when you would know the police officers in the community. Now this is what has been said to me, and I’ve heard it from more than a couple of sources, that the police are told not to really engage residents, and that they shouldn’t get out of their cars and all those kinds of … because it’s too dangerous. And it’s unfortunate that we live in a climate now where police feel under siege. And there are people that are very angry toward the police, but I think that your average person would not justify anyone attacking the police or disrespecting the police, and I think that because there is this element of people that do those things that everybody gets painted with a broad brush, and I think that’s very unfair. I respect the police, I’ve got a brother who’s a police officer…”
GANZER: “But incidents like the shooting of Tamir Rice, the case with Tanisha Anderson, these have exacerbated maybe the trust issue that we have between the public and the police…”
ROWAN: “I would agree, absolutely, because you cannot justify certain behavior when it’s clearly wrong. Police are human like anyone else, just like pastors, and mailmen, teachers, politicians, there are always people in a group that are gonna be good, and there are some that are going to be bad.”
GANZER: “Is there something you think people are not talking about in this discussion? I’ve heard some skepticism from people.”
ROWAN: “Oh, yeah, there’s plenty of skepticism. But again, I’m in the business of hope. I’m in the business of hope, and I’m not changing my business. See sometimes you’ve got to act people into a different way of thinking. See instead of trying to get them to change their minds about a thing, show us through action.”
Pastor Stephen Rowan of Bethany Baptist Church, in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
A commission created to recommend reforms for Cleveland Police, under the consent decree with the Justice Department, has already held some public meetings. And Cleveland police have already begun changing policy and practice.
Clevelanders are moving this process forward with optimism, and a bit a skepticism, hanging in the air.