Stricter enforcement or new solutions? Cleveland City Council debates tackling crime in the city

 Cleveland City Councilwoman Stephanie Howse during a May 11, 2022 City Council Safety Committee, following a heated exchange with Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O'Malley.
Cleveland City Councilwoman Stephanie Howse during a May 11, 2022 City Council Safety Committee, following a heated exchange with Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O'Malley. [ City of Cleveland]

Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee meeting on Wednesday quickly shifted from the scheduled discussion — one about a perceived increase in juvenile crime in the city — to a heated debate about other public safety issues.

Early on, the committee’s chairman, Mike Polensek, asked interim Chief of Police Wayne Drummond whether he’s seeing an increase in crime committed by young people.

“Overall, I don’t think it’s increasing, as far as the juvenile crimes are concerned,” Drummond said. “Are they involved in certain things? Absolutely, no question about it. Are they involved in some carjackings? Absolutely. And so are adults and so forth.”

Other questions about whether young people are arrested and quickly sent back onto the street, as some council members claimed, were disputed by Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Thomas O’Malley.

“I understand the community’s concern, and this notion that we have a revolving door, but we don’t,” Thomas O’Malley said.

The juvenile detention facility in Cleveland can hold 180 people waiting for trial or to go to a state detention facility. Thomas O’Malley said that number is when fully staffed, and right now there are 80 open positions at the court and detention facility combined.

Thomas O’Malley said juveniles charged with serious felonies are detained. Others are assessed and some go home, some with GPS monitoring. Others go to secure facilities.

The hearing then shifted its focus to other public safety issues in Cleveland.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley played a video for council, produced by a local TV news station, showing groups of dirt bike riders on the city’s streets. It’s against the law in Cleveland to drive vehicles intended for off-road use on city streets without registration.

“There’s some tough decisions that have to be made in how many feet are we willing to give,” Michael O’Malley said. “When people feel comfortable engaging in chaotic behavior, that behavior extends beyond dirt bikes or souped up Challengers, where they own the city.”

Cracking down on dirt bikes on Cleveland’s streets has been an issue in the city for the past several summers. Former Mayor Frank Jackson sought to create a city-owned dirt bike park to attract riders, but that plan fell through.

“So you have roving bands of lawlessness, with loaded firearms, going through our neighborhoods, terrorizing people,” said Councilman Brian Mooney.

There have been no reported cases of shootings or other violent crime connected to dirt bike riders traveling through the city.

When pressed by Mooney about how many bikes have been seized by police, Drummond told council police officers often aren’t able to pursue dirt bike riders on the city’s streets.

“The possibilities of a zone car, which is probably what’s going to respond for a call for service for dirt bikes, of actually stopping a motorcycle is almost nil,” Drummond said. “The motorcycles have the ability to go up on the sidewalks, and they go up on the sidewalks. The motorcycles have the ability to weave in and out of traffic.”

Public Safety Director Karrie Howard said the administration is working on new legislation to present to council to strengthen the city’s ability to crack down on illegal dirt bike riding, but he did not provide any details.

There was a split on council and among officials largely along racial lines about what the city’s priority should be.

Several of the white council members and officials favored stricter law enforcement, including hiring more police officers and relaxing restrictions on police pursuits. Several Black members of council described those as failed policies and urged the city to increase outreach and services.

Councilwoman Stephanie Howse pushed back forcefully against the argument that crime was pushing the city to the brink of chaos.

“We are trying to paint our city and our young people, that they are totally out of control, when we have failed them. We have failed them. We have failed them,” Howse said.

She criticized officials from the police department and courts for not providing more information on the factors that led juveniles to commit the crimes officials were raising concerns about.

Councilman Richard Starr questioned two agencies tasked with working to reduce crime in Cleveland — the city’s Community Relations Board and The Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland’s Peacemakers Alliance, which receives some city funding — on how many employees actually perform outreach directly with residents.

Three of the Community Relations Board’s 18 staff members worked directly with members of the community, while 12 in Peacemakers did that kind of work.

“So, my question overall is, ‘What are we actually doing as far as safety?’” Starr said. “Fifteen or 20 outreach workers are what’s needed in each ward, if you ask me.”

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