by Chuck Hoven
The Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations convened by Governor John Kasich to address the issue of police community relations on a statewide basis held its first community meeting at Cleveland State University on January 20th. The Task Force formed in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department report on excessive use of force by Cleveland Police and several police involved shootings of unarmed civilians that have occurred in the State of Ohio.
While there was a good turnout at the Cleveland State University meeting, a number of those in attendance were from out of town from as far away as Cincinnati. With two major meetings being held elsewhere in Cleveland the same night – a City Council Listening Session on the same topic, and a Public Utilities Commission of Ohio meeting on a First Energy proposal to raise rates to allow it to burn dirty coal – many Cleveland voices were not heard. The Task Force Co-Chair, former State Senator Nina Turner said she would strongly consider having a second meeting in Cleveland. Also, people were invited to submit testimony online at www.ocjs.ohio.gov/otfcpr, or at ohiopublicsafety.com.
The first two hours of the scheduled four hour meeting of the Task Force were taken up by two speakers—U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Steve Dettelbach talked with the Task Force about the findings of a 58 page report issued late last year by the U.S. Department of Justice titled Investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police.
The Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of criminal justice in New York, David Kennedy, took up the second hour. In his remarks Kennedy said the relationship between police and community is damaged when police focus on a community in their law enforcement rather than on the 1% of that community that are criminals. He was critical of policies like stop and frisk and policies that violate the right to free assembly like “clearing corners.” He mentioned the Cincinnati initiative to reduce crime that focused on criminals, not the entire population.
While Kennedy emphasized the small percentage of bad actors in both the civilian and police populations, he said he believed that there was not a lot of overt racism in the police department. He didn’t think that was what was driving the every day issues. Rather, he felt the way police are policing communities, leads to distrust and conspiracy theories. He said if enough people believe in a conspiracy by police, good people would not work with the police. He said if communities have a toxic experience with police, the feelings of police legitimacy go down and crime increases.
Kennedy said when people don’t trust police a cycle of violence can occur. He said most violence is retaliatory – if people don’t believe police will take up their cause when they call 911 – the incidence of retaliatory violence will increase. Kennedy said, “we need to fix the legitimacy problem, so people know police are there to help.”
Kennedy said that for change to occur he doesn’t think the community will be the problem. He said, “You can always work with the community. If you show good will, the critical mass of people will meet you half way.”
However, he said that wasn’t always the experience with people that are getting paid to prevent violence. He said while it important to have the commitment of the police department and the command staff in order for change to occur, they can often be uncompromising and unwilling to change. He said likewise it is necessary to have the commitment of the mayor and city officials.
Public testimony followed the remarks of the speakers.
A deaf man described the difficulty he has in encounters with police saying, “Sometimes they curse at you because you can’t hear.” He urged better training of police so they know how to interact with people with disabilities.
A representative of Black on Black Crime urged that police get tested for alcohol and drug abuse. He also took issue with a police union representative’s public statement that Tamir Rice was warned three times to drop his gun. He said the video showed how little time Rice had to respond before he was shot.
A mother of a ten-year-old child said her child was detained for 3 ½ hours without police notifying her. When she investigated, she learned that police were looking for an African American male between the ages of 7 and 18 with a paint gun. Not only did her child not have a paint gun but also after being held for 3 ½ hours without her being called, he was cited for violation of curfew on his way home. When she called and talked to the officer who detained her son, he insisted he didn’t have to let her know her son was being detained. He gave her his name and badge number and she reported the incident to Police Commander Williams’ office. She said two weeks later they told her the police did nothing wrong. The mother asked the Task Force, “Don’t they have to notify me, when they detain my minor child?”
A representative from a Hispanic Newspaper who grew up in Lorain, Ohio said he experienced members of his community become police officers in Lorain and the community built a police force that was connected to the community. He urged hiring of police officers that are part of the community and connected to the community. He said officers and the community need to understand each other and how they are going to react in different situations.
Another citizen expressed concern about what types of psychological and emotional support were provided to police officers. The person also asked about psychological screening and background checks of applicants to “see if they have what it takes to be a police officer.”
A social worker suggested that eliminating the County designation on license plates in Ohio would help reduce stops by police of people that are outside their home county. He suggested posting policies and procedures of the Cleveland Police Department on its website would also help improve the debate and help with the ability of the community to come up with the adoption of best practices both nationally and internationally.
Representative Nickie Antonio, who represents Ohio House District 13 where Tamir Rice lived before he was shot and killed by police, asked that police be trained in first aid, and CPR. In light of what happened to Tanisha Anderson she also suggested that officers receive Crisis Intervention Training and make use of Frontline, Cleveland’s 24 hour Crisis Intervention Team. She suggested duplicating a program in Portland, Oregon where dispatchers are trained to call mental health professionals to the scene when they recognize a call as a mental health emergency. Antonio urged the restoration of the local government funds by the State of Ohio to help properly equip local safety forces.
A homeless woman who says she suffers from mental illness tried to describe an incident where police didn’t treat her as a credible witness and she said a child died as a result.
A state corrections officer described his being fired three times for reporting racism at work. While he said he was reinstated, he believes racism is rampant in the law enforcement community. He described another incident where he was questioned by a police officer as to why he was standing on a corner when he was just waiting for a bus. When he questioned the officer for his action, he said he was shoved in a car and charged with disorderly conduct. While being held, the man said he started talking with another person being detained about freedom of speech and the fate of Michael Pipkins who died when a Cleveland police officer put him in a choke hold in 1992. After hearing his comments, the man said a police officer punched him through the bars and upped the charge against him to aggravated assault.
The man talked about an unfair justice system noting the recent release from prison of a Cleveland man wrongly accused of a murder forty years ago. The man urged hiring of police officers from the community instead of a bunch of white guys that stand around looking like the Ku Klux Klan.
A man from Steubenville, Ohio talked about the consent decree that city entered into with the U.S. Justice Department twenty years ago. He said twenty years later, police misconduct still scares him. He called Ohio Ground Zero in the effort to reduce police violence, with more Department of Justice Consent Decrees than any other state.
Another woman, who described herself as the mother of five children, called the tackling of Tamir Rice’s sister and the treatment she received by police a sign of “lack of respect for the Black community by police.” She called for more respect and justice. She also decried the lack of accountability when police kill civilians. “Kill somebody and be able to walk away and we are not going to do anything about it – is disgraceful,” she said.
A member of the Collaborative for a Fair, Safe and Just Cleveland brought to the attention of the Task Force a Wisconsin Bill that calls for the independent investigation of all deaths in police custody by a five member panel. He said the bill resulted from the efforts of Wisconsin resident Michael Bell whose 21-year-old son was shot in front of him in 2004.
Charles See, Executive Director of the Community Re-Entry Program at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, addressed a number of issues related to the Department of Justice report that he felt were important to the safety of citizens and law enforcement personnel. He summed up some of the recommendations made by citizens and added some additional ones: posting online the police department rules and regulations, drug testing of police officers, vigorous recruitment of police officers from communities of color, increasing the resources of law enforcement personnel, training of police officers in non violent conflict resolution techniques, and work training for the incarcerated. See urged the Task Force to come back to Cleveland for another meeting.
A Cincinnati resident testified that it took 13 ½ years to change policing in Cincinnati. She urged Cleveland to enter into a collaborative agreement and to have community members at the table when the agreement is made. She had a few recommendations: 1) Reserve arrests to serious transgressions – avoid arrests for minor transgressions, avoid stop and frisk and surveys. 2) Have clear mandates – educate officers and hold officers accountable for criminal offenses and violation of administrative rules, and discipline officers. 3). Implement Community Problem Oriented Policing.
One resident was skeptical as to what action would result from the mostly Republican State Legislature as a result of the Task Force’s report. He described most of Ohio’s Legislature as “Elderly white males who don’t have experience with what the Task Force is addressing – most don’t have a clue.” The speaker contended that most action would have to be local. He asked the panel, “Do you think anything will be done by the state? What actions can we take locally?”
One Task Force member, Senator Cliff Hite, who described himself as a Republican and an elderly white legislator, assured the questioner that he was listening to the community and promised that legislation would come out of the efforts of the Task Force. “I thank you for the challenge, and I accept it,” said Senator Hite.
Another panelist, the Franklin County Prosecutor Ronald O’Brien urged the questioner to take action locally saying, “The solution is with the local level.”
A representative of the Collaborative for a Fair, Safe and Just Cleveland called for funds from the State of Ohio Rainy Day Fund to be used to fund Community Policing endeavors throughout the State of Ohio. The representative also challenged the State of Ohio to prove that there is no racial profiling in Ohio by passing an End Racial Profiling Act, which would mandate the collecting of data on arrests to help determine if there is a bias. The Collaborative member also called on the Task Force to look at the Wisconsin Law and not allow police to investigate their own officers when there is an incident of violence; recruitment of talented officers from the community with a high level of education, and recruitment programs for potential officers in the local High Schools.
Meryl Johnson, a retired Cleveland school teacher and a radio show host said the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program which features police officers interacting with children is now only in 14 schools out of nearly 100 schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. She called for more money to expand the program and get into more schools. She said the program helps young children to learn there are “really good police out there.”
Another resident said it would be a mistake for the Task Force not to address race. Ronnie Dunn, a Task Force member, agreed with the man that race is an important issue and assured him that “we will address race.”
A retired black police officer referred to a comment made by a citizen and said recruiting from High School ROTC-like programs would be a good start to attracting young people to the police force that want to serve, help people and make a difference.
Retired Congressman Louis Stokes, honorary Co-Chair of the Task Force offered some history to the issue of police brutality in Cleveland. He said 49 years ago in July of 1966 he and his brother Carl walked the streets of Hough with fires raging and bullets reigning down. “It was a turbulent time in our city,’ said Stokes. Stokes then noted that police brutality was a major problem at the time as were poor living conditions, lack of health care and other issues. He talked about a community meeting he and his brother attended at the time with Stanley Tolliver and Charlie Bibbs where people were vocal about the need to curb police brutality.
Stokes cited the case of Terry v. Ohio, which he said established rules about when police can stop and frisk. However, despite the Supreme Court ruling, he said, “Today in New York City and Cleveland, stop and frisk is still as bad or worse than it was then.”
Referring to the testimony of people before the Task Force, Stokes said, “It means so much to me to see our community express its will, as it did seeing those people in Hough 49 years ago – addressing the same problems.”
Stokes told those who had testified before the Ohio Task Force on Police-Community Relations in its first community meeting that “The testimony of the community is very important – I just want to thank you.”