Policy Analysis of Greater Cleveland Public Safety

Policy Overview

Policing in the United States has a long, often troubling, history (Anderson, 2016).  With law enforcement being tasked with the bulk of what is broadly defined as “public safety,” officers are said to “protect and serve” the public-at-large.  The harsh reality, though, is that Black and Brown people are targeted more often by the police, resulting in generations of community trauma and escalating violence between the two “sides” (Sakala and La Vigne, 2019). What’s true, too, is that these public safety trustees are called to serve functions that go outside of typical police officer training or common expectation of their duties (Vermeer et al, 2020).  This combination of implicit (or explicit) racial biases/tensions and the undue stress of calling the police for matters that they are not equipped or needed to handle has resulted in unnecessary violence and death, both of residents and sworn officers (Kahn, 2018).  In 2020, the murder-by-police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others caused an upswell in Black Lives Matter protests, drawing the public eye to the problematic nature of policing in this country.  As a result, more and more attention is being paid at the local, state, and federal level on how to prevent future tragedies like these from happening.

Currently, two Cleveland inner-ring suburbs, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, are examining ways to re-think the best utilization of their public safety agencies (Cleveland State University Diversity Institute, 2020; Weiss et al., 2021).  The City of Cleveland has also declared racism a public health crisis (Higgs, 2020), a step towards delving into policing practices, though in a less direct manner than Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.  In these Cleveland-adjacent liberal-leaning communities, they are adopting two different frameworks for approaching the issue: Cleveland Heights has partnered with Cleveland State University to create an implicit bias training for all in-coming and current police officers and also to study policing outcomes.  Shaker Heights is gearing up to run a pilot program that partners EMTs and mental health workers to be dispatched to non-violent, mental health-related calls.  Both approaches grew out of community demands to make changes which lead to engaged dialogues and listening sessions, and both were the result of community leaders consulting with city government as well as other experts.  While the Shaker Heights plan does not detail a funding strategy, the Cleveland Heights proposal comes with a price tag of $47,300.  Though it does not specify, this amount would likely be drawn from the city’s law enforcement budget.

The Shaker Heights proposal is detailed in Appendix A and the Cleveland Heights proposal is detailed in Appendix B.

Problem Definition

The explanation for why there are so many issues related to public safety are layered and deeply complex.  Systemic racism is a factor, police being asked to perform duties they are not trained to handle is a factor, neighborhood-level tensions is a factor, fear-based society is a factor, lack of awareness of other options to resolve non-violent neighborhood issues is a factor.  Statistics show that Black and Brown people are targeted at much higher by law enforcement and that even when white people commit community violence, they are treated much differently than non-white populations (Anderson, 2016; Armstrong 2020; Subramanian et al., 2020).  The inherently racist and biased carriage of “justice” in this country expands beyond the police themselves and bleeds through the court system, the prison system, and institutions not traditionally associated with the criminal justice system, like schools.  From very early ages, children of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds are “educated” in a manner that is steeped in single-lens storytelling that puts the White Male Patriarchy in the cultural driver’s seat.  Pop culture and other media bears this out, too, making racial bias, microaggressions, and flat-out racism a cultural norm in American society (Weier, 2014). Law enforcement, too, is put in a “hero” role in national storytelling, giving the police perhaps an unearned power that results in increased funding, fabulistic narratives about the role of police in the community, and, thus, presents an incredibly skewed vision of what police can and should be doing to keep the communities they serve “safe” (Obasogie and Newman, 2019). With this model, danger increases for Black residents who live, work, or merely pass through “hotspot” areas where law enforcement specifically targets them (Armstrong, 2020).  Whether the police are conscious or unconscious participants in the school-to-prison pipeline, the reality is that Black communities are sent to so-called correctional facilities at high rates, thus causing them to be participants in the final vestiges of legalized slavery (Subramanian et al. (2020). 

In places like Greater Cleveland, the split between Black and white is nearly a perfect 50/50, which means that area communities see the disparities in policing play out often.  It’s why Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights sprang so immediately into action after the uprisings over the summer.  It’s also why both city governments have data analysis as part of their respective plans.  If there is to be sustainable equitable change to the methods in which public safety is administered, then both cities want to see if their chosen methods yield the outcomes they desire.

Evidence

Evidence of this issue abounds.  At this point, it is so deeply ingrained in the social psyche, it has achieved “normalcy.”  For eyes to be truly open, data makes a strong impact.  Take, for example, Table 1’s snapshot of arrest records in University Circle on Cleveland’s East Side:

Table 1: Arrests made of Black people versus white people (data sourced from Armstrong, 2020)

What this shows is that Black people are detained at much higher rates than white people in the same neighborhood.  There isn’t even conclusive data about how many white people were arrested between 2015 and 2019, though the assumption is it was close to 25% compared to the 75% of arrests made of Black people during that same timeframe.  What this data suggests is that Black people must be perpetrating more crimes than white people -- but this is in no way shape or form evidence of that.  The truth is that there is no way of knowing how many times law enforcement willingly looked away from a white person doing something they wouldn’t hesitate to detain a Black person for doing.  There is no way of knowing how many of the arrests made are actually warranted or are the result of bias or outright racism (Ba et al., 2021).  All that can be concluded is that Black people are subjected to the criminal justice system in Cleveland -- and in communities across the United States -- at substantially higher rates than white people.  

While these biases absolutely are derived from deeply embedded practices with racialized roots, it is also true that police officers are inconsistently trained and often asked to respond to calls they are not suited to address.  Vermeer et al. (2020) cites several levels of frustration coming directly from law enforcement members themselves, including statements like, “People like to go after bias in policing, but this is too myopic. The problems really call for a system-wide overhaul” (p. 1); “Communities need to set their own norms and treat police as a supporting role” (p. 2); “Police often end up doing the things they can do, not necessarily the things they should be doing. . . . We need to not just look at what they are doing, but the things they should not be doing” (p. 2); “Police aren’t educated or trained as social workers, but they are being tasked with those objectives” (p. 2); “We wouldn’t have these challenges if we were able to get individuals with mental illness or addiction access to services” (p. 2); and “We can’t arrest our way out of these problems” (p. 2).  These soundbites illustrate the shared frustration that police officers have with the current methods of community safety and their desire to see systemic changes that would allow for a more equitable, sustainable, and better resourced response to public safety.

Cities like Cleveland Heights, which sits adjacent to University Circle, and Shaker Heights want to combat the kinds of stark statistics reported by Armstrong (2020) by re-thinking the function of police in their communities.  Both city plans reflect concerns expressed by law enforcement in Vermeer et al. (2020).  Both city plans aim to resolve issues around public safety in a way that best responds to community concerns and a redefinition of best practices.

Alternatives and Criteria

While both Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights should be commended for their swift response to their communities’ concerns, there are still opportunities for improvement even in this planning stage.  While the Cleveland Heights plan addresses the significant issue of implicit bias, it calls for one round of training (five sessions, each eight hours over an undefined period of time) with no requirement or even suggestion of continuing education beyond statistical data to be collected by Cleveland State.  The Shaker Heights plan smartly incorporates mental health workers to handle calls better suited to their expertise but fails to acknowledge the racial component of policing and public safety.  Without meaningful engagement of the Critical Race Theory lens, that pivotal element might be avoided, overlooked, or discredited as being the crucial factor that it is.

The most glaring issue in both of these cities’ attempts to rethink their public safety plan is that they both focus only on their law enforcement agencies.  The neglected truth is that police are merely one aspect of public safety (Obasogie and Newman, 2019).  For public safety policy to be truly sustainable, it will need to encompass the entire community, from institutions to residents and everyone in between. Sometimes these alternative options are as simple as taking the time to get to know the people in the neighborhood so that if someone is playing their music too loudly, for example, the resolution could be a simple phone call or knock on the door to ask that the music be turned down.  For most non-violent issues, having conflict-resolution skills can begin with simple familiarity with the people who live in or frequent the neighborhood.  If the issue is greater than a nuisance, there are also mediation services offered at places like the Cleveland Mediation Center that are free for residents to access (Cleveland Mediation Center, 2021).  With greater awareness of these options, the reliance on calling 911 for non-violent situations might lessen.  The added benefit, too, is an increased sense of community and community empowerment for enacting change themselves without relying on the system to resolve their issues.  

As this paper is being written, the trial unfolds in real time for Derek Chauvin, the police officer who held George Floyd against the pavement with the weight of his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and thirty seconds, resulting in Mr. Floyd’s death.  News reports indicate that a recent case witness, Christopher Martin, the cashier who called the police in the first place, grieves.  Martin decided to call 911 after Mr. Floyd paid for a purchase in Cup Foods, the convenience store where he worked, with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.  In his testimony, Martin recounts how he initially thought he might simply cover Mr. Floyd’s purchase with his own personal money but after consulting with the store management, decided to involve law enforcement.  Chappell (2021) reports, “Surveillance video shows Martin clasping his hands on top of his head as he looked on from the sidewalk. When asked what he was thinking at the time, he replied, ‘If I would have just not took the bill, this could have been avoided’” (para. 6).  Certainly in this instance, calling 911 and involving law enforcement escalated far beyond Martin’s expectations.  The recognition that alternative solutions could have prevented Mr. Floyd’s murder-by-police is a chilling and heartbreaking aspect of this story.

The methods for this broader grassroots-level sense of safety in the community must go beyond simply knowing the people in the neighborhood or being willing to have a conversation about the issue at hand -- certainly, that was Martin’s approach with Mr. Floyd at first, asking him to provide sufficient payment.  It was when that didn’t work that Martin called the police.  If he had access to more conflict resolution skills -- or knowledge of someone in the neighborhood who had such training -- that may have prevented a tragedy.  

While there are a variety of options for this sort of training and community building, one such model is Foundations of Community Building (FCB), a program run by The Community Innovation Network (CIN) in Cleveland, Ohio (Community Innovation Network, 2021).  FCB participants are intentionally chosen as an even balance of residents, community-based organizations, and larger institutions from in and around University Circle.  The group meets about once a month over an extended period of time to do five intensive workshops around breaking down power dynamic barriers, trust-building, asset-based (instead of deficit-based) thinking, conflict resolution, and more.  While FCB isn’t geared specifically towards community safety, past program participants have included area law enforcement leadership as well as institutional leadership who influences public safety messaging in the area.  CIN is a researched-based nonprofit who is currently studying the findings from their first two cohorts to measure the impact of the program on participants' sense of belonging and the possibility of power-sharing between residents and institutions.  Perhaps the FCB model will emerge as a groundbreaking way to approach many different neighborhood-level issues, including public safety.  Certainly, the potential is massive.

What this means in terms of current public safety policy is that programs like the ones Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights are pursuing are excellent beginnings that have the promise of resulting in productive change.  The missing link in the current dialogue, however, is how to widen the frame to view public safety as more than a law enforcement issue and find a way to encompass the multitude of other factors that contribute to conflict resolution in non-violent situations.

Project the Outcomes

There are many different ways to approach the evaluation of public safety policy.  In the case of Cleveland Heights’ plan, data analysis to be conducted by Cleveland State is part of their proposal (Cleveland State University Diversity Institute, 2020).  While it appears that they will largely study quantitative data, incorporating qualitative data may be even more compelling.  Numbers and survey responses are certainly valuable but being able to hear individual stories and responses to the training and the application of implicit bias training to the work law enforcement is doing in the field may better inform how officers are (or are not) shifting the approach to their work as a result of this additional training.

Shaker Heights used quite a bit of data analysis to arrive at their pilot program proposal and outlined several bullet points to measure success, such as reduction of 911 calls, increasing participation by mental health agencies, seeing EMT and law enforcement members go through crisis intervention training, and more (Weiss et al., 2021).  Similar to the Cleveland Heights plan, these measurements are largely quantitative data points, which are meaningful, but incorporating qualitative data would only enrich the evaluation process more.

While both of these new public safety policy directions are exciting and stand to pave the way for sustainable change, sight must not be lost on the big picture, too.  As programs like FCB continue to gain steam and generate the same kinds of usable data points as the public safety policies proposed by Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, a broader understanding of alternatives to reliance on the police to handle non-violent neighborhood issues can begin to inform the direction of this important conversation.  

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APPENDIX A: City of Cleveland Heights Proposal

APPENDIX B: City of Shaker Heights Proposal

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Reference

Anderson, C. (2016). White rage: The unspoken truth of our racial divide. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Armstrong, D. (2020). The startling research and disparate impact of Cleveland Clinic’s private police force. ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/what-trump-and-biden-should-debate-at-the-cleveland-clinic-why-the-hospitals-private-police-mostly-arrest-black-people

Ba, B. A., Knox, D., Mummolo, J., & Rivera, R. (2021). The role of officer race and gender in police-civilian interactions in Chicago. Science, 371(6530), 696-702.

Cleveland Mediation Center (2021). Mediation Services. https://www.clevelandmediation.org/community-mediation

Chappel, B. (2021). Cashier Says He Offered To Pay After Realizing Floyd's $20 Bill Was Fake. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/trial-over-killing-of-george-floyd/2021/03/31/983089623/watch-live-cashier-says-he-offered-to-pay-after-realizing-floyds-20-bill-was-fak

Cleveland State University Diversity Institute (2020). Memorandum: Training, Policy Analysis, Data Collection and Community Engagement Proposal for the Cleveland Heights Police Department. https://www.clevelandheights.com/DocumentCenter/View/8540/080320-CH-Police-Training-and-Assessment-Proposal

Community Innovation Network (2021).  Foundations of Community Building.  Case Western Reserve University. https://case.edu/socialwork/communityinnovation/community-building/foundations-community-building

Higgs, R. (2020). Cleveland City Council declares racism a public health crisis, launching community-wide effort to tackle inequities. Cleveland.com.  https://www.cleveland.com/cityhall/2020/06/cleveland-city-council-declares-racism-a-public-health-crisis-launching-community-wide-effort-to-tackle-inequities.html

Kahn, J. (2018). OBSCURING POWER. In Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice (pp. 129-152). NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. 

Obasogie, O., & Newman, Z. (2019). CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION WITHOUT JUDGES: POLICE VIOLENCE, EXCESSIVE FORCE, AND REMAKING THE FOURTH AMENDMENT. Virginia Law Review, 105(2), 425-448. 

Sakala, L., & La Vigne, N. (2019). Community-Driven Models for Safety and Justice. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 16(1), 253-266.

Subramanian, R., Eisen, L. B., Merkl, T., Arzy, L., Stroud, H., King, T., ... & Nahra, A. A Federal Agenda for Criminal Justice Reform.

Vermeer, M. J., Woods, D., & Jackson, B. A. (2020). Would law enforcement leaders support defunding the police? Probably - if communities ask police to solve fewer problems. RAND Corporation 2020.

Weier, S. (2014). Consider Afro-Pessimism. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 59(3), 419-433.

Weiss, D.E., Chaiken, J.E., DeMuth, J., Sweeney, P. (2021). Memorandum: Recommendation for a Shaker Heights Crisis Response Pilot Program. 


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This essay was written as part of my MSSA studies at Case Western Reserve University


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