CLEVELAND — More than 200 demonstrators protesting the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice stormed the final City Council meeting of the year, demanding to be heard. And, in turn, the city’s employees walked out in a counterprotest.
Such are the tensions these days in Cleveland, which has endured years of contentious policing. Nearly two weeks after Tamir’s shooting, the Justice Department issued an unrelated but scathing report on policing in Cleveland, the second such intervention in the city in a decade. But even now, many in the community believe that key city officials, including the mayor and police chief, are in denial about just how deep the problems go.
As much of the nation, including President Obama, is focused on the racial chasm between police and African American communities, Cleveland stands as a stark example of the challenges ahead.
Across the country, both sides — police officials and the growing number of protesters — acknowledge that the divisions cannot be bridged without a level of mutual trust. But as Cleveland shows, the distrust between public officials and those calling for change can be profound.
“The city has been begging people to come out to council meetings, and then they come and you walk out of the room,” said Alonzo Mitchell, a well-known local activist who says he attends every council meeting. “I was disappointed.”
The City Hall protest Dec. 8 came just weeks after Tamir, who was black, was killed by a white police officer while playing with a BB gun in a park near his home. His death, captured on video, has joined a list of high-profile police shootings this year that have thrust the country into a roiling discussion about racial discrimination in the justice system.
The protesters were demanding the firing of the director of public safety and insisting on being included in talks about the reforms proposed in the federal review, which was released by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. himself. Activists and others say the walkout by public employees — staged in support of the safety director — underscored what is an us-against-them stance that they believe is displayed by city officials and police officers.
Mayor Frank G. Jackson has said that the Justice Department’s report has inaccuracies and that “there is trust” between the community and the police.
“We believe we have a problem in the Division of Police,” Jackson said. “We do not believe it is a systemic failure.”
The relatively new, energetic police chief, Calvin Williams, is trying to engage the community and has said his department has mostly good officers.
Few expect that anyone will be fired over Tamir’s shooting or the police problems.
The perspective of the mayor and police chief, who are both African American, puts them sharply at odds with the city, where 53 percent of residents are black. The overwhelming majority of its police force is white.
Still, against big odds, some say, many activists believe this time the city has its best chance to get relations right. They say, however, that it’s going to be a long road to recovery.
“The problems here are really, really complex,” said James Hardiman, a former president of the Cleveland NAACP. “The relationship is deeply strained, at best, and I don’t believe that enough has been done to create an environment in which the African American community trusts the police.”
He added: “Race is a factor, and . . . unless or until you address it on the front end, we’re destined to continue ignoring the realities of life in the city of Cleveland.”
Sitting in a cluttered office on the second floor of City Hall, City Council member Zack Reed points to a white poster board with the city’s 17 districts outlined and dozens of red pushpins inserted. Each red pin represents the location of a 2014 homicide. Council members get an e-mail each Monday tallying all homicides in the preceding week and telling them how the number compares with the corresponding week in each of the four years prior.
It’s a step, Reed says, toward ending the numbness that many in Cleveland, including members of the council, have toward the violence prevalent in some neighborhoods.
“It’s in the DNA of not only the residents, but also the police,” he said. “If we don’t change that mind-set . . . then we’re never going to fix this system.”
There were three slayings in the week before the last council meeting. Among them was the death of Amir Cotton, a 26-year-old black man who became the city’s 100th homicide for 2014. It’s the highest number of killings for the same period in any of the past five years. The milestone passed with little notice.
Police violence folds into all of that, Reed and others say. The roster of cases in which someone was killed by police or a local crime festered because no one called 911 is all too familiar.
In 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, two black residents, led police on a short chase. It began when the two drove past a police officer who believed a gun had been fired from the vehicle. The chase ended in a school parking lot.
Surrounded by officers, the two were killed in a hail of 137 bullets fired by 13 of the more than 100 officers involved in the chase.
One officer emptied two 16-bullet clips, reloaded a third time and then leapt onto the hood of the vehicle and fired bullets through the windshield.
Russell and Williams were unarmed. Their car had backfired.
The killings of Russell and Williams are known locally as “137 shots,” and community leaders say it is such cases that have stripped away what little trust remained between the community and the police.
“A lot of times, the officers begin to believe that the citizens of color are the enemy, and at this point many of them aren’t getting out of their cars to get to know them,” said James Copeland, a retired police commander who spent 27 years working in East Cleveland, a majority-black community that borders the city. “The departments aren’t representative of the community, so they don’t understand the community.”
The Justice Department concluded in its report that authorities have, in some parts of the city, abandoned the idea of community policing.
“During our tours, we additionally observed that neither command staff nor line officers were able to accurately or uniformly describe what community policing is,” the report declared in a section that several local elected officials suggested was the most damning of its conclusions.
“There are things that are wrong within the Cleveland Division of Police, and we will correct them. That is my pledge to everybody,” Chief Williams said during a community forum last week titled “Is Cleveland the Next Ferguson?”
Williams, who declined requests to be interviewed, has insisted that the bulk of his force is made up of good officers and that the problems come from a few bad apples.
“Tamir Rice should not have been shot,” he said, to applause from the crowd. “It is not Tamir Rice’s fault, but it is also not the fault of that officer,” Williams added, which then prompted jeers.
Several current and former law enforcement officials insist that it hasn’t always been this way — pointing to the 1990s, when Clinton administration grants for community policing increased the number of officers on foot and bike patrols in the neighborhoods. But that money dried up, and the local police departments were hit with layoffs and budget cuts as the economy tanked in the mid-2000s.
“You cannot protect and serve that which you do not know,” said Kyle Earley, an assistant pastor at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland. “We have to have officers from our community. Policing is a community thing.”
Compounding the perception of Cleveland police as an occupying force was the decision in 2009 by the Ohio Supreme Court to uphold legislation passed at the state level to overturn Cleveland’s “home rule” policy. Passed by voters in 1982, the policy had required police officers and firefighters, as well as other city employees, to reside within the city limits. For years, the police and firefighters unions griped and, once the provision was overturned by state Supreme Court, some officers left for the suburbs.
On the day of the announcement, the Plain Dealer newspaper reported, officers walked the halls of City Hall giving each other high-fives.
Despite the bleak reality in Cleveland, some see this as the moment to create real change.
For weeks, young activists have taken to the streets, and churches and community leaders have convened emergency meetings and forums to discuss solutions.
Four City Council members attended a “negotiation” session last week with local protest leaders and activists, held in the basement of a west-side bookstore that has been an organizing base.
“We are going to show that we as young black people in Cleveland are no longer going to allow these things to happen,” said Joe Worthy, 29, an activist and organizer.
Protesters have demanded the indictment of the officers involved in Tamir’s shooting, the creation of a new civilian review board and the firing of several top public safety officials. Some council members say they are now in support, too. Other city leaders have vowed to give the protest groups a seat at the table when department reforms are discussed.
Earlier in the day, Jackson, the mayor, gathered reporters at City Hall to discuss ongoing negotiations of a consent decree, the result of the Justice Department report. He reiterated his position about inaccuracies in the report but offered no examples, even when pressed.
Some hope a federal monitor will ensure policy changes. Also, Gov. John Kasich (R) and Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) have convened a task force to examine policing practices, and legislators have introduced a bill to change the packaging and appearance of toy guns.
“America is at a crossroads as it relates to police-community relations. . . . The whole country and the world is watching,” said state Rep. Alicia Reece (D), who introduced the toy-gun bill.
Reece was a City Council member and vice mayor in Cincinnati and was involved in negotiating with federal officials after that city received its own damning Justice Department policing probe in the early 2000s.
Change, she said, “entails a commitment to action.”
Skeptics like to recall that after the Justice Department’s 2004 report, things improved in Cleveland for a while but worsened once the federal government stopped paying attention.
This time will be different, say the determined ones.
“It’s time for us all to wake up,” said council member Reed as he placed his poster board behind his desk at City Hall. “We’ve all got to wake up.”