Community Conversation on Police Relations: Still Searching for Real Communication and Civic Truth

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click to enlarge Pastor Larry D. Tatum attempts to calm the crowd. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Pastor Larry D. Tatum attempts to calm the crowd.
Last night's "community conversation" on the U.S. Department of Justice report and Cleveland police community relations writ large didn't come off as a dialogue initially so much as a skirmish between perennially opposed perspectives on what happened Nov. 22, 2014, at Cudell Rec Center. Despite a meaningful Q&A session later in the evening, it was clear that the sense of communication demanded over the past three months has yet to blossom in Cleveland.

The event, organized by City Councilman Zack Reed and leaders of New Sardis Primitive Baptist Church on East 147th Street, was stilted and farcical for most of the first hour. After starting late, Reed announced that the conversation wouldn't last for more than an hour ("Those who like to see Empire — we're gonna see Empire tonight," Reed said, referring to what Wikipedia claims is "an American musical drama television series"). From there, the four panelists introduced themselves at length and answered questions. 

In attendance onstage: Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association; Brian Betley, president of the Fraternal Order of Police; Lynn Hampton, president of the Black Shield Police Association; and Cesar Herrera, president of the Hispanic Police Officers Association. Loomis and Betley traipsed about verbally, spouting the department line, while both Hampton and Herrera used their time to at least advocate for a broader and deeper "community policing" model and more stringent education and training requirements, especially for younger officers.

click to enlarge Loomis speaks to the crowd. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Loomis speaks to the crowd.
"I'm not gonna sit up here and deny that driving while black is an issue," Hampton said, conceding to the audience's cries that there is a fundamental difference in how the police department interacts with the black population of Cleveland when compared to other groups. Yawps of "137 shots!" rang through the crowd as attendees began shouting down the speakers. The mood ebbed and flowed like so throughout the night, building to fairly aggressive notes as the evening went on. "Din" was one word that came to mind.

Repeated calls for order came from both Reed and Pastor Larry D. Tatum. "I know y'all don't want me to call the police tonight," Tatum joked half-seriously.

Still, as the police representatives — and Loomis, in particular — continued to deny excessive use of force claims from the DOJ report and insist that the handling of the Tamir Rice case was copacetic, the crowd turned on the event itself, revealing the show for what it truly was: theater. There has yet to be any real intent from city leaders to lead Cleveland into communication and glean real solutions as to how to reform a police department that they won't recognize as out-of-control. Have you attended one of City Council's "listening tour" events?

According to the DOJ, "the trust between the Cleveland Division of Police and many of the communities it serves is broken.” No legitimate counterclaims were offered last night. The predominant theme from police reps was that the "perception" of use of force being pitched by members of the public and the media and the DOJ doesn't square with "reality" as the department sees it — which is an odd framework, given what Cleveland knows historically and given our current set of facts. 

Reed relayed questions from the audience, such as: "What's being done to foster the relationship between police and our youth?" Loomis responded simply: "Nothing. And that's tragic." No follow-up there. There were hints that the department would pursue reform through the impending consent decree with the DOJ, but no specifics were provided. Loomis did say that one point being discussed in the consent decree negotiations is a six-week increase in the police academy requirements to instill further communication skills in cadets. Along with other concessions of a need for change throughout the night, that one drew murmurs of approval from the audience. 

Loomis also repeatedly called for "200 more officers," saying the increase is necessary at this point, but he was never clear on where the funding for that would come from.

When questioned about the specific jobs police officers must carry out — public safety and service, sacrifice — and the different standards they must be held to, Betley fell back on the tired line that officers make "mistakes out there" and have "bad days." He added: "They should be disciplined if [crimes are] happening." And that's all true, to a point. But the lack of real consequence, whether for Timothy Loehmann thus far or the dozens of officers involved in the Nov. 29, 2012, police chase and shootout (save for Michael Brelo and a handful of supervisors) says otherwise. $10 million in settled civil suits with victims of excessive use of force since 2004 says something, too. 

As the clock limped toward 8:30 p.m., Tatum rallied the room — demanding peace and quiet, screaming into his mic before dropping into prayer. He wept onstage. "God, help us to do our part," he said amid tears.

Reed left, surely to watch Empire, as did some two-thirds of the night's attendees. The rest of the night involved questions directed at Loomis, for the most part, and a small conversation took place. Tamir Rice's aunt, Michelle Thomas, asked Loomis what to make of the fact that Tamir is gone and the officers on the scene played such a direct role in his death (via shooting and then failing to administer aid in time). Loomis repeated that the whole thing was a tragedy, but continued to fall back on his insistence that officers would have handled the event the same way were something like that to unfold again.

Earlier in the day, Ricky Jackson spoke at the City Club. When asked how race relations in Cleveland varied from 1975 — the year he entered prison — to the present, he said that nothing had really changed. "Communication," he said, is what the city needs right now. Based on the past three months, last night included, we're still searching for that.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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