Shooting Match

A long-running feud between the mayor and the police heads for a showdown.

Share on Nextdoor
A few weeks ago, former Cleveland Police Chief Edward Kovacic flipped on the television news and saw three hundred police officers gathered in protest, wearing scowls, their arms crossed in defiance. The years rolled back.

If it were three decades earlier, he thought, he would have seen a younger version of himself in the grim-looking crowd at the Justice Center. Police officers had many of the same problems in his patrolman days: decrepit cars, faulty equipment, low pay. Kovacic chuckles as he recalls driving cars for the Cleveland Police Department that should never have been allowed on the public streets—cars with steering wheels that would come right out of the column whenever he hit a bump.

"Let me tell you how discouraging it was," he says. "If I had stopped myself in one of those cars, I would have had it towed immediately."

While the issues have not changed much, there is one glaring difference between the rallies of Kovacic's day and the June 3 protest: Mayor Michael White.

The dynamic, sharp-spoken mayor never appeared at the rally, but he was there in the rants of angry off-duty police officers wearing windbreakers and baseball hats, carrying signs that read "Mayor White: Soft on Crime. Hard on Cops," and "Mike White Unfair to Labor Again!!" In many ways, their leader, Robert Beck, the gruff, resolute president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, is like White—obstinate and domineering, a formidable adversary. Beck railed about low pay and unreliable equipment, but it was clear the rally was another attempt to draw White out onto the battlefield of public opinion.

Into a shiny red megaphone, Beck barked, "I believe we don't have any confidence in this mayor. Is that correct?" The officers responded with an emphatic "Yeah!"

The rally got White's attention—just not the kind of attention the police wanted. The mayor countered their attacks at a press conference later that day in the Red Room, where he accused the union—and by implication, Beck—of fabricating almost every complaint. He dismissed the charges made at the rally as sour grapes on the part of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, which recently lost an arbitration battle over a pay increase.

The mayor may have succeeded in allaying the public's fears. But his words did nothing to sway city patrol officers, many of whom have racked up a good deal of anecdotal evidence to support their claims. In fact, White's dismissive attitude only fueled their dissension.

"We are going to do more rallies," Beck vows. "We're going to be more aggressive in our public sightings of our grievances until we get someone to stand up and help us and repair these problems."

While such improvements would certainly help, it's obvious that new police cars and a better radio communication system aren't going to solve the police union's problems. Patrol officers in Cleveland know that they are paid less and hurt more than their counterparts in every other big city in the state. But even that is not the root of their dissatisfaction. The current issues mask a deeper ill within the department, one that has worsened in the last decade and may pose a greater threat to the public safety than beat-up cars and moderately unreliable equipment: a strained, increasingly polarized relationship with the mayor.

This is what the rally was all about, not cars or pay. It was an uprising. A revolt. A public display of resistance to a mayor who won't listen to the police, a mayor who sloughs off their concerns, a mayor who they believe has oppressed them by politicizing and micromanaging their department. Equally resolute, the White Administration denies these claims and accuses the union leadership of choosing controversy over negotiation.

Neither the mayor nor the union can take all the blame for the torrid state of police relations with City Hall. Both are guilty of resurrecting old battles instead of working toward peace and compromise. The union has worsened things by fostering a view of the mayor as anti-police. And that view is intensified by the mayor himself, who fights it in the public arena but does little to buoy his image within the department.

White has given police officers plenty of reasons to distrust him. In the last nine years, he has continually undermined police leadership, publicly downplayed officers' concerns, and issued decisions that have hit police officers where it hurts most: their pride and their wallets.

This time he may have pushed things too far.

"This gathering at the Justice Center was unprecedented," says 22-year veteran Councilman Michael Polensek. "[Policemen] don't have that kind of turnout when they're voting for their officers. Their dissatisfaction is growing. What you saw were old guys, young guys, white guys, black people. In past times you'd only see older people. I saw a lot of black officers who historically had not taken a role.

"That showed me that there's some problems, some friction . . . It's deep and it's scary."

The War of Words

Several things contributed to the frustrations unleashed at the police rally last month, including what happened on May 25.

At precisely 11:32 a.m., the city's $43 million, state-of-the-art Motorola radio communication system crashed, halting all communication between officers and dispatchers for nearly eleven minutes, according to a memo from Motorola's Cleveland Service Center.

The administration still hasn't told the full truth about that day, say union leaders from both the CPPA and the Fraternal Order of Police, who have been collecting stories from officers on duty at the time. The FOP represents sergeants and higher-ranking officers.

"When the system came back on and they used their "Failsoft' software, everything was scrambled," Beck explains. "No one could hear each other. Dispatchers who thought they were transmitting on channel one were coming over different channels. No one could figure it out. It was complete chaos for two hours.

"Members of our executive board were out in the districts for over two hours because of the chaotic conditions that were out there. Cars were called off the streets because there was no communication, and they couldn't figure it out. So for the mayor to say it was only down for five minutes, he's being disingenuous. He was right in that it was the first time it ever totally failed, but there have been instances dating back over the last year and a half, periodically, when certain channels failed. So I think they saw this coming. They just don't want to admit it."

One police officer in Slavic Village had just spotted a car he suspected was stolen. A couple of teenagers were inside, smoking what looked like marijuana. It's standard for officers to check license plate numbers before approaching drivers in such situations, but the system failed before the officer could complete the check. When his radio started working again, he heard fire engines coming through the channel that he was using to talk to the dispatcher.

During the confusion, the kids in the car drove away.

"This happens to me all the time," the officer says. "What if the computer goes down and you can't get information about someone? For all you know, he could be an attempted murderer. You'd never know."

Most of the boys in blue can rattle off a number of other things that make them see red:

Earning a maximum of $42,119 a year, Cleveland patrolmen know that they make $2,000 to $5,000 less than their counterparts in other big cities in the state.

Patrolmen feel as if the city is cheating them out of overtime compensation, as evinced by the federal lawsuit 35 of them filed in May, charging the city with violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Thanks to the recent directive White issued to cut down on overtime in nine departments, including police, things are likely to get worse.

Officers are filing more labor grievances and seeing fewer settlements. So far this year, only three out of fifty were settled, which means that most will drag out into arbitration. In comparison, the CPPA filed 54 grievances total in all of 1997 and settled nine.

Car problems are a constant issue for officers. Just under one-third of the fleet is older than six years. According to a 1998 police department memo provided by the CPPA, 12 percent of marked patrol cars and 20 percent of unmarked cars were older than nine years.

At his press conference after the rally, the mayor gave no merit to the union's claims. He told the public that the police were wrong, and that the rally was motivated by a lost arbitration over a wage increase. White assured officers that they have all the tools necessary to do their jobs—as if they don't know a deficient radio system or a deteriorated patrol car, as if they rally on their off-time because they have nothing better to do, as if they don't know just how good they have it. It was a condescending posture that did not sit well with the rank and file.

"You go to work, you bust your butt, the equipment sucks, and you get paid nothing," says one young officer, boiling it down.

While the mayor's cold, disdainful response to such impassioned complaints has further inflamed union tempers, it seems to have stifled public concern about police labor woes for the moment. There has been little follow-up from the media and almost no political pressure from city council or other community leaders. And why should the public be concerned? The crime statistics touted by the White Administration show that crime is down by 25 percent and more cops are on the street. In other words, police officers are performing well, so the public need not worry itself about police union concerns.

Most of the complaints—about the radio communication system, the cars, and the "low-priority" status assigned to police complaints—the administration disagrees with factually. Information issued by the mayor's office after the rally revealed the following:

The police department's radio communication system has been operational since 1994 and has had only one system-wide failure. The administration maintains that the backup system restored communication within minutes.

The city has replaced 68 percent of its fleet of police cars over the past six years. It added 89 new cars this year and has ordered thirty more.

The White Administration has also added 156 officers to the force and 312 to the street. Public Safety Director Henry Guzman says he suspects the more nebulous complaints—low morale, for instance—are also false. Of the 1,843 officers in the police department, only three hundred came to the rally at the Justice Center four weeks ago. Guzman says the demonstration convinced him of nothing more than Beck's popularity.

"Beck has been union president for a long time," Guzman says. "He's doing his job."

The Mayor's Foot Soldiers

The meeting of city council's public safety committee starts characteristically late. Because it's been less than a week since the rally, some media people have actually bothered to attend.

They are disappointed. During the first two hours, the discussion drifts to some mundane police matters—among them, the issue of whether police cars should be equipped with spare tires—but there's little excitement. Guzman sits at the table confidently, answering every question thrown his way—even the mildly challenging ones from Vice Chairman Joe Zone.

When Zone mentions that some patrol officers have voiced complaints to him, Guzman shoots back, "My primary concern is that I'm hearing this through the airwaves. Nobody's come to me."

Nobody's come to the meeting either, even though one of the union's key issues—overtime—is on the agenda.

Beck says he used to go to public safety meetings. He keeps the reason he doesn't anymore in an oversized brown envelope in a corner of his cluttered office. Earlier this year, Beck was fighting a decision by the White Administration to discontinue "live-fire training" as a part of the in-service police training regimen. Beck says the training, which involves officers shooting live ammunition in an indoor training facility, was popular with police officers and helped them hone their shooting skills. The union was able to collect enough money to keep the facility open whenever enough volunteers were available to staff it. That, however, isn't often. So Beck asked city council members to pressure the mayor to require the training. Instead, they gave him a resolution honoring the CPPA.

"That was appreciated, believe me," Beck says. "However, no one called the mayor. No one called the chief and said, "Let's get it done and get it back on the annual.' They allocated more training funds, but the curriculum didn't change. So I don't consider that much help. You can see why I'm not eager to run over to council and sit through a safety committee meeting."

No matter how logical his argument, there's no question that more communication between the union and the council would make everyone take police gripes more seriously. Councilman Polensek, former chair of the public safety committee, notes that the committee is less powerful than it was when he was running it. But he still thinks the unions ought to attend its meetings.

"If you're having problems with the radios, if you're having problems with cars, why aren't you coming to the committee hearings to say, "Hey, we have a problem'?" asks Polensek, who was unseated in 1997 after spearheading a failed coup to oust Council President Jay Westbrook. "Some people feel coming to the safety committee is a waste of time. Still, you need to go through the step, or it reinforces that there's no problem."

Beck has sent one letter to council recently. It is a plea to help patrol officers earn an extra $500 per year in addition to the city's agreed-upon 10 percent raise over three years. The union's case was strong enough to prompt an arbitrator to conclude that "Cleveland stands dead last among major cities in Ohio as regards wages paid to its patrol officers," and "The wage differential between the FOP unit [the promoted officers] and the patrol officers in this bargaining unit is 16 percent, by far the highest among major cities used as a basis of comparison."

But in the end the city prevailed. The arbitrator ruled that the pay raises received by police were fair and reasonable, taking the city's resources into account. Allowing a $500 yearly allowance for the patrol officers would have set a costly precedent for other city workers, whose contracts are also decided through collective bargaining and who also received standard raises.

In his April 27 letter to council members, Beck suggested that council could pass an ordinance for "catch-up" pay for patrol officers, as it did in 1986.

"Arbitrator Elliott Goldstein said that "Cleveland patrol officers are, in fact, more productive than their downstate comparables,' and "that when there is a comparison of productivity between this city and the four other major Ohio cities, Cleveland patrol officers are by far the most productive in this comparison pool,'" Beck wrote. "At the same time, they are assaulted and murdered at a higher rate than any other police agency in this state and even the Midwest region of this country. They, more than anyone else, deserve to be paid at least comparable with their peers from other cities."

Beck says only one council member, Zone, responded to the letter. Polensek says that council members are reluctant to get involved with police pay issues, since those are set by collective bargaining. But Beck blames council members' silence on the mayor.

"I don't want to start a war with council," he says. "Everybody knows the difficulties that council's had with the mayor. This is a long-standing problem. They always end up doing what the mayor wants."

Which makes communication with the administration even more important. But the two sides remain fixed across a hostile gulf, with the administration unwilling even to admit there are problems. Beck insists that the mayor knows what the union wants. He says Guzman knows as well, because he hears their grievances.

Incredibly, in a recent interview, Guzman insists repeatedly that he has just learned of the CPPA's concerns through the media—which is to say, about the same time as everyone else in town. Like council members, he wants to know why, if things are now as bad as Beck says they are, the union hadn't come to him earlier.

"I have not received one letter," Guzman insists, his voice rising. "I haven't received one letter from the president of the union to me with a list of all their issues and concerns ... I can't address concerns I'm not aware of."

A Decade of Strife

Contempt for the mayor is endemic among police officers, many of whom remember the department prior to White and resent him for the changes he's made. While White has attempted to modernize an old-school police department with concepts like "community policing" and "citizen control," the transition hasn't been a graceful one for officers. In the name of reform, White has vowed to cut down on police overtime and orchestrated a constant game of musical chairs with the department's top brass. Newcomers to the force soon adopt the disdain for the mayor exhibited by their older counterparts. They quickly learn that he is an easy scapegoat for their problems.

Such is the case with one young officer, who didn't want to give his name for fear of disciplinary action. On the force only a few years, he's never personally met Bob Beck. But his feelings about the seasoned union leader border on reverence. Certainly, the young officer's complaints have a familiar ring. So does the hostility in his voice when he talks about the mayor.

"It's all about that little twerp at 601 Lakeside," he says. "I've heard stories about him. I heard that, when he came into office, he wanted to make life miserable for police."

Although the mayor has enjoyed support from the Black Shield Police Association, an organization of black officers, he's never had many other fans in the police department. The CPPA supported George Forbes, White's opponent for mayor in 1989. Beck's predecessor, Karl Bort, reportedly obtained confidential police information about White from the Columbus Police Department and attempted to use it to damage his campaign. Strife between the mayor and the union continued after Beck took over and has flared up periodically over the years.

In a Plain Dealer editorial in 1997, Beck explained why the union had endorsed Councilwoman Helen Smith over White in his reelection campaign.

"He has shown himself to be disdainful of our members and of the CPPA's labor agreement with the city, supporting us only when it is to his political advantage," Beck wrote.

The unions rarely admit to the other motivation behind the mayor's reforms—his conviction that they would benefit the city. Certainly, some of the changes he's made have been positive ones. The mayor's attempt to cut down on police overtime, for example. Flask says the department spends an average of $8 million a year on overtime for uniformed patrol officers. That's $8 million that could go toward new equipment and other improvements, Guzman notes.

Still, the unions don't see it that way—not when police officers are afflicted with the side effects of White's bad medicine.

"It's like police are at the bottom of the totem pole," says FOP President Joseph Musarra, who keeps in his office a framed Downtown Tab cover depicting the mayor as Napoleon. "We've had mayors in the city who thought much more highly of our police than this mayor [does]."

In fact, many cops privately believe that White has a personal bias against police officers. Several years ago, it was reported that White had been detained by police a number of times in his life. When he was an Ohio State University student, he was arrested at a civil rights demonstration. In the '80s, while White was a city councilman, he was helping to direct traffic at a fire when a patrolman verbally abused him and locked him in a squad car. The officer was later disciplined.

Although the notion that the mayor of Cleveland would compromise the city's safety because of a few unfortunate personal experiences with cops seems highly unlikely, these stories carry considerable sway with the typical patrol officer on the street, who is constantly irritated by faulty equipment and low pay.

"There's a feeling among police officers, whether it's true or not, that the mayor is anti-police and probably could care less if they lived or died," Kovacic says. "I feel that is extreme, and I don't feel it's true. But the mayor has to do more to give police officers reasons why it isn't true."

As far as the administration's concerned, the mayor's doing all he can. It burns Guzman to hear that police officers think the mayor doesn't care about them.

"I can say without equivocation that the police department is a very high priority of this administration," Guzman says. "The other day I was in a meeting with the mayor, and he said, "Director, speak with the chief and see if there are things out there that can help our people on the street'—our foot soldiers, he calls them. Where this is coming from is just stuff that's thrown out there, and there's no validity to it." The mayor was out of town on vacation last week and did not respond to requests for comment.

The unions' claims do sometimes seem contradictory. In one breath they will claim the mayor doesn't care about them; in the next, they will blame him for micromanaging the department. As evidence, they point to the way promotions are used to install people loyal to the mayor in positions of power. That loyalty counts more than experience or qualifications, the unions claim. And that means the department is being run by a command staff that will defer to the mayor on most issues.

"We believe the mayor is making every decision in this city," Musarra says. "He doesn't have a peon working for him who can make a decision."

Apparently that goes for media requests, too. A request to ride along with police officers for this story and see their problems firsthand drew a response from Police Chief Martin Flask, saying that he "didn't have a problem with it." But then the request had to be approved by Guzman—after being reviewed by the city law department. After several days, a city lawyer made a recommendation to the chief, whose spokesman indicated that he would once again have to discuss it with Guzman. Finally, White's press secretary, Nancy Lesic, called to say the request was denied.

In most major cities, media ride-alongs are routine and generally welcomed by police officers. In fact, an entire TV series has been built on ride-alongs, and COPS once rode with Cleveland police. But White always denies media requests now, according to Lesic, as a matter of unwritten policy, because ride-alongs distract officers from their jobs.

The unspoken reason the police chief cannot act independently on matters as small as a media request for a ride-along is that he, in addition to his top brass from commander up, is appointed by the mayor. It's been that way since voters brought those positions under former Mayor George Voinovich's control in the mid-'80s. Kovacic, who was chief from 1990 to 1993, says the push for the change in the city charter wasn't really about bringing the police department under civilian control.

"They wanted political control," Kovacic says, "not civilian control."

As far as promotions go, Kovacic didn't always think White wanted to appoint the most qualified person in accordance with his recommendations. But he found the mayor eager to discuss his choices every time.

"When I was chief, I would interview people [for promotions], send them to the mayor, and the mayor would get back to me through the safety director," he says. "Then I would argue and fight with him over who would be appointed. Every time we compromised."

The Trusty Megaphone

Despite his history of antagonizing the mayor, Beck gives the impression that he's got the best interests of his patrolmen at heart. After nine years at the helm, he knows how to rattle the White Administration. When the pen fails, break out the megaphone.

Last month's rally had a few noticeable results. In addition to much-needed exposure, Beck says the rally pressured the city to rush more of its new patrol cars out of the city garage and onto the street. Beck says subsequent rallies will occur throughout the summer at times and places where they will be most unwelcome by the administration.

It's likely they will be bigger and bolder, too. The merit of the issues notwithstanding, Beck has the confidence of the patrolmen weighing in his favor. It seems as if they're his "foot soldiers" more than the mayor's.

"Bob Beck is not the crude, uneducated person much of the media would have us believe," Kovacic says. "He is a very intelligent man. He represents the feelings of the department."

He is also, in a sense, the only stable leader patrol officers have had throughout much of White's reign. Since White dislodged Kovacic in 1993, the police department has seen four chiefs and a smaller parade of interim chiefs. The constant turnover at the top has further compromised the already unstable relationship with the police that White had when he first took office.

"What happens is, the average police officer develops an understanding that this guy [the chief] isn't going to be around long, and they begin to feel a vacuum of leadership at the top," Kovacic says. "The union comes forward as the only one the police officers can look to for the stability they need to function. So police officers become more militant in their approach. In a large measure, some of the things surfacing now are due to the constant change in leadership."

Given their histories, it's unlikely that either White or Beck will back off. With two people that steadfast at the forefront of this ongoing debate, there's little room for compromise. Kovacic harbors strong hope that Flask, who's only been at the helm since January, will be the chief that bucks the trend—the one who can stick around long enough to ease the tension between the mayor and the CPPA.

Flask has a reputation for being a tough, smart lawman. However, in a joint interview with Guzman after the rally, the safety director dominates the discussion. Throughout Guzman's repeated assertions that the mayor is right and the union is wrong, Flask says little and seems reflective. Obviously, the rally troubles him. He finds the issue of morale especially bothersome.

"Perhaps I look too closely at the bottom line," Flask finally says, with just a whiff of self-doubt. "I listen to the issue of low morale, but I look at the facts and I see a discrepancy."

It's not a full-fledged departure from White's strongly stated position, but it is a tiny crack in the administration's armor of denial. Someone at City Hall finally seems to be listening. It's the first sign from either side that there may be a middle ground to this debate—one on which the city, at last, may be willing to tread.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.