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Cleveland Heights moves forward with dialogue on race, police, privilege

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- The community dialogue on racism, police and the Black Lives Matter movement officially commenced last week, with two separate forums held.

Both were in response to the June 3 Protest for Peace that included a march around Severance Circle to City Hall, followed by the June 14 March for a Safer Heights in Coventry Village.

Each of those events drew more than 500 people seeking reforms after the most recent deaths of Blacks elsewhere at the hands of law enforcement.

City Manager Tanisha Briley and Police Chief Annette Mecklenburg took part in the first demonstration and convened a special “Meet Your Police Forum” on June 25. More than 100 residents tuned in to the online 90-minute “webinar.”

Briley noted that while the format may not have been optimum, it was necessary amid the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency that has closed City Hall.

“This was an important community conversation that we plan to continue,” Briley said afterward in a news release from the city. The city had received about 50 questions submitted in advance, with many more presented through the “chat” function.

All questions and answers will be posted to the CHPD website, with the next virtual Meet Your Police to be held on Thursday (July 2).

City Council is expected to pass a “social justice and police reform” resolution on July 6 “condemning the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, declaring racism a public health crisis and expressing support for statewide legislation to combat racism and implement best police practices to address racial bias and improve police-community relations.”


'You Talk, I Listen'


Councilwoman Davida Russell, who also participated in the protests, saw a chance to incorporate a "Young Adult Town Hall Meeting" into the community forums she created after winning in the November election, helping to provide a community "voice and platform for change."

Calling the original programs “You Talk, I Listen,” Russell did just that on Saturday (June 27) at the Front Stage Metroplex -- the former Regal Cinemas at Severance Town Center -- starting with owner Solomon Doibo, as well as Avery LaMar Pope, one of the Protest for Peace organizers.

Plans formed for a socially distanced event that brought about 50 people to one of the theaters, thanks not only to Doibo, but also a donation from the MetroHealth System, event spokeswoman Barbara Danforth noted in a press release.


"With change comes responsibility," Russell said at the outset, noting earlier how impressed she was with the "mature thinking and careful planning" by the potential agents of change in shifting from protest to policy.

“And change does not happen overnight -- it’s a slow process that takes endurance, focus and dedication,” she said.

Russell also encouraged "voting in every election" and filling out the U.S. Census, before turning a repeatedly sanitized microphone over to the youth in attendance.

Pope, a senior at Ohio University and a Lutheran East High School graduate, spoke of the need for patience in order to “demand and establish real and tangible change in a way that is conducive to safety.”

Along those lines, his older brother, Drew Pope -- another one of the half-dozen hosts for the youth town hall series -- rolled up his sleeve to show a wound on his arm that he said he got from a rubber bullet during the May 30 protests in downtown Cleveland.

Security film obtained last week from outside the Justice Center indicates that the worst violence from the public occurred in the aftermath of police firing less-lethal munitions at the crowd, including pepper balls, pepper spray and tear gas.

“I still have a tear gas canister that was thrown in my direction that day as well,” Avery Pope added.

Some in the audience on Saturday felt that Cleveland Heights police had overreacted to a gathering in Coventry of a dozen peaceful protesters at most on May 31 -- the day after the riots in downtown Cleveland.

Businesses, malls and shopping centers were also shut down early on May 31 in University Heights, Beachwood and Lyndhurst in response to perceived threats on social media.

'Armed customer service'

Also in attendance at the Front Stage youth forum on Saturday were representatives from the Safer Heights organization, some of whom spoke further about the issues and frustrations in the community about police, referred to at several points as "armed customer service" for whites.

The discussion had opened with a short film explaining the concept of “white privilege” a less overt but even more prevalent offshoot of racism that begins with underlying perceptions and takes over from there into a starker reality for minorities.

Organizers also recommended the 1989 essay entitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh with the Wellesley Centers for Women, who put together 50 conditions and observations on the subtleties of racism.

Among those taking notes Saturday was Heights High School graduate Yidiayah Box, another member of the team who began reviewing local police policies, contracts and transparencies in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota.

Box has been looking at use-of-force policies, as well as how “unbiased policing” is being guaranteed, and the possibility of “reshaping the way police officers are trained,” since Cleveland Heights runs a well-attended police academy.

A list of questions and concerns will be compiled and forwarded to Mecklenburg, with a followup forum tentatively scheduled for July 11.

Points of contention

Safer Heights has already advocated for the removal of police from Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools, although city officials maintain that the school resource officers are actually part of the overall community policing program.

While critics countered that police in the schools can create an “ominous environment” for students, some said they would like to see officers show up at community events such as youth baseball games.

Briley said the city has also made great strides with a juvenile court diversion program that aims at cutting down on repeat offenders with meaningful community service.

Mecklenburg said that in addition to bias-free policing, the department also uses "implicit bias training," which focuses on any tendencies for officers to resort to use of force without just provocation.

As one of the young attendees at Saturday’s forum said, “The onus is on them to not shoot us.”

Residents have also called for a specific prohibition on the use of chokeholds by police.

At the special “Meet Your Police” forum on June 25, Briley and Mecklenburg were joined by Ronnie Dunn, Cleveland State University’s chief diversity officer and associate professor of urban studies.

Dunn was involved in the formation of what is now the Ohio Collaborative Community Policing Advisory Board, which evolved from a statewide task force and provides certification to participating police agencies, including Cleveland Heights.

Mecklenburg noted that the collaborative requires that both race and gender data be reported on all traffic stops -- another concern of young Black drivers, who say they are already tired of “having to look in the rearview mirror all the time.”

Just the facts

For the record and as a possible reference point for future debates on “defunding the police,” Cleveland Heights spends about $10 million a year on its police force.

These were not the figures cited in the young adult audience on Saturday, which actually would have amounted to about five years’ worth of funding for the department.

The roughly $10 million annual expenditure for police -- slightly more than what's spent on the fire department -- works out to less than a quarter of the city's overall General Fund budget, which has averaged $45 million in recent years.

Mecklenburg noted that over the past 10 years, there have been two cases in the CHPD involving excessive force, resulting in both officers being fired.

As for the racial makeup of the police department, she said that out of roughly 105 officers, the force is 78 percent white and 21 percent Black, with one Asian-American officer.

In terms of outcomes on the street in dealings with the public, "they should always be the same -- that's what equity is," Briley said. "The city can't do it alone. We have to keep building trust and accountability. And I look forward to the journey."

Avery Pope said afterward that he felt the young adult meeting went well.

“We got some action items attached to some issues that we need to solve, which is precisely why we had the town hall in the first place,” he added. “I’m happy with the results so far.”

Box commended the young people who turned out for Saturday's forum after all of the recent protest marches and demonstrations.

“After the dust settles and the memes stop, that’s when the work gets done,” the Hiram College sophomore said.

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