A Cleveland Heights Police Officer had come to us with a kilo of marijuana. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but this is all I remember about it these 42 years later. Well before the days of “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E., he walked back and forth in front of us, talking in very serious tones.
The marijuana looked like a brick wrapped in foil and plastic wrap, and as the police officer paced, he held it above his shoulder like he was getting ready to wind up and throw it.
I don’t remember what he said the street value was, but I remember marveling at the foreign-ness of the word “kilo” – not knowing how it was spelled and not connecting it with the metric unit of weight (though Miss Manino had taught us the metric system way back in 2nd grade with the promise that the country would be using it for everything in 10 years).
Day 5 of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy was all about narcotics investigations. The visual aids included not only multiple grades of marijuana in clear plastic, but also cocaine – in kilo form (street value: $35,000) as well as small bags bundled for sale; crack, heroin, some drug paraphernalia, and a Tec 9 automatic handgun. Unfortunately, none of it was unfamiliar, thanks to the images we see every day on TV and the internet. But up close and in person it spoke of dark obsession and horror that was surprising to a bleeding heart lefty from the suburbs. All of it was evidence from cases that had been fully adjudicated – soon to be destroyed, according to the police officers who led the 3-hour session.
I’m going to call them Det. G, Det. Sgt. S and Cmdr. L. All three are members of the CHPD’s narcotics unit.
[I don't mean to be melodramatic; it's probably not necessary to protect their identities. I was able to find them all on Google easily enough, but only at that level where they’ve been thrust into the public eye. They’re not out there with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. And I don’t want to create trouble for them; their job is dangerous enough and, truthfully, they scare me.
I might have inquired, but I’d rather manage these issues myself than invite anyone at the police department to review my work in advance. So yes, I’m filtering information to suit my interests, and as you’ll note in a moment, I’m not alone.]
Det. G, who earned a master’s degree in Administration and Justice while working on the force, also serves as a task force officer on the Drug Task Force, operated across northern Ohio by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Many of his comments are drawn from this federal experience and aren’t specific to Cleveland Heights.
As he described the process of drug investigations, it sounded like a lot of time doing surveillance and paperwork and waiting for the gears of bureaucracy to turn.
What we see on TV cop shows is realistic to a point; the DEA segments of Breaking Bad are particularly good, he said. But as you might expect, TV dramas focus on the few moments of payoff that punctuate months of toil in a real-life investigation.
The surprise to me: The work seems to rely even more on confidential informants than even TV cop shows would have you believe.
Informants tend to be motivated by just a few factors: They’re criminals themselves and may do it to work off their own charges; many like the excitement; and, of course, they do it for the money. The feds pay informants more than Cleveland Heights and other local police departments; Det. Sgt. S said he thought they get paid too much.
An informant may earn $35-$50 to get wired up and make a controlled buy of pot – twice that for crack or heroin. A day-long intelligence debriefing may be worth a few hundred dollars.
And they say crime doesn’t pay.
Det. G and Det. Sgt. S tried valiantly to bring their job to life. But while police officers have a lot of fascinating stories to tell, it’s too much to expect them to be fascinating story tellers.
The constant filtering of information gets in the way. They filter out the stuff that’s still being investigated or adjudicated, and the stuff that’s too raw and ugly. Then there’s the stuff we don’t want to know, and, I assume, a certain amount of stuff they don’t want us to know. I’m guessing there’s even a layer of stuff that they just can’t talk about – like POWs. I suppose this is the price they pay for the work they do, and they don’t take great pains to hide it.
So the result is a series of story fragments and impressions that fit together poorly, like pieces from different picture puzzles. Executing warrants with children in the house, or a girlfriend hiding in the closet with a gun… Illegals from Jamaica brazenly selling drugs from a rented house on Edgehill Drive… Law enforcement agencies selling hydroponic growing equipment through High Times magazine and tracking the people who buy it… Doing surveillance to determine how much effort will be required to break down the door of a suspected drug house when the warrant finally comes through… Columbian producers who take such pride in the purity of their product that they’ve begun branding it… Local dealers who will maximize profits by cutting the same pure cocaine “with anything that’s white, because there’s no Better Business Bureau you can go to if you happen to buy a bad batch,” Cmdr. L said.
The best I can do to summarize is this: Drugs and desperation go hand in hand, and the narcotics squad is awash in it.
“We go into neighborhoods where nobody knows anyone else who has a job,” Cmdr. L said. “What’s needed is education and the opportunity for people to use it. If we want to solve the drug problem, we need to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. You’re not going to arrest your way out of this.”
The three officers could themselves be the basis of a TV police show. Det. G is the streetwise detective; he wears scruffy clothes to work and has made his own undercover drug buys. He told us at the outset that he’s put off advancement opportunities because he wants to stay close to the action.
Det. Sgt. S is a man of few words and great experience, providing invaluable backup and – according to Det. G – a genius for writing search warrants that will hold up all the way through the justice system.
Cmdr. L is the elder statesman, having served a full career at the DEA and then joining the CHPD upon retirement. He speaks gently, and careful words come easily to him. At 60, according to Det. Sgt. S, he is still the first man through the door on a drug bust. He even has a superficial resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones.
“A lot of what you see in the drug world is counter-intuitive,” Cmdr. L said. “If you’re an addict and you have a friend who just died of an overdose, you want to know who the dealer is – not so you can avoid him, but because it means he has good stuff.”
The big drug threat right now is heroin; it’s proliferating and highly profitable – so the large dealers who previously specialized in marijuana or cocaine are branching out.
While Cleveland Heights is seeing its share of this activity, it is still known in law enforcement circles as an area where the dominant trade is in cocaine and marijuana.
When asked how they feel about legalization of pot, none of the three chose to offer a direct opinion. Like all the police officers I’ve met so far, they don’t seem to bother much with policy issues that are – as the cliché goes – above their pay grade. No matter what happens with marijuana, there will always be plenty of work for them to do.
Instead – also typically – they answered the question with factual statements:
Det. G: “What I’ll say is that every big drug dealer … tells us that’s where they started; they were smoking marijuana at 12 and selling it at 13, or something like that.”
I asked how much of the crime in Cleveland Heights could be tied in some way to drug activity. “That would be an interesting topic for discussion. I’d say a lot of it,” Det. G answered. “Drugs are bad for the community. Where there’s drugs, there’s criminals and criminal activity. People with weapons. Large amounts of cash. Break-ins. Property theft. Bad stuff that tears a good community apart.”
Most of the 9 hours of training covered so far in three sessions of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy have been on the dull schoolbook fundamentals that police officers need to know.
Stuff like the definition of crime, the nuance between jurisdiction and venue, and the four culpable mental states as recognized and defined by Ohio law: purposely, knowingly, recklessly and negligently.
Each of the 20 “Citizen Cadets” received a hefty volume of the handbook of Ohio Criminal Law and Motor Vehicle Code, which Cpt. Geoffrey Barnard, commander of the CH Police Academy (he also happens to be a lawyer) quickly showed us how to use.
Its main effect was to draw out a litany of “what if” questions that would have done any 2nd-grade class proud while constantly threatening to derail the schedule.
But by the 4th and 5th hour of this two-day discussion, things started to get real. Brad Sudyk, deputy chief of police and also a lawyer, went over the laws governing arrest and the use of force – lethal and non-lethal.
We learned there are 3 types of police encounters:
- Consensual encounters, when an officer engages a citizen in conversation;
- Investigative detentions, when an officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or may occur;
- Arrest, when an officer can demonstrate probable cause that the individual has committed a crime or plans to do so.
We also learned that force – everything from physical restraint to use of a gun – is justified in only two broad circumstances:
- For control of a suspect
- For defense of a police officer or someone else (I’m sure there are circumstances in which force can be used to protect property, but the lesson plan didn’t go in that direction)
These are the rules of engagement – the limitations and the triggers that come into play every time a police officer comes into contact with another person.
Then Sudyk shared the tool that he trains officers on for deciding whether lethal force is necessary. It’s simple and intended for use in fluid situations when there isn’t time to think. It looks like this:
It works this way:
- When confronted with a person who poses a danger, the officer is obligated to determine if the suspect has the intent, the ability and the opportunity to do serious bodily harm – either to the officer or to someone else in the vicinity.
- Then the officer must decide whether any options other than lethal force exist to diffuse the situation.
- Lethal force is justified only if all three conditions are met and there are no other options available.
- If an officer can’t demonstrate that he/she went through this process, the ensuing court case isn’t likely to go well for the officer or police department.
It was of some comfort to know that the impossible decision to shoot another person, made in impossible circumstances, is at least governed by a simple, clear guideline.
But it also emphasized a crucial point that civilians like myself can easily overlook: The police work that we hear about on the news tends to occur in a chaotic, dangerous, adrenaline-filled instant. But its justification is almost always decided after the fact by the work of reporters, pundits, politicians, activists, Facebookers, lawyers and finally judges.
So if you’re a police officer, the job involves boundaries that are constantly redrawn, rules that are frequently reconsidered, decisions that will always be second-guessed. You live with the knowledge that, at any moment, your work will place you in a horrific situation, and the only thing you can rely on is your training. And that too will be questioned in the inevitable aftermath.
It was impossible to absorb this without putting it in the context of this week’s biggest news story – the violent protests in Ferguson, MO, following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Sudyk himself brought it up. He continually emphasized that there’s isn’t enough information to know yet whether the initial shooting was legally justified.
But when asked, he was direct in his opinion that neither event was likely to have happened in this community – the shooting by a police officer, or the heavily militarized police response to the ensuing protests.
Why? Because he claims the CHPD spends an inordinate amount of care and energy to support a culture in which officers would rather talk with people than fight with them.
I know some readers will laugh at this statement. They’ll think I’ve been bought and paid for as a PR tool for the police.
And I don’t have much of a personal yardstick by which to measure Sudyk’s claim. My handful of official interactions with police officers have never been confrontational, but they also have never involved me as a crime suspect or detainee. (OK, there was that speeding ticket a few years back, and I won’t say I liked it – but give credit to both me and the police officer for having the good sense to be cordial and get through it.)
But Sudyk does offer some supporting evidence:
- It’s been years – at least 15 or more by Sudyk’s recollection – since a Cleveland Heights police officer has used lethal force. (Such an instance would be verifiable through public records; I have not taken time to research it. But I’ve been living here continuously for the past 23 years and can’t remember it either).
- In the 3+ years Sudyk has been deputy chief, he said there hasn’t been a single reported use of non-lethal force by a police officer except in instances when the suspect was charged with resisting arrest. None has involved use of a baton or other implement.
- As official policy, CHPD officers don’t carry Tasers/stun guns. I didn’t know this. To paraphrase and interpret Sudyk’s explanation, that’s because they are too easy to use; they don’t support a culture in which use of force is discouraged – and, while legally recognized as non-lethal, Tasers do occasionally kill.
- Officers also aren’t permitted to carry Mace or other brands of pepper spray. Sudyk says that’s because it too often blows back onto its user, and the department simply doesn’t regard it as a desirable tool to use. It seems consistent with the philosophy about Tasers: It’s another option that merely supports use of force rather than discouraging it.
“We want our officers to be very good at using the art of persuasion,” Sudyk said – persuasively, I might ad.
If this was inconsistent with anything I’ve directly experienced, I’d say so. But otherwise, I’ve committed myself to experiencing this program without judgment. My reason for participating in the Citizens Police Academy is to understand public safety from the police officer’s perspective. I’m listening, learning and thinking.
As with all police work, the time for assessment will come later.
I’ve been vocal enough about the city’s approach to public safety that I really had no choice when the Cleveland Heights Police Department announced it would launch its own Citizens Police Academy. I applied a few weeks ago and – after a successful criminal background check – Police Chief Jeff Robertson told me himself that I’d been accepted.
Then he said something about my getting to wear the chew suit during the K-9 demonstration. It was a joke.
Citizens Police Academy is not a new idea; they do it in Shaker Heights and a few other nearby suburbs. The goal is to give a group of interested citizens an inside look at how the police department operates. As Robertson told the 20 members of the first class on Monday, “It’s to see what the city is like through our eyes.”
Each class will become part of an alumni group, which Robertson hopes will provide an ever-larger pool of residents to support good communication and good policing throughout the city.
The program began Monday, Aug. 11 and runs every Monday and Tuesday, from 6-9 p.m. through the end of September. That’s 36 scheduled hours of class time.
Here are some things I learned the first evening:
- If 36 hours sounds like a lot of time to spend sitting in the old fire house at Noble Road and Monticello Boulevard, it’s nothing compared to what real police trainees get. The police curriculum is standardized by the state at more than 600 hours. Trainees come for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for about 5 months.
- Cleveland Heights operates one of 76 police academies in Ohio. It is, by at least two measures, the best of them: 96.6% of students who enter the academy end up passing the state exam at the end; and the test scores of its graduates average 90% – by far the highest in Ohio, according to data from the Ohio Attorney General. (The average scores of all 76 academies are posted on the wall at the CH academy; I’m writing this in the wee hours and didn’t take time to find the data independently online).
- The academy was founded in 1973, and moved to its current location in 1991 (the building closed as a firehouse in 1980). It has graduated 97 classes and more than 5,000 police candidates.
- Our academy trains police officers for 130 jurisdictions, including Shaker Heights, University Heights, South Euclid, Parma, Hunting Valley, Lorain, Cleveland Clinic and RTA to name a few. It also accepts “open enrollment” trainees who don’t already have a police job but hope to use the training in order to get one. Cost to attend is $3,750 – apparently much lower than other academies.
- If you do the math, a class of 30 people brings in revenue of about $112,000 and the academy can train two classes a year. It strives to be revenue-neutral for the city. When I have time, I may actually look into the numbers, but I have no reason to doubt the academy’s commander, Cpt. Geoffrey Barnard, when he says it brings in as much money as it costs to run.
Barnard says the question he hears frequently is why Cleveland Heights should have its own academy when so many other suburbs seem satisfied to outsource their training. The answer, he says, is because it allows police officers in Cleveland Heights to receive ongoing training throughout their careers at a higher level than in-service training provides at a typical police department.
“People don’t realize how highly trained our police department is,” Barnard says. “And the reason they’re so highly trained is this academy. It enables us to set the bar high – higher than we could if we didn’t have it.”
Because of its reputation, classes are always full; so closing it would hurt our own police department and it wouldn’t reduce expenses.
There are some surprises; this police academy is nothing like the one in Police Academy the movie. The gags aren’t nearly as funny (at least not so far) but more important, it doesn’t feel like a paramilitary boot camp. That’s by design, according to Barnard.
“The typical approach in a police academy is to use it as a place to weed out those who don’t belong,” Barnard says. “We don’t feel that’s our job; that’s for you to decide. If you come through the doors here, our job is to help you succeed.”
So students are treated with courtesy, dignity and respect. They are given clear expectations, and receive the benefit of a doubt whenever possible, he says: “The way we treat them in the classroom is the way we want them to treat people when they’re out in public.”
One other surprise is the pop machine, which may be the last one in America to sell soda at 50 cents a can.
Other aspects of the academy aren’t surprising at all. Its walls are a museum of old photos, commendations, positive news coverage and memorabilia. The most visible of these are memorials to the police officers who died in the line of duty.
In fact, you can find at least one reminder of fallen officers in just about every room at both the academy and the police station – which we toured as part of the first night’s class.
In the main classroom at the academy, photos of those who died most recently – Officer Tom Patton, who suffered a fatal heart attack while chasing a suspect in 2010; and Officer Jason West, shot and killed in 2007 while responding to a domestic violence report – are prominently displayed under the American flag. The flag itself flew over the U.S. Capitol in honor of West.
Do these constant reminders serve to honor the dead? Or give caution to the living?
For all its good intentions, I can’t predict the Citizens Police Academy will really answer that question; it’s probably not necessary.
We’re going to be OK.
The June 30 murder of Jim Brennan was wrenching in so many ways, but within a couple days I knew, as I watched the community circle around those closest to the tragedy, this is still the kind of place I want to live.
The vigil that next evening, where 1,200 people lit candles and hugged strangers, was a bit less de rigueur, though we’ve all seen film at 11 of such scenes in other places.
On the third day, Rebecca Smolensky and Jeanne Gordon – two thoughtful people I’ve never met – started a fund to keep Colony employees in salary until arrangements could be made to reopen it. In 72 hours, nearly 850 people stuffed it with more than $45,000. That’s a show of community you don’t see every day.
But not everyone sees this as the whole story. The Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group (alias: Cleveland.com/Sun News) wove their own a narrative last week of a beleaguered, crime-plagued city teetering on the edge of an abyss.
That narrative isn’t a conspiracy against us; it’s just an easy cliché that replaces the hard work of understanding a place in time – work that media institution no longer seems interested in doing.
PD/NEOMG’s first point of contact with our city is Adam Ferrise, the part-time crime reporter (according to his Linkedin profile he also posts news online a media group in Youngstown) who pulls police incident reports for publication in Thursday’s Sun newspapers; Friday’s Plain Dealer; and online at Cleveland.com – where they are search-engine-optimized and posted for the entire world to view as a representation of life in Cleveland’s east suburbs.
It’s not constructive, but it’s cheap. PD/NEOMG reporters are now evaluated in part by the page views their stories get online, and some articles are published without ever being reviewed by an editor – a combination that incites carelessness and sensationalism.
The convenient narrative
After the shooting occurred last week, Ferrise quickly filed an initial report – a brief recitation of the few known facts with a needlessly snide reference to the fact that Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson hadn’t yet returned his call while a crime scene was being secured and a gunman run down. [This was, perhaps, part of Ferrise's ongoing payback for a spat last year involving a dispute over public police records. Ferrise never bothered to report on the city's position on the issue, which was only published after being put into a letter to the editor by Cleveland Heights City Manager Tanisha Briley.]
Soon after filing his first report on the Colony shooting, before it was known whether Brennan would survive – Ferrise or someone else at PD/NEOMG augmented the online report with a poll – a feature for the specific purpose of boosting online page views. It asked readers if the shooting would discourage them from visiting the Lee Road business district in the future. It was eventually taken offline and can no longer be accessed for your entertainment.
Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris furthered the narrative in his July 2 column. He started by saying the horrific crime isn’t typical of Cleveland Heights, but then contradicted himself, writing “The once idyllic suburb now finds itself locked in a pitched battle to determine its identity, security, and, ultimately, its future.”
An editorial in The Plain Dealer on July 1, the day of the vigil, provided the same contradiction. Under the headline A senseless murder in Cleveland Heights is far from the last word on this wonderful city the editorial stated: “This city of mansions, affordable homes, restaurants and neighborhood block parties is well worth saving.” The opinions of PD/NEOMG staff were not likely to have been formed through independent reporting; typically, columnists and editorial writers inform themselves through the published work of their own news staff – that is Adam Ferrise.
An organic response
So a mourning community found itself responding to what felt like another assault. That night many Lee Road merchants had their best Tuesday of business ever, as the aggrieved took comfort in food, drink and good company.
The next day a T-shirt featuring the Brennan’s tavern logo was offered for sale to support ongoing business-development efforts of the Lee Road merchants. Orders came in for more than 700 before the sale expired.
Nobody at PD/NEOMG has, to my knowledge, published information about any of these activities in follow-up stories to the murder. While declaring our city in need of saving, have these extraordinary demonstrations of a strong community been overlooked? Or do they conflict with the PD/NEOMG’s now-institutionalized narrative?
Morris’ column refers generically to such responses as “unabashed boosterism” – as though a strong reaction is somehow misdirected when a community feels the region’s largest news organization is repeatedly getting the story wrong.
Time to take control
PD/NEOMG doesn’t exist to benefit Cleveland Heights or any other community; it never has. But as it responds clumsily to the new economics of publishing, there are fewer and fewer people there to even consider how its money-saving, click-generating game plan may be hurting the communities it claims to serve. That’s their worry.
Our worry is that we can’t allow careless employees of a struggling business to define our city.
I’m not alone in thinking about this. In a beautiful and thoughtful essay for Belt Magazine, Greg Donley writes:
But, really, if this was a “wake-up call,” a wake-up call for what? That a few despicable hoods could decide to rob a given bar on a Monday afternoon? We already knew that. That Cleveland is close to Cleveland Heights? Check, knew it. That cops should do foot patrols and there should be surveillance cameras? Check, check; both already there on that street. No, the real wake-up call to me is how this incident threw into the light of day how ready-made narratives about “how things are” and “how things used to be” continue to undermine the strength of the region.
I’ve tried to engage with PD/NEOMG to discuss the destructive nature of their strategy to cover suburbs by emphasizing low-cost excerpting of the police blotter. I didn’t get far.
More locally, I’ve written in the past about my belief that the biggest challenges Cleveland Heights faces are a perception that it isn’t a safe place to live or visit, and that – despite a well-deserved reputation for catching bad guys after the crime has been committed – the preventive focus is on the wrong things: speeding and overtime parking.
This isn’t the whole truth. Since taking over as police chief a few years ago, Jeff Robertson has implemented programs that seek to proactively reduce crime – from putting more police offers on a walking beat to developing an intervention program for at-risk youth.
But when a big, isolated crime occurs, like the one that took Jim Brennan’s life last week, these activities fade into the background. Big media like PD/NEOMG reach into their bag of clichés to find an appropriate narrative.
It defines us. It limits us. It hurts us.
If we don’t like it, complaining isn’t going to help. It’s our job to rewrite it – by facing down the real issues and addressing them with substance.
Then we’ll be OK.