How Cleveland Heights is – and isn’t – dealing with juvenile crime

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I met Cleveland Heights Police Chief Jeffrey Roberston for the first time last week, and he changed my mind.

And then didn’t.

We were in a community meeting, organized by City Council Member Bonita Caplan and attended by a small group of concerned citizens – mostly from the Forest Hills neighborhood.

Their concerns were wide-ranging, but one topic was the city’s reputation for speed traps and strict traffic enforcement.

As I’ve previously written, I believe this reputation hurts our economy by chasing people from other suburbs away from our business districts.

Caplan and others defend it as part of the “broken windows theory” of law enforcement: that if you come down hard on the little stuff like traffic, you’ll head off the big stuff like burglary and assault.

Here’s what Chief Robertson had to say: “When you come to Cleveland Heights, it’s not that you’re going to get a ticket; it’s that you’re going to slow down.”

The bottom line of the policy, he said, is that city has a very low rate of serious/fatal accidents.

Robertson didn’t back up that assertion with data, and I haven’t bothered to seek it out msyelf. I don’t dispute the assertion. Among the issues that get people riled here, traffic safety doesn’t come up except, perhaps, on side streets that get used as bypasses.

Robertson also emphasized that, in his mind, the broken windows theory is only a tiny part of why the traffic enforcement is justified. Which I was glad to hear, given that scholarly discussions refer to things like loitering and graffiti – not traffic violations – as the metaphorical “broken windows.”

Robertson strikes me as a policeman’s police chief. He is worried about real stuff in the here and now – like chasing down burglars who are working neighborhoods; and breaking up groups of unruly people who cause late-night disturbances.

He wants more police officers where they can interact with people – which means walking or riding bicycles. (Robertson hopes to expand the bike detail next year. The first-year budget paid for certification of only two officers – one of whom is not currently on duty due to an on-the-job injury).

Robertson acknowledges that punk crimes (my words, not his) are probably the city’s biggest public safety challenge. More than half of the 52 burglary arrests through the end of July (29) were juveniles, he said. In total, 537 juveniles had been arrested in the first 7 months of the year for a variety of charges – on pace to beat last year’s total by about 15%.

He’s scouring for ways to deal with the phenomenon.

After the disturbance in June at the Coventry Street Fair, Robertson identified one young member of the force who has an affinity for social media. That officer now spends an unspecified amount of time infiltrating Twitter and Facebook streams of kids who are planning to conduct unwelcome and potentially illegal activities – the flash-mob “kick backs” we all keep hearing about.

He’s also working with city Housing Manager Rick Wagner to make parents of juveniles more accountable for their children; and with the county’s juvenile justice system to put teeth behind arrests and convictions.

Another avenue he’s pursuing is advanced analysis of crime data in the police department’s computer system “so that we have a better connection between the crimes that are occurring and how we work.” Robertson conceded that since taking over the force in December, one of his big jobs was to get the department in the habit of first putting good crime data into the computer.

Improved analysis of that data would have to be done by an outside expert. Robertson questions whether he’ll be able to budget for the expense, with the first bid having come in at $20,000 a year.

All of this strikes me as typically nitty-gritty and fundamental – the things you want and expect from the police.

Cumulatively it may be the seed of an overall strategy for dealing with the phenomenon of youth crime. I’m more comfortable, having met Robertson, that he is worrying about the right things while working to invigorate a department that had been in a stasis before his promotion.

Here’s what hasn’t changed
I’ve previously complained that “broken windows” doesn’t seem to be an effective strategy for our current public safety concerns. But it is the one thing that our elected officials repeatedly seem to trot out when asked to identify a unifying plan for the city’s law enforcement.

Robertson effectively dismissed broken windows, saying, “It’s only one strategy among many that we employ.”

Technically that makes it a tool or tactic – not a strategy. A strategy is what you want to achieve; a tactic is one part of the solution to get there.

But when I pushed for a sense of that larger strategy to address our public safety concerns, neither Robertson nor City Manager/Public Safety Director Bob Downey was able to articulate it.

I’ve suggested more than once that people in this city want to feel as though they are in partnership with the police to make our city a safer place.

Downey acknowledges hearing the same thing from residents. He seems open to hearing about communication tools (such as Facebook, Nixle and e-mail blasts) that other police departments use to forge this kind of partnership.

But I didn’t leave the meeting with an impression that city officials actually envision how such tools could really be of use.

If you complain that the house next door is falling apart, a city inspector will show up promptly to investigate. Similarly, if enough people say that they want more information about public safety, then city leaders will do something to satisfy the request.

It’s responsive, but is it effective?

It’s like going to Home Depot and buying a bunch of wood and nails and tools, and then standing back to ask, “How can we use these things to build a good, strong house?”

It’s better to start with a blueprint.

We need a plan for a good strong house – one in which police and the community work together to 1) prevent kids from committing crimes in our city, 2) reduce the overall number of such crimes, and 3) intercept more of these crimes as they’re being committed. The plan would likely include many facets – not just police, but also housing, recreation, economic development, the residents and maybe even a partnership with the schools.

With such a plan, the necessary tools and materials will be easy to identify.

Our public safety function may be closer to such a plan today than it was a year ago. But that’s still not close enough.


  1. says

    I agree with you, Bob. There is a very big difference between a “tool” and a “strategy”, and I am disappointed our public safety leadership could not articulate an overall strategy to prevent and reduce crime. Check out the article in today’s NY Times about a new police “strategy” in Santa Cruz, California. Called “predictive policing”, it is innovative and promising, based upon results to date.

  2. Ben Phillips says

    If Robertson thinks going after drivers who speed on Mayfield Road’s alternating 25-35mph zone is putting the “broken widows theory” into action, he’s got it all wrong.

    People who are caught speeding on the 25mph stretch of Mayfield are NOT the problem. The reason why increasing numbers of tax-paying, business patronizing citizens stay away from Coventry and Cedar-Lee/Fairmount – especially at night – is because of public disorder brought about by groups of younger people who vandalize, harrass, and threaten. What Cleveland Heights police need to do is assign more beat cops WALKING in areas where people congregate – and fewer who sit in their cars waiting to catch a speeder.


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