It’s time to commission a third-party study to understand what our police department does right and what it needs to do better.
After reading the front-page story in Sunday’s Plain Dealer about the Cleveland Heights police department’s homemade rules for reporting sexual assault crime statistics, I felt both angry and validated.
Every time the Cleveland Heights government trots out its favorite safety statistic – that for eight years running this is Ohio’s safest city of more than 50,000 with respect to violent crime – I get a case of whiplash. I just don’t believe it to be true. And now I’ve got supporting evidence.
If you didn’t read the article, here it is in a nutshell:
In March, Cleveland Heights told The Plain Dealer that a total of 26 sexual assaults had been reported here from 2008-2010. After being pushed harder, Cleveland Heights officials conceded that twice as many cases had actually been reported – though half had “been unfounded or closed without charges.” And when pushed again, the city found yet another 34 cases (if you’re not counting, that’s 88 in all) that had been reported “though many were not labeled as rape or sexual offenses, and numerous reports did not indicate the final outcome of the case.”
Questionable cases are often reported as”miscellaneous” or “departmental information,” according to the article.
I don’t believe the article necessarily points to wrongdoing or misconduct. The police department must get a fair number of reported sexual assaults and other forms of personal crime that turn out to be very little or nothing at all.
But I object to the notion that police officers should decide for themselves how to classify a report or complaint, based on some unwritten code that has evolved within the department. That’s a policy decision, which is above a police officer’s pay grade.
Why is this so important?
First, as the article makes clear, the way a report is classified has a lot to do with how – or if – it’s pursued. Not every report necessarily deserves follow-up action, but there ought to be a thoughtful process behind such decisions.
Second, if the department isn’t accurately classifying reported offenses, then it isn’t accurately measuring them – which means City Hall can’t set priorities for improving our safety. Nor can it tell us with any sincerity that this is statistically Ohio’s safest city of its size.
Don’t forget that the only reason anyone even looked into this is because Cleveland Heights appears to have dropped the ball in following up an alleged rape that may have been connected to convicted serial murderer Anthony Sowell.
Our police department isn’t alone in the informal manner by which it classifies reports of sex (and perhaps other) crimes, according to a Monday follow-up by The Plain Dealer.
But it’s not as if suburban police departments are on their own to figure out things like this. The article pointed out that the International Association of Chiefs of Police has a series of model policies that cover precisely how sexual assaults and other crimes should be addressed.
A few months ago, I suggested in a note to all City Council members that it was time to consider hiring a full-time public safety director. I don’t have anything against City Manager and part-time Safety Director Bob Downey; I think he’s a fine civil servant but I haven’t seen evidence that he is a public safety expert.
And while I think that Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson may be a great cop, he’s spent his career on the Cleveland Heights police force under the leadership of former chief Martin Lentz – who didn’t suffer criticism or pressure, based on what I hear, from anyone.
Which means that for something like 40 years, nobody from outside the Cleveland Heights police department who has any kind of public safety expertise has taken a really good look at how the police department operates. The department has so secluded itself from scrutiny over the past 40 years that it’s impossible to know how good it really is (or isn’t). We don’t even know if the metrics by which such an opinion could be formed are valid.
Such review of an organization’s processes and procedures is, under any circumstances uncomfortable for the organization’s members. Under Chief Lentz it would have been unthinkable. But Chief Roberts appears open to suggestion.
Maybe it was premature when I suggested the hiring of a full-time public safety director. But it’s long past time for the city to hire an independent consultant to conduct a detailed review of our police operations and provide recommendations for improvement. It would be money well spent.
Whether Cleveland Heights has had 26 or 88 sexual assaults in the last three years isn’t the question that bothers me most – although it’s not a trivial question.
What bothers me is that nobody really knows what our police department does well and what it needs to improve upon. And within City Hall, nobody seems at all bothered to find out.