Social media has been filled over the past few weeks with complaints about walking throughout Cleveland Heights as the snow piles up.
This Facebook post by Jim Miller sums up the frustration, but – to use the appropriate cliche – it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
While I continue to clear boulders of ice from my Cedar Road frontage after the plows trundle by, I frankly hadn’t given it much thought until a Facebook friend pointedly noted that it’s not a matter of being neighborly; it’s a matter of public safety.
That’s when I realized snow clearance isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom.
Admittedly, we’ve grown soft from easy winters and this year has caught everyone by surprise. But since the last time we had a winter this insistent, we’ve been through a budget-busting recession, voters have finally put fresh talent on City Council, and a calcified police chief and city manager have been replaced.
Here’s what hasn’t changed:
- Residents remain concerned about safety – mostly from the violent punks who seem to like their chances in our tree-lined neighborhoods.
- People from other communities remain vocal about staying out of Cleveland Heights for fear of being mugged – making no distinction whether it’s by a thug, or a cop with radar gun and a sheaf of parking tickets.
- Our police department continues to have a reputation for underreporting violent crimes that occur here – and no credible means to refute it.
- Our government still depends on being listed among Ohio’s 50 safest cities to demonstrate that public safety is under control.
The police department and city manager’s office desperately seem to want people to hear them when they tell us our city is as safe as any and safer than most.
The problem isn’t that we don’t hear it; it’s that we don’t feel it.
People don’t want to visit here, move here or send their kids to school here because they believe it’s unsafe. On the city’s north end, people complain that they feel they’ve simply been abandoned. Others just feel like a great little city is being undone.
Nobody is going to change these perceptions by trotting out that 50 Safest Cities list one more time. Instead, we need to overhaul the way public safety is managed here. We need our government to make a commitment to public safety as our highest priority.
And you can’t argue that’s already the case when the city has dedicated directors of law, finance, planning, community services and public works – but makes director of public safety a part-time responsibility of the already-busy city manager.
Here’s what needs to happen:
First, City Council needs to decide that the collective wisdom of the electorate is on to something: We have a problem. Not just a problem of perception, but a problem of perception as reality. In other words, if people in the community say they don’t feel safe, then they aren’t safe enough.
Second, Council needs to commit to making the director of public safety a dedicated, full-time job. Then it needs to authorize the City Manager to conduct a national search to fill that job.
Third, we need absolute honesty and clarity of mission. The goal isn’t to convince people that Cleveland Heights is safe. The goal is to know it’s safe through the skillful application of state-of-the-art theory and technology that lessens all our worst safety hazards – from muggings to traffic tragedies to, yes, accidents resulting from sidewalks choked with winter ice.
Fourth, we need a measured starting point – a credible set of benchmarks for different types of crime and other safety hazards throughout the city. This data needs to be accurate and objective – and provided with some level of independent oversight because, frankly, the city’s reputation in this area is so bad today that nobody will believe it otherwise.
Notably, the city has just made police reports more readily available through a new digital system. It’s a good start, bringing transparency to public documents. But it does not address the nagging question whether crime reports are being accurately classified and reported as required by law.
Fifth, we need a new game plan for managing safety in 2014 and beyond. I’m not talking about just hiring more police officers to write more tickets and park more cars on city side streets. Surely policing has evolved in the last 30 years, and it’s time we imported some of that knowledge here.
All of this costs money, of course. And it will make some long-time employees uncomfortable. But over the years, I’ve heard many people at City Hall make the claim that Cleveland Heights is one of America’s best-managed cities.
If it really is, this is the work ahead of us.