How do you fix a broken city? Political and financial constraints make reforms difficult: Police in East Cleveland are persecuted


EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio – How can you repair East Cleveland plagued by years of debt and dysfunction?

The city, which has lost nearly 50 percent of its population since 2000, owes tens of millions of dollars in court judgments. It’s so tight in cash that some lawyers won’t sue it, even for blatant police misconduct. Its mayor remains unchanged as less than 10% of residents were elected in the primary last month.

A radical push from the state or federal government would be required to change the culture, experts say. Options include merging with another city, filing for bankruptcy, working with the Justice Department to reform its police department, and getting daily tax assistance from the state.

Everyone is laden with the potential for political backlash and resistance from leaders. But in a community that is followed by police almost every day and struggles to pay its officers starting wages in excess of $ 18 an hour, the issues are ripe for debate. Plain Dealer analyzed 105 police car chases in East Cleveland in the first 120 days of this year. Find all of our stories – including the city’s financial plight, police demographics, and the law that should stop the wild chases – here.

“You don’t need an advisory board that meets once a month; The state needs to hire someone to go to work there every day and run its operations until the city is solid again, ”said Sylvester Murray, a distinguished visiting professor of public order and administration at Jackson State University, Mississippi.

Murray taught for years at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. He also volunteered as a consultant in East Cleveland in the 1990s.

“The state shouldn’t just go in there and help; it should go in there and take responsibility, ”Murray said.

But that requires political will. The Ohio Constitution prohibits the state from interfering in the way cities do business.

While the Ohio Legislature allowed the state to take over underperforming schools in 2015, lawmakers withdrew from helping troubled cities like East Cleveland and those in southeast Ohio, fearing such a move would violate house rules Constitution would be violated.

“Ultimately, local governments are responsible,” said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio governor Mike DeWine. “Residents have the opportunity to raise these issues through the ballot box.”

That’s a problem in East Cleveland.

Last month, only 1,219 people voted in the Democratic mayoral election, about 500 fewer than in 2017. Mayor Brandon King won and defeated four challengers. With no Republican challenger in the November race, King won a second term with just 728 votes in a town of just under 14,000.

“There is cynicism here; People think things will never change, ”said Councilor Nathaniel Martin. “You just don’t vote. We need to change things for our children and grandchildren, and we do that by choosing. I don’t know why people don’t realize that. We cannot give up. “

The state has helped East Cleveland somewhat, including a financial planning and oversight commission that makes recommendations on the city’s finances. The commission was set up because the city is in a fiscal emergency, a status for cities in need that East Cleveland has had for nearly nine years.

However, some city officials say that much more is needed. A recent state audit shows the city has $ 57 million in liabilities and nearly $ 33 million in assets. The city owes police victims more than $ 31.1 million in court rulings.

“We definitely need help,” said City Council President, Korean Stevenson.

One change option could be a constitutional amendment that would allow financially disadvantaged cities across the state to change house rules to get the daily government assistance they need.

A push of law

There are two ways to get a constitutional amendment in Ohio. Corporations or special interests can run a petition campaign that requires signatures of at least 10% of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election before it can be put on a statewide vote.

Ohio lawmakers can also propose an amendment, often through a joint resolution of both Houses. Its passage requires three-fifths approval before it reaches the electorate.

But many see a discrepancy: it would be difficult to get lawmakers to care about tiny, poor East Cleveland – and cities like it – especially because of the time and effort it would take to move the proposal forward. It would be even harder for residents of the state’s richest suburbs to care enough to vote for it.

Nor can the state intervene to arrest the East Cleveland police force. According to an analysis of police reports from and The Plain Dealer.

Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, said each department must establish its own policy of persecution. The state can only make recommendations.

One option that requires city approval is a nationwide policy of persecution. The idea was spread in Cuyahoga County back in 2008, but the cities never reached an agreement.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said during a city council meeting in March that he tried to gauge the chiefs’ interests in 2016, but the move never worked. He said he tried again this year too.

East Cleveland Police Chief Scott Gardner said in July that he advocates a statewide or statewide policy of persecution, but that it must be one that “we could all live with.”

He has emphasized his belief that the car chases are aimed at making the city safer and said they have sunk in recent months. King’s Chief of Staff Michael Smedley said he feared the city would become a haven for criminals if officials don’t chase down suspects.

‘The most direct route’

The Department of Justice could make definitive changes in its dealings with the police. In recent years, officials have been charged with beating and stealing suspects. In one case, they even locked a person in a closet for days.

The Department of Justice could invade the city in a way few other agencies can – with or without city support. Federal prosecutors can sue the city for the ministry’s patterns and practices that violate residents’ constitutional rights.

In 2015, prosecutors sued Cleveland on allegations of excessive use of force and misconduct by officials. The city has worked with prosecutors and is working on a consent decree to reform its discipline, training, internal affairs and the bureau of professional standards.

An independent oversight team oversees the process brought before Senior District Judge Solomon Oliver.

“The most direct way to help East Cleveland is through the Justice Department,” said Michael Benza, senior lecturer at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law.

If the city refuses to cooperate with the Justice Department, prosecutors can bring an action and ask a judge to force the city to revise its policy. However, the reform could cost the insolvent city hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, the city of Cleveland spent millions of dollars on the process.

Daniel Ball, a spokesman for the US attorney general in Cleveland, declined to comment.

In 2000, California lawmakers passed law that allowed the attorney general to conduct pattern and practice investigations into police abuse, much like the federal agency does.

Other attorneys general rarely sued local law enforcement agencies in federal courts for their own investigations. The cases are similar to the decrees negotiated by the Justice Department, and a federal judge appoints an observer and oversees the reform.

It happened in 2001 when then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued the Wallkill, New York City Police Department over a number of issues, including the fact that officers were conducting traffic controls for non-criminal reasons.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost declined to comment, referring to ongoing cases with the East Cleveland division.

Find a tax solution

In 2016, East Cleveland discussed a possible annexation with Cleveland. East Cleveland looked for a brighter economic future while Cleveland looked for potential development opportunities along Euclid Avenue.

Cities put their ideas into practice, but Cleveland officials feared they would take on the neighbour’s debts and the cost of upgrading East Cleveland’s infrastructure. Cleveland City Councilor Michael Polensek said city officials estimated the cost of a merger at more than $ 50 million.

Since then, East Cleveland’s debt has skyrocketed. The city owes $ 31.1 million in court judgments for wrongdoing by officials. Few cities would want to shoulder such a burden.

Also in 2016, East Cleveland was considering filing for bankruptcy. The state must grant a city’s request for assistance on the basis of a detailed plan to clean up its finances. However, bankruptcy would allow a city to protect itself from its creditors while a judge helps oversee its finances.

The question arises whether the city’s top politicians would agree to this. The city will receive $ 26 million in stimulus money over the next few years.

While the money will bolster the city’s coffers in the short term, it will not cover its long-term debt, and the money cannot be used to settle the verdicts against the police.

“There are no easy answers”

Kenny Yuko, the Ohio Senate minority leader, represents East Cleveland. He said the state has stepped in to fund repairs to traffic lights and streets in the city and is working to do more.

When a landfill in East Cleveland caught fire in 2017, the state helped clean up the mess. He said the city’s plight was similar to other Ohio cities.

“There are no easy answers here,” said Yuko. “Being a member of the minority party in Columbus doesn’t help. There are no Republicans representing cities like East Cleveland. We try and make it a priority to help the city. For some it doesn’t go fast enough. “

For residents who have suffered decay for decades, he believes the state needs to speed up aid. You are fed up with a city struggling to provide services that most of the people in Cuyahoga County take for granted.

They are also fed up with hearing sirens and seeing blurry lights during police chases. For many residents, the problem is clear.

“Be sure to involve the state; they know what the problems are and what is going on, ”said Councilor Juanita Gowdy. “We wrote to them asking the auditor for help with the attorney general.”

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