So much went wrong that November night two years ago in Cleveland.
It started when two men in a car sped away from an undercover police officer, their vehicle’s engine backfiring and police mistaking the noise for gunshots. A 22-mile high-speed chase ensued, involving as many as 62 police cars and reaching speeds of 100 mph. It finally ended in a middle school parking lot when the getaway vehicle was rammed into a police car. In the next eight seconds, 13 police officers would fire more than 100 shots.
One of the officers, Michael Brelo, jumped atop the getaway car and unloaded his weapon.
“I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” the former Marine told investigators later. “I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed.”
As it turns out, Brelo mistook the gunfire from police as that of the two men in the car. And today, we’re left with an image that defines the problem facing police forces across the country. It is of Brelo, the white Cleveland police officer, leaping onto the hood of a car and firing 15 shots at the two unarmed African-Americans inside.
The city of Cleveland couldn’t sit still for this. Something had to be done. Thus came the police-reform consent decree that Cleveland negotiated with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Saying the historic document offers a road map of how police departments can reconnect with their communities would be a “feel good response.” Yet, there is plenty to like.
It embraces community policing as a way of building teamwork between police and neighborhoods, something many of our local police departments have been found to hold true. Cleveland officials also have agreed to what may be the most extensive reporting requirements in the nation when it comes to police officers using force.
What is disappointing, however, is that not one of the 105 pages in the document speaks to the impossible demands we are putting on our police officers.
We praise police officers when crime is down and chastise them for not doing their jobs when crime increases. We insist that officers are glued to suspected criminals and pounce on them before they commit a crime, yet we get angry when police use tactics such as stopping people for minor traffic violations as a pretext for uncovering criminal activity. Suspects are allowed to spit on police and talk back to them, yet officers are to react like Boy Scouts — be courteous, kind, friendly and obedient.
Certainly, the public has every right to demand accountability for officers who commit misconduct. However, the public can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the way its demands shape the actions of police officers when they walk into dark, dangerous situations and have to make split-second decisions with lives hanging in the balance.
That was a point made by Steve Loomis, who heads the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, in regards to the consent decree’s new requirement that requires police officers to file a detailed report if they unholster a gun. Loomis told the Northeast Ohio Media Group that the paperwork requirements will put police officers’ lives in jeopardy.
“It’s going to get somebody killed,” Loomis said. “There’s going to be a time when someone isn’t going to want to do that paperwork, so he’s going to keep that gun in its holster.”
A point well taken. God forbid that day ever comes.
Let’s not forget policies need to be practical, not just popular with the public.
Let’s also remember it takes more than policy changes to repair the relations between a police department and the community. It starts with a willingness to walk in the other person’s shoes to gain a perspective of why they react the way they do.
That goes for police, and citizens too.
Jim Krumel is editor-in-chief of The Lima News and Ohio’s most senior editor for Civitas Media.