Roundtable

Prior to Experience

Policing in Cleveland, from stop-and-frisk to the RNC.

By Hawa Allan

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

 Downtown Cleveland seen from the Superior Viaduct.

The “City of Cleveland Safety Preparedness Update” for the 2016 Republican National Convention is dominated by an anodyne bureaucratic tone remarkable for what is effectively a plan for disaster. Federal, state, and local officials who share “common objectives” toward “incident management” coordinate their responses to “security irregularities” in order to “mitigate disruption.” Protesters will be funneled through euphemistically labeled “parade routes,” police officers will patrol on foot and atop horses. Medical teams are poised to treat injuries, and adjacent counties are set to provide additional jail “beds” if Cleveland’s facilities are filled to capacity. 

“We are prepared,” said Mayor Frank Jackson at a press conference publicizing the plan at the end of May.

It was claimed that preparations included plans to respect the constitutional rights of protesters who opposed the entire spectacle. Unlike with the security measures taken to protect convention attendees, not much was elaborated on the nature of such plans other than a list of rights (first, fourth, and fourteenth amendments, etc.) that police officers were trained to observe. One tangible aspect is the “video unit” that officials would dispatch to record police interactions with civilians, thereby ensuring “transparency.”

The lexical redundancy of the city’s “preparedness” plan—the plan to be prepared—represents more than labored administrative jargon. A plan is already a form of preparation—the repetition is a form of doublespeak, masking the fears underlying these preparations. The “unclassified” and “non law enforcement sensitive” PDF outlining the city’s strategy refers to it as a “safety” preparedness plan. But preparing to be safe implies an expectation of danger. A threat. A plan to be prepared for emergency medical treatment and mass arrests is, ultimately, a preparation for violence. A plan to be prepared for chaos.

When more concrete details were released closer to the main event, the ominous nature of the city’s preparations could no longer be obscured by polite terms. Two thousand sets of riot gear had been purchased, as well as 10,000 plastic handcuffs, reserves of rubber bullets and pepper ball munitions. There were also requests for proposals to companies that manufacture tear gas, as detailed in the Washington Post

If one’s expectations can create reality, then the stage in Cleveland had already been set. All the men and women set to participate in or protest the RNC were merely players in a drama already written.

 

Not since Timothy Loehmann shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as he was playing with a pellet gun in a park in 2014 has policing in Cleveland been the subject of such national scrutiny. Looking further back into the city’s history puts into sharp relief the failure of law enforcement characterized by brutality, racial profiling, and sporadic efforts at reform. It seems that the root cause of this failure—which extends far beyond Cleveland—is a system of law enforcement that operates on and perpetuates fear. As the preparations for the RNC and Loehmann’s shooting of Tamir Rice suggest, expectations of bad actors create their own worst outcomes. Plans for violent crackdowns set the stage for violent crackdowns. Expectations for black people to be criminals and/or dangerous result in a disproportionate number of black prisoners and black victims of police brutality. Incremental reforms—from further diversifying the police force to outfitting officers with body cameras—do not address this core delusion. The deterrent effect of  panoptic video surveillance is not as apparent as the graphic violence it records, which has gone viral. So far, the primary function of body cameras, smartphones, and perhaps Cleveland’s new video unit is to allow us to screen the resulting horrors on the device of our choice.  

 

While on patrol one Halloween afternoon in 1963, a white plainclothes police detective named Martin McFadden saw two black men standing on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Huron Road in downtown Cleveland. Never having seen the two men before, McFadden “was unable to say precisely what first drew his eye” to them in the first place. Later he reported that he relied on instincts cultivated during his thirty-nine years as a police officer to stop and observe the men further. He explained that he would routinely “stand and watch people or walk and watch people at many intervals of the day,” adding, “Now, in this case, when I looked over, they didn’t look right to me at the time.”

McFadden then watched as the two men paced up and down a commercial strip, each one pausing to stare into one store window in particular. The men regrouped at the corner where they first stood and were joined by a third man; each proceeded to pace and pause at the one storefront several more times.

He finally approached them, identified himself as a police officer, and asked for their names. The men reportedly mumbled something in response, and then McFadden grabbed one of the men—John Terry—spun him around, and patted him down, feeling the outline of a pistol. McFadden ordered all three men inside one of the stores and proceeded to pat down the other two. He found a revolver in the pocket of another of the men, Robert Chilton. Terry and Chilton were arrested and charged with violating Ohio’s concealed firearm statute.

These are the facts underlying Terry v. Ohio, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case that effectively validated the stop-and-frisk policing tactic. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling not to suppress the evidence of the firearms on fourth amendment grounds, finding McFadden’s search and seizure of Terry and Chilton to be constitutional because it was based on a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime was going to occur and, moreover, that the men could be armed and dangerous.

“Reasonable suspicion” is said to arise from a “reasonable” man warranted in believing that his search or seizure is appropriate given the specific set of circumstances available to him at the moment. “Reasonable suspicion” is more than a hunch—it refers to the specific “reasonable” inferences one is entitled to draw from the facts in light of one’s experience.

Put aside the fact that “reasonable suspicion” is “reasonable” and that you were probably taught in first grade not to use the word you’re trying to define in its own definition. What effectively gave weight to McFadden’s actions, and thereby the actions of police officers who stop and frisk people all over the country, was his experience. McFadden was unable to say precisely what first drew his eye to Terry and Chilton in the first place, but he relied on his years of experience to proceed. The fact that the two men “didn’t look right” to him was not some unparticularized hunch; it was a “reasonable” inference because it was based on his experience. Was his nearly forty years of experience informed by the widespread expectation that black men are criminals?

Whether or not McFadden racially profiled the men was not legally at issue here. But it’s not hard to imagine how racial bias can seep in to fill the definitional vacuum that is a police officer’s “reasonableness.” Damning evidence recovered from a racialized hunch can retroactively justify a search and seizure in the first place. In other words, an officer’s “experience” looking for black criminals ends up justifying the discriminatory way in which he encounters and arrests them. Looking for trouble is usually a successful enterprise.

Police search youths in riot area of Cleveland, July 23, 1966 as trouble continued for a fifth night with reports of shooting and minor incidents, AP Photo/Charles Knoblock.

Racial profiling, of course, is generally difficult to prove. Only with the advent of video-recording smartphones has the issue been afforded substantial national and international credence, if not evidentiary weight in a court of law. We watched Brian Encinia bully Sandra Bland out of her vehicle after a routine traffic stop and listened to her screams off camera. We watched Daniel Pantaleo brace his forearm around Eric Garner’s neck and grind Garner’s face into the pavement. We watched Michael Slager shoot Walter Scott several times in the back. Endless loops of senseless, devastating violence. These images are surreal, “real” yet also beyond belief. As Bland herself repeatedly cried when struggling with Encinia off camera: “Seriously?” She could not believe what was happening to her even as it happened. Even so, seeing—for any who have doubted the testimony of those experiencing racial profiling and police brutality—is believing. 

I, for one, have stopped watching the videos. I stopped last year, around the time footage was circulated showing Ray Tensing shoot Samuel Dubose at close range in the head during another “routine” traffic stop. I didn’t watch that one, and I will not watch the videos of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile either. This is not about averting my gaze. It’s about focusing my attention on solutions to a problem that I do not require any more photographic evidence to make more “real.”

 

I first visited Cleveland last year to attend a conference on the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL on Twitter). The first workshop I attended was a panel on building self-care and resilience through mindfulness. The facilitator had been dismayed by the slogan emblazoned on many conference attendees’ T-shirts: I can’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe,” she said, shaking her head. “No. We must.”

Later that day, I chatted with a young woman about the intersection of spirituality and activism. She admitted she was far more interested in spirituality than politics and talked of the power of the mind and the New Age notion that what you emit, energetically, is what you will attract. I said that I was interested in the same ideas, but mostly from a Buddhist perspective.

“But you can’t really say that here, you know,” I added.

“Oh, I know,” she said, acknowledging that such theories can sound as if they blame victims, suggesting that subjects of racist attacks, for example, cause their own brutalization because they somehow have drawn them through “attraction.”

Still, I said, shielding myself in a self-generated bubble of love seemed far more empowering than living in fear of racist violence. The refrain I kept hearing at the conference about “getting free” contradicted the principle that our freedom was inalienable from our very being, that our inner sense of freedom is a priori (prior to experience) rather than a posteriori (based on experience). That there is always an internal space in which we are already free. That we could shift our focus to this internal reality, separate from an unjust world. That this inner reality would precipitate changes in external circumstances. That—stubbornly, delusionally, and in spite of the tsunami of world experience that seems to insist upon the contrary—in order to get free, we would have to simply be free. And see what follows.

 

In May 2015, the city of Cleveland and the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree requiring the city to overhaul its use-of-force policies. The decree was the culmination of an eighteen-month federal probe by the Department of Justice into allegations that the Cleveland Police Department engaged in a pattern of violating civil rights. As early as 2011, civil rights advocates had called for a federal investigation into the city’s police force amid mounting claims of police brutality. A corrections officer guarding a broken fence in a prison yard was, for unclear reasons, tackled by four vice squad officers who had driven up to the yard’s perimeter. A man who had led Cleveland police officers on a high-speed car chase claimed that he was beaten after he was arrested, suffering a detached retina and broken eye socket. A witness reportedly watched an off-duty cop throw a burglary suspect on the hood or trunk of a car, beat him, and fatally shoot him.

By this June, monitors reported that the Cleveland PD had made "tremendous progress" in revising its use-of-force policies. But the proposed plan for the changes will not be made public until after the RNC. Details of the draft-in-progress have already been released. They highlight the role of an independent law enforcement agency to validate whether any use of deadly force is justified. The use of force at all other levels—from force that is least likely to cause injury (e.g., joint manipulation) up through what results in serious injury or hospitalization (e.g., shooting)—would be subject to more rigorous examination, requiring more than what the Justice Department has described as vague justifications for such force given by the police.

The mandated revisions to the police department’s search-and-seizure policy are not scheduled to begin until sometime next year. Police officers would, of course, be formally prohibited from taking into account race or religion when determining whether to stop and frisk anyone, and their documented explanations for making such stops would have to amount to more than “canned or conclusory” statements. The Cleveland PD also must establish a new recruitment policy that helps the police better reflect the diversity of the city, which is 53 percent black.

Law school has made me familiar with the tendency to believe that you can change the world one policy and procedure at a time. Yet I have come to see that what is crucial to effect societal change is the transformation of those who carry out such policies and procedures. It was likely this belief that led to the recruitment of Eliot Ness, the federal investigator who took on Al Capone’s Chicago bootlegging operations, to the Cleveland Regional Office of the Treasury Department in 1934. Over the previous two decades, the city’s police department had been infiltrated by organized crime. Ness (whose crew in Chicago was nicknamed “the Untouchables” for refusing to take bribes) immediately began investigating police officers for misconduct, indicting eight for bribery. When numerous police officers subsequently resigned, presumably to avoid a similar fate, Ness handpicked their replacements. He filled more than half of the vacancies with college graduates. Among the key procedural changes he implemented were raising the bar for getting hired as a police officer in the first place, making a required civil service test more challenging, and implementing so-called character investigations. During a two-year probationary period he instituted for all new recruits, Ness “tested their temperament as well as physical prowess,” according to the Cleveland Police Museum.

What was Timothy Loehmann’s temperament? Before he joined Cleveland’s police force, he spent five months working as a police officer in the Cleveland suburb of Independence. During that time, his supervisors had described Loehmann as “emotionally unstable.” He showed a “lack of maturity.” While training at the police academy’s gun range, he exhibited “a dangerous lack of composure.” The grand jury empaneled to determine if Loehmann should be criminally charged for killing Tamir Rice didn’t comment on any of that. Instead they agreed that he had responded in line with rules on “active-shooter situations” and therefore shouldn’t be indicted. Loehmann, in other words, had simply followed procedure.

 

Dancing at a party hosted by organizers of the conference, I melted into a spectrum of blackness that I rarely see represented in the same room, much less in mainstream media. Pants sagged and hugged hips. Hair bloomed into afros and twist-outs and was styled straight. (Could all of us women, I wondered, have been watching the same YouTube tutorials on hair and makeup?) Nerd chic represented, as did boho. Some guys played it cool, glancing past their shoulders for girls to dance with. One guy, hands pressed against the wall, coyly turned his head over his shoulder and did a Big Freedia bounce as his friends sashayed and twirled. And everyone knew almost every song.

I was humbled by the number of songs I didn’t know, inspired by what was suddenly clear was the next generation. I had a feeling that everything actually was going to be all right.

Wet with sweat, I sidestepped off the dance floor and out the front door, skirting past the bouncer of the club. Dizzy with contentment, I milled among folks who were chatting, smoking, checking their phones, or looking to no avail for a taxi. I had lingered for some time when I suddenly heard a raised voice right behind me. A woman was arguing with the bouncer, who made curt responses while looking past her head.

I walked over and asked what was wrong. She told me that she and a group of friends had gathered at the corner right near the club entrance and were talking and singing—“You know how we do.” The bouncer soon approached and accused them of smoking marijuana. She insisted that none of them had been smoking, that she certainly hadn’t, and demanded evidence of the bouncer’s claim. The bouncer shifted his weight back and forth, repeating nonanswers, looking everywhere but at her eyes. I tried to help, resorting to the kind of intimidation tactics one uses when dealing with an incompetent customer service rep. I asked for his name. I requested his manager. A young man nearby asked us what was wrong and joined our chorus after we told him. While the three of us pressed the bouncer, police cars rolled onto the scene. I was in shock.

“Really?” I cried. “Really? You called the police?”

The young man and woman snapped me back to attention, simultaneously rattling off statistics about the violence meted out against black trans women since the beginning of the year. (Yes, the woman we were supporting was black and trans.)

Police officers filed past us into the club, and soon clubgoers started to empty out the front door en masse. We asked one young man what was going on and were told that a security guard inside the club had seen a trans person going into what he considered to be the “wrong” bathroom and called the cops.

I found myself suspended in multiple layers of disbelief, a sentiment that echoed through the growing crowd outside the club.

Don’t they know what this event is all about? Don’t they know who we are?

 

Riots don’t just happen. The stage for riots is set long before they occur. In the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland—two square miles on the city’s east side—the stage was set when whites fled from a growing black population, and then by relatively high unemployment and relatively low incomes, under-resourced schools, overcrowded housing, rental homes neglected by absentee landlords, and inadequate government services. When researchers interviewed Hough residents in the aftermath of a rash of looting, arson, vandalism, and gunfire that lasted nearly a week in July 1966, one word kept being repeated: frustration.

The Cleveland PD was yet another source of frustration. In the midst of the disorder, Hough residents aired their disdain for the police. One person testified at a Civil Rights commission hearing that “it would help if the police stopped bugging us all the time, picking up people on the streets for no reason.” Among the chief categories of police complaints by Hough residents was unnecessary brutality in making arrests and a failure to address civilian claims of abuse. They also complained of constantly being deemed “suspicious persons.” Statistics showed that there was a higher percentage of arrests resulting in subsequent release without charge in the city’s fifth police district, where Hough is located. Here the kind of stop-and-frisk tactic practiced by Martin McFadden was experienced as a form of ongoing harassment. 

So-called riots can seem like they just happen. It is anyone’s guess which incident among so many others is the tipping point, the catalyst. In the case of the Hough riots, it is generally believed to be the refusal of white owners of the Seventy-Niner’s Café to serve a glass of water to a black would-be customer, followed by an inflammatory sign posted on the café door reading “No Water for Niggers.” Moreover, even the word riot is a misnomer. Its meaning—“a violent disturbance of the peace”—doesn’t indicate the socioeconomic strains and civil rights violations that underlie such quasi-peace, in the way “rebellion” or “uprising” do. Terms like “unrest” or “civil disturbance,” which attempt to describe such events neutrally, are nonetheless more appropriate.

Two years after the Hough riots, more fault lines between police and black residents erupted when members of a black nationalist group engaged in a shootout with police in the northeastern part of the city. One afternoon in July 1968, a tow-truck operator trying to remove an abandoned car in the Glenville neighborhood was shot in the back. It remains unclear who shot first, but all of the action was centered around a man named Fred Ahmed Evans, leader of the Black Nationalists of New Libya, a local activist group that infused spirituality with a black nationalist ideology centered on Afrocentrism and self-defense.

Carl Stokes with his wife, Shirley, acknowledges cheers of crowd at his campaign headquarters election night. Bettman/Getty Images.

Before the shootout started, an informant acquainted with the group—who would often be paid by law enforcement for information—told local officials of a purported plot by Evans to obtain illegal firearms from outside the state and assassinate several high-ranking members of the city government—including Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor. After police surveillance was established around Evans’ home, he became wary, certain he was the target of police harassment

While some believe the abandoned car was deliberately placed by Evans and his crew to stage an ambush on the tow-truck driver and draw in the police, others maintain that the driver was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Evans later said he and his group were ambushed, not the police. What is clear—and augurs the recent fatal shootings of five police officers in Dallas—is the mutuality of fearful expectations and their bloody results. Over the course of the ensuing shootout, seven people died—including three members of the nationalist group and three police officers. The violence triggered a spate of looting and arson in the area that led Stokes to request the governor to deploy the National Guard.

On the day after the shootout, Stokes and black community leaders came up with a plan to cordon off the six-square-mile area where most of the violence and looting was occurring. Only black police officers would patrol inside this area. The National Guard and white police officers would be stationed at the perimeter. The hope was that this would gain the confidence of black residents. The black police officers and leaders within the zone were called “peace patrols.” Any white people who were not residents of the area, including white reporters, were to be kept out of the cordoned area. Though the arson and looting did not completely halt, there were no more killings or serious injuries after the plan was implemented.

There is an ongoing debate over whether the racial makeup of police departments will improve “community relations” between officers and citizens, and, more substantively, reduce incidents of profiling and brutality. The recent federal consent decree with Cleveland is not the first to mandate increased diversity in the police department. In 1977 the city was found to have engaged in discriminatory hiring, promotion, and recruitment. It was ordered to emphasize establishing better relations with the community and increased diversity in hiring.

That was nearly forty years ago. As Stokes’ response to the Glenville Shootout demonstrated, changing the racial face of the police might be effective only when it is a strategy with a specific goal—one focused on establishing peace rather than assuming control through fear. Otherwise, diversity efforts are akin to performing cosmetic surgery in order to change a patient’s personality. Reformation is not the same as transformation.    

 

More police cars had pulled up by the time the club had been fully evacuated. I watched as officers filed out of them and stood facing our group. What their racial makeup was, I couldn’t say. All I saw was a line of blue.

Is this it? I thought. Is this where I get shot by some cop? Or wind up a live witness to someone else getting shot?

Earlier that day, in a university quad, I’d watched a group chant and sing to a syncopated beat. I had joined the onlookers who encircled the group, clapping and dancing along, while others filmed on their smartphones.

Here we all were again—chanters, onlookers, and smartphones—except now officers from the Cleveland PD were stoic members of the audience. There was a call and response, with one of the conference’s key organizers making the “call” that we all echoed to make a human microphone.

“We were disrespected tonight!”

We were disrespected tonight!

“We love you!”

“We love you!”

“You are sacred!”

You are sacred!

We cheered and followed the lead of some who started to chant. Black lives matter! Black lives matter! On the offbeat: We gon’ be all right! We gon’ be all right! The forbidding presence of the police could not penetrate the field that emanated from us, from me, as we acted from love and I stopped reacting from fear. My anxiety dispelled, I felt a sense of safety that defied the circumstances. After we eventually dispersed, all physically unharmed, I felt carried by this feeling on my long walk back home.

 

I was already on a bus back to New York when Cleveland police officers pepper-sprayed a crowd protesting the dubious arrest of a black fourteen-year-old boy in front of the university where the conference was being held.

Nearly one year later, I keep returning to the immediately iconic photo of a young black woman in Baton Rouge, her head gently raised, shoulders back, the embodiment of peace, seemingly almost levitating as two helmeted police officers in full-on riot gear rush toward her, a long line of their brethren standing in formation behind them. I have since integrated the dissonance I’d felt while discussing spirituality and activism at the conference, and now have less simplistic views on the relationship between inner peace and outer peace, or between inner peace and justice. The mission, I can now see—for Black Lives Matter and perhaps even for protesters at the RNC—is maintaining inner peace and inner freedom not to dissuade external oppression but in spite of what or who is mobilized to confront you. Even as the tanks roll in.