Tuesday, January 13, 2015

3rd Police District is the ‘forward operating base’ in Justice Dept. report

The Justice Department’s scolding report on the Cleveland police department has brought up lots of unanswered questions, but here is one I can answer.

The 3rd police district -- which includes downtown, University Circle, Hough, Fairfax, and Central – is the place where the commander referred to the station as a “forward operating base” in an interview with Justice investigators. A sign in the station’s vehicle bay used the phrase too.

The 3rd Police District
The comment alarmed the Justice investigators, who saw it as a sign of an us-vs.-them mentality among police.

“There’s actually an interesting story behind that sign,” 3rd District commander Patrick Stephens told me. “They totally missed the point of the sign.”

Stephens said he’d be happy to answer questions about it, but had to call the chief’s office for permission first. Permission was denied.

Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, was a 3rd District detective until the end of December. Loomis says the “forward operating base” sign was up in the vehicle bay of the station at 10600 Chester Avenue for at least a year, and was taken down after the Justice Department report came out in December.

“I think the commander’s son is in the military,” Loomis says. “It’s a term of endearment. I don’t think there’s anything sinister to it.

“We’re out there doing the job every day like the military guys,” Loomis added. “That was the premise behind the sign. We have an extraordinary amount of military guys join the police department. Those are just terms they know and understand.”

The Justice Department found the “forward operating base” line disturbing. “Such metaphors have no place in a community-oriented police department,” the December report says.

“This characterization reinforces the view held by some—both inside and outside the Division—that CDP is an occupying force instead of a true partner and resource in the community it serves,” the report says. It even cites the military line as an example of its finding that the department “too often polices in a way that contributes to community distrust and a lack of respect for officers.”

Phyllis Cleveland, city councilwoman for Ward 5, which includes parts of the 3rd Police District, says she sees two ways of looking at the phrase.

“It has a connotation that's very militaristic, maybe even a hostile-type attitude, for the average non-police-officer, non-law-enforcement person,” Cleveland says.

“My other reaction is also that in almost any other industry, or sector, or type of job, you have your gallows type of humor.

“Overall, it doesn’t look good,” Cleveland added. “Taken into the context of all the other things in the report, and things that are happening, it’s not a good look.”

Is the sign a warning of a broader problem? Cleveland says she has “great respect and admiration” for Stephens, commander of the 3rd District since 2011. “He’s been very responsive as commander to me and other residents in the community.”

Cleveland says complaints about the police in her ward are usually about officers being discourteous; brutality complaints there are rare, she says.

Taking the sign down is just a start, Cleveland says.

“I think what everyone wants to do is come to some kind of understanding and find a way to reestablish or establish trust between the police and the community,” she says.

Cleveland and Loomis both say they support the Justice Department’s call for more community policing. But, “there’s no consensus around what that really means,” Cleveland says.

Loomis notes that Cleveland once had a robust community policing strategy, including mini-stations in neighborhoods, but it was dismantled in the mid-2000s when then-mayor Jane Campbell laid off about 500 police officers. Mayor Frank Jackson has reduced the force by about 300 more officers, to about 1,300, he says. So 911 calls trump foot patrols and school visits.

“The reality is, there’s not time,” Loomis says. “We’re going run to run to run to run. We’re a skeleton crew.”

Writer and activist Mansfield Frazier, who lives in the 3rd District, says the “forward operating base” comment confirms his concerns about the average policeman patrolling Hough.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that by and large, police are an army of occupation in some communities,” Frazier says. “That shows they feel the same way.”

When he’s out in his Hough Ave. vineyard, Frazier has written, black police officers often wave or call out greetings, while white officers rarely do, even when he greets them. “In the black community, they want to treat everybody like they’re thugs,” he argues. “They don’t differentiate.”

Frazier calls Stephens “a very decent guy” who quickly returns his calls, and he says some officers have gotten friendlier lately. But overall, he says, “This whole notion is, I don’t want to be invested, don’t want to get to know you, don’t want to be your friend.”

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