100 Years of Police Reform in Cleveland (1922 - 2022)
An educational project documenting the history of policing and police reform in Cleveland from 1922 to the present
About the Project
What did policing in Cleveland look like in the past? This is the question that initiated the CPC’s research and led to the findings of numerous documented attempts to reform the Cleveland police – the first of which dates back to the year 1922.
The 700 page study published in 1922 titled, “Criminal Justice in Cleveland” conducted by the Cleveland Police Foundation, was the first of its kind to survey the Cleveland police and recommend major changes to the way it operates. Since that initial report, the CPC found documents written by past commissions, task forces, and other committees that show reoccurring organizational problems, bias, and misconduct within the Cleveland police are still present today and that many reform attempts have proven short lived and often unsustainable.
Highlights of recurring problems observed in the past 100 years include: Police criminal behavior, excessive use of police force, biased policing, an over reliance on tradition to guide practice, poor internal business management practices and oppressive toxic relationships with many black and brown neighborhood’s residents. Reform ideas, often labeled as new or progressive, tend to repeat themselves decade after decade and are met with heavy resistance from a politically powerful police division.
The CPC’s “100 Years Project” is a collection of reports documenting the history of Cleveland police practices and reform recommendations that is open to the public. This is an ongoing project that will be continuously updated as research continues and additional reports are added to the collection.
A chronology of key documents and significant events in the history of Cleveland policing can be found on the timeline below.
By looking into Cleveland’s past, the CPC aims to help the community gain a better understanding of what policing practices have been successful, what issues exist, and what lessons still need to be learned to move forward in creating a more sustainable policing model for the future.
Follow the timeline to learn about the key documents, reform recommendations, and significant events in the history of policing in Cleveland.
Policing in the
1920s - 1930s
Prohibition has led to a spike in crime, exacerbated by the Great Depression; Cleveland’s police division needs reforms to keep up and modernize yet even the recommendations of a future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, and the efforts of America’s most legendary law man, Eliot Ness, fail to yield lasting reforms.Read More 1920s - 1930s
Policing in the
1940s - 1950s
After WWII, there is an economic boom across the US and Cleveland; the police aim to apply the military style organization and tactics many officers grew accustomed to during the war to policing. Police organizations grow and successfully enter the realm of politics. Racial segregation and discrimination start to become major points of contention.Read More 1940s - 1950s
Policing in the
1960s - 1970s
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Cleveland is facing multiple challenges: rising crime, economic decline, and police corruption. Carl Stokes, America’s first Black mayor of a major city, despite repeated efforts, is unable to enact lasting reforms. Neighborhoods rise up against continued police brutality and lack of equal treatment under the law.Read More 1960s - 1970s
Policing in the
1980s - 1990s
The "war on drugs" hits Cleveland hard and the crime rate peaks in the early 1990s, Cleveland looks for a way to modernize its police force and improve community-police relations. Unresolved complaints of police brutality lead to a citizen referendum for change and oversight. Even with the new complaint investigation system in place police manage to escape accountability and little change occurs.Read More 1980s - 1990s
Policing in the
2000s - Present
Cleveland’s police force faces growing national scrutiny, the United States Department of Justice intervenes twice. In 2015 after the tragic killings of individuals by police including Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams, the DOJ and City agree to a Consent Decree — the ongoing process that provides Cleveland’s citizens an opportunity to end the century long cycle of unconstitutional police practices.Read More 2000s - Present
See how the police reforms mandated by the 2015 Consent Decree compare to recommendations made in the past:
100 Years Project: Takeaways
What the CPC has learned so far from its research into the history of policing in Cleveland
- Crime is ever present in Cleveland, often a “high” levels. Fear of crime, particularly violent crime, is also ever present. Police impact on crime levels is negligible or unproven based on our reviewed data.
- Cleveland Division of Police are always described as having a high to moderately high number of personnel based on population when compared to other cities. This is even true in the toughest times of fiscal crisis.
- Morale is described as low in the Division in the majority of cases it is studied. Low morale appears to be the baseline of the Cleveland Division of Police. The players and “ins” and “outs” may change but the in-fighting, cliques, favoritism and racial inequalities inside the department are well documented, toxic and enduring throughout the century.
- Changes in leadership happen at an extremely high rate in Cleveland. There is no doubt an impact to police reform. The Jackson administration is the exception. 19 mayors in the period of 100 years and 40 police chiefs since the Division was created.
- The relationship between the majority white, male police force and communities of color has never been good. Until recently the police held all the power and there is a well documented history of racism, brutality and other discriminatory police practices in Cleveland against minorities.
- Change inside the division does not keep pace with changes in the city itself or even in law enforcement nationwide. It’s not even close. Cleveland Division of police is an extremely siloed bureaucracy. This is a significant source of internal and external tension.
- Reform is a roller coaster ride in Cleveland, we get studies and reports, we make some progress, courts sometimes intervene, then there is backslide or a new problem which starts the cycle over.
- Most recommendations for change are ignored or have the life expectancy of the administration in charge, with few exceptions.
A common defensive response when police are provided feedback by outsiders is the idea that only an officer can be an expert in policing or understand policing.
After examining dozens of reports – primarily produced by civilians studying the Cleveland police over the past century – the CPC’s research shows that the question should actually be reversed. The question that should be asked instead is: Are police officers able to understand the needs of the community, the complex societal issues, and internal organizational issues as well as outside civilians can?
It’s not an issue of civilians understanding police, they have clearly demonstrated a capacity to do so many times over. It’s an issue of many police “experts” having tunnel vision.
One of the greatest problems observed over the last 100 years in Cleveland is the fact that the Cleveland police operate in a silo. Shunning outside influence, the organization typically operates as an echo chamber that has been persistent for decades.
For the larger part of the century, the Cleveland police were responsible for setting their own training and educational standards. They diligently promoted traditions and practices that became the “Cleveland way” of doing things. The Division’s practices on the street were often in conflict with the values of the neighborhoods they serve. This continued through the 1970’s even after the State of Ohio set minimum standards for training peace officers in the state.
Cleveland used its own instructors to deliver the curriculum from the state – a practice which continues today. Today’s standards of training only require a high school diploma and a minimum of 737 hours of police topics. Cleveland supplements this with a field training program and additional yearly in service training after graduation from basic academy. To put it in perspective, a cosmetologist in Ohio has to attain 1500 hours of basic training to obtain their professional license.
Over time, experience becomes a substitute for higher education, structured analysis and thoughtful consideration of issues. Outside perspective that takes an evidence based approach, uses scientific analysis or attempts to bring new ideas into the division is often met with heavy resistance from the “status quo” who wears experience as a badge of honor. This is not to say that an officer’s experience has no value. There are many hard working officers who have used their experience and training to do good in their role. There have also been officers who have used it to fight for the betterment of the organization as a whole. It is a higher level, data-driven analysis of organizational group thinking and group psychology in general by outsiders that is met with the most resistance.
What do civilians and other occupations have to offer?
When you look at who participated in the creation of many of the recommendations, we see attorneys, judges, M.D.’s, clergy, civil servants, academics, C.E.O’s, blue-collared workers and elected officials. All gave time, education and wisdom to the betterment of the Cleveland Division of Police.
Many were not compensated. All understood the needs and values of the community, the inherent risks involved in policing, the concepts of what policing is and should be, and the difference between organizational growth outside of the police department when compared to inside the police department. Often they were given access to the Division’s personnel and records in order to supplement any technical knowledge they may have lacked.
The recommendations that were produced by these groups were grounded in careful analysis of data and were evidence based. The reports they produced demonstrated a detailed understanding of what the Cleveland Division of Police was at particular moments in time and, what it needed to do in the immediate future to be a better version of itself. At the end of the process they often knew and understood the inner workings of the Division better than its collective membership knew itself.
- There is more diversity in the Division, but it still does not mirror Cleveland populations.
- Large scale “organized criminal corruption” appears to have been addressed. We are now focused on personal officer misconduct.
- Use of force is down currently. However, there is no agreement on why or for how long.
- The complaint process is currently more efficient then it has ever been.
- There is more consideration of the Constitution in policy now then then any period of time in the Division’s history. In some instances policy goes beyond the Constitution.
- There is significant pencil policy change in 100 years. This is especially true due to the Consent Decree. This is the easiest change to achieve, the quality and efficacy is not typically measured historically.
- Body cameras add a large amount of public transparency.
- Cultural change is difficult to achieve; It will take more than providing training, adding diversity or changing policy.
- Use Civilians. One of the primary issues with lack of service is officers doing civilian work or “special details” for 100 years.
- The shadow organizations in Cleveland Division of Police are a problem. They must be addressed. Period.
- We continue to ignore generations of knowledge; we should search for what we have not tried and take the hard road; i.e., raising the educational bar for police officers
- Trust will not be achieved through a public relations campaign or a few statistics that show brief improvement.
- Look to private sector leadership and management practices, phase out top down, military style organizational principles.
- Openness and transparency matter. Collective brain power of academia, the private sector and others will help this organization grow but only if it can see into it unobstructed.
- Human relations, not just discipline, but organizational management and organizational psychology must be a key characteristic of police leadership. Police experience should be the lesser required trait.
- We are not taking a data driven, scientific empirical approach to policing, organizational issues or crime. We are guessing and relying on tradition or experience.
- Long term planning with key performance indicators and continuity in leadership commitment must occur. The Consent Decree should be considered a starting point, not a finish line.
Video: Timeline of Policing in Cleveland
Members of the CPC present their findings about the issues, achievements, and reoccurring lessons not learned to create effective policing in Cleveland over the past 100 years.
In October 2021, the Commission held an in-person presentation that walked through the history of policing practices in Cleveland and the reforms recommended through the decades. The presentation concluded with an open community forum for comments or to ask questions. Click here to download the presentation (pdf), or read the Commission’s responses to attendee questions.
100 Years Project: The Research Continues
The 100 Years Project is a work in progress. The Community Police Commission asks all interested individuals and organizations to join us in taking a deeper dive into this information, to ask and to answer more questions: