Police Reform in Cleveland: 100 Years Project

The CPC’s 100 Year Project documents the history of policing and police reform in Cleveland from 1922 to the present. Follow our timeline starting in Cleveland in the 1920s, or see past reform recommendations made by policing topic. This is an ongoing project and we encourage all interested individuals and organizations to join us in expanding on this research.


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.

Significant Events

Highlighted major events in this time frame, Not intended to be an all inclusive list.

Political Climate

The general mood and opinions about political and social issues in the 20s & 30s

  • Partisan politics – Cleveland was heavily Republican with pockets of Democrats among some immigrant communities.
  • Cleveland is the 5th largest city in the U.S. (800k), with around 1,300 police officers.
  • Crime is increasing in America, and Cleveland is no exception; Prohibition has lead to a huge spike in organized crime.
  • “Growing feeling of insecurity in life and property” among Clevelanders; high murder rate, property crime and stolen cars.
  • “Critical lens on police performance and crime control. The “law and order argument” is forming. Civil liberties vs police intervention is a concern.
  • There is an ethnic and religious power struggle in the City, i.e, Catholics and Masons as the “in’s” and “out’s” depending on political power at the time.
  • Neighborhoods were changing with industrialization and migration of black and brown residents to Cleveland; there were 70k black residents in 1930. Although Cleveland has had a long history of black citizens settling here in the 20’s and 30’s there is significant discrimination and even Jim Crow legacy segregation. The public relied on police to enforce these things.
  • Crime is both independent and organized; bribery of officers and officials by criminal enterprise exists as a matter of fact.
  • The police reform movement is in its infancy; there is a push by some to better study and understand policing.
  • Labor unions were growing and changing. Police v. Labor was the norm.

Police Reform Key Highlights

Table listing a problem or concern along with a summary of recommended reforms. These are not the exact words from the text, but are summarized by our researchers as best as possible – highlighting key points and phrases.

Summary of Problem or Concern

Summary of Proposed Reform

Loyalty of leadership to existing politics/favoritism

Get outsiders to lead the department; preferably a civilian with experience in human relations

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

No standards for quality of promoted officers

Promotions based on merit, modify civil service promotions

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Conflicting rules about who is in command, convoluted hierarchy

Change Charter, one civilian director, streamline authority, and improve organizational efficiency

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Outdated boundaries, corruption in precincts

Consolidate stations (17 in 1922) (CJC first recommended mini-stations)

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Poor detective work, low solve/clearance rate

Specialized or separate detective bureaus (CJC recommended that it be a bureau outside of the CDP)

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Poorly performing officers, some with low moral character and ability, drinking on the job

Improve recruiting, recruit based on character and fitness for police work; (CJC implied hiring fewer, more competent officers at higher pay)

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Many officers lacking essential policing skills

Improve police training, make the academy more like a university with outside experts teaching courses

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Discipline is frequently overturned by Civil Service, often political in nature

Change discipline process and modify/remove civil service to make it easier to discipline bad officers

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Wickersham, Eliot Ness

Officers working with organized crime; take bribes; shake downs

Go after corrupt and abusive officers

Sources Recommending: Wickersham, Eliot Ness

Officers use the “3rd Degree,” engage in gang activities

End police brutality and encourage de-escalation (Ness introduced de-escalation and defensive only training)

Sources Recommending: Wickersham, Eliot Ness

Lack of clarity on what is effective policing and ways to improve

Improve data collection

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Slow response times, lack of service; dangerous driving

Utilize more auto patrols, fewer foot patrols; increase traffic enforcement

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Lack of community trust

Community outreach and engagement

Sources Recommending: Eliot Ness

Juvenile delinquency, poor impact of police on social factors

Expanded social programs for youth, e.g., Scouting, Boys and Girls clubs, etc.; establish a social services bureau

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Insufficient staffing

Do more with existing officers; improve efficiency (Ness faced budget cuts and CJC unconvinced it was a lack of officers)

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Eliot Ness

Lack of organizational learning

The academy should be constantly studying the problems in the organization and recommending improvements

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle.

Racial/ethnic/religious bias within the CDP and between officers and citizens

Ness assigned officers to match the demographics of the area they patrolled; this was controversial then as now

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle., Wickersham, Eliot Ness

Poor interactions with women

Establish a Women’s Bureau

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle.

Overly sensationalized reporting on crime

Police should not feed press overly sensational stories

Sources Recommending: Criminal Justice in Cle.

Criminal Justice in Cleveland

Published in 1922, the First Cleveland Police Organizational Study

In 1922, the Cleveland Police Foundation conducted a study titled, “Criminal Justice in Cleveland.” The 700 page study was the first of its kind to survey the Cleveland police and recommend major changes to the way it operates.

This document may be first organizational survey of a police department in U.S. and first “Statistical method” study of a criminal Justice System. It’s mostly silent on criminal misconduct, but instead focuses on ethics as a leadership quality.

Read the document here:

Highlighted Quotes

Police machinery in the United States has not kept pace with modern demands. It has developed no effective technique to master the burden which modern social and industrial conditions impose. Clinging to old traditions, bound by old practices which business and industry have long ago discarded, employing a personnel poorly adapted to its purposes, it grinds away on its perfunctory task without self criticism, without imagination, and with little initiative. From this general indictment the Cleveland police department cannot be excepted.

– 1922 Cleveland Police Foundation Study: Criminal Justice in Cleveland

Continuing the Research

The CPC’s research into the documented history of the Cleveland police is ongoing as part of the 100 Years Project. 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.

If you are an individual or organization interested in joining us in taking a deeper dive into this information, please contact us to get involved in expanding on this research.

Join the Research

Please contact CPC Senior Policy Analyst, Ryan Walker, at rwalker@clecpc.org to get involved in expanding on this research.

Schedule a Presentation

CPC researchers are available for interviews and custom presentations for schools, groups or organizations interested in this project or its findings.

Questions or Feedback

We welcome your questions & comments about this project. Contact us via the information listed on our contact page or start a conversation on our community forum.

100 Years Project: Explore by Decade or Topic

Read about key documents and events by year, or learn about how each police reform issue area mandated by the 2015 Consent Decree compares to recommendations made in the past.