Keeping the Peace in Cleveland: The Community Outreach That Prevented Violent Protests

July 1, 2015

[bao dandan/xinhua press/corbis]
[bao dandan/xinhua press/corbis]

Just weeks after devastating rioting and looting took place in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, the city of Cleveland took center stage in the growing national debate over police treatment of Blacks.

In November 2012, 62 Cleveland police vehicles embarked on a 20-minute high-speed chase after a car whose driver disobeyed a police order to pull over. Two Black passengers were in the car. The chase ended when police cruisers surrounded the car, and 13 officers fired 137 bullets at the unarmed passengers — killing them both.

One officer, Michael Brelo, was charged with manslaughter. In a four-week bench trial, Cuyahoga County Judge John P. O’Donnell found Brelo not guilty, despite the fact that he fired 15 shots at the suspects after the chase had ended.

National news networks broadcast the verdict, live, this past May 23. Anticipating violent protests after the announcement, Cleveland police mobilized and called in backup from the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Additional safety forces were on standby.

At nearby Mount Zion Church, 800 people of all races were attending a Northeast Ohio Gridiron Men’s Conference. When event organizers heard that the verdict announcement was imminent, they immediately suspended the program and prayed for peace in Cleveland.

“[We] got on our knees and asked the Lord no matter what the verdict [is]…don’t riot,” said the Rev. Rodney Maiden, who has been the senior pastor of Providence Baptist Church on Cleveland’s southeast side for the past 35 years.

Quelling the violence

National observers believed that by May 2015, Cleveland was trapped in race relations zugzwang, a German term meaning that no matter what move the city made next, it would be worse off.

Six months earlier, Cleveland police officers killed a 12-year-old Black boy, Tamir Rice, after responding to a 911 call. It turned out that Rice was wielding a toy gun.

A month later, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced findings from a 21-month investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP), calling the CDP “structurally flawed.” Some of the DOJ’s conclusions included:

  • During encounters with citizens, CDP officers frequently used excessive force.
  • CDP officers were not properly trained on how to act in encounters with physically or mentally ill citizens.
  • Cleveland failed to properly investigate and discipline officers who used excessive force.

Then came the riots in Ferguson, Mo., protests over the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore.

But events in late May proved that Cleveland was different. The city and its leaders benefited from excellent PR counsel. Additionally, timing played a role in the public reaction.

According to Darren Toms, community outreach coordinator for Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, officials proposed a weekend morning verdict because that’s when the fewest people would be downtown. A workday announcement could have led to traffic jams and additional safety concerns.

“We did it on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend simply because the verdict was ready, and there was no reason to prolong it for another week,” he said.

In addition, school wasn’t in session, which helped prevent a repeat of the teen protests seen in Baltimore. The Cleveland Cavaliers were home for the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, and superstar LeBron James — who called for justice after Garner’s death — used his Twitter account to make a plea for peace. The CDP allowed peaceful protests, but eventually arrested 71 people after some protesters turned violent.

“So much time had passed that much of that anger and passion of the moment had dissipated,” said Tom Beres, senior political correspondent at WKYC-TV in Cleveland, about the Brelo verdict. “Even though Cleveland had the same potential brew of poverty, crime, hopelessness…and other conditions as a backdrop as Baltimore, the outcome was not the same outrage and violence.”

Changing the focus

Two days later, on Memorial Day, media reports circulated that the DOJ and the city of Cleveland had reached a consent decree addressing the CDP’s many flaws.

The DOJ and the city held a joint news conference to announce the agreement on May 26. Cleveland benefited from experienced hands: Dan Williams, Cleveland’s media relations director, is a U.S. Army public affairs veteran who helped manage the Abu Ghraib crisis in 2003-2004. Additionally, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (similar to a chamber of commerce) called on Dix & Eaton, a leading Cleveland PR firm, to assist the city.

In the consent decree, which Chief U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. approved on June 12, Cleveland will make substantial changes in its CDP, including:

  • Community engagement, including creation of a community police commission to provide input on police policies, training, civilian oversight and community engagement, as well as implementation of a comprehensive community and problem-oriented policing model to strengthen partnerships and solve problems.
  • Search and seizure practices and bias-free policing, including revision of policies and training to ensure that all stops and searches are constitutional and take community values into account; tracking and analysis of interactions between the police and residents; community input into comprehensive training related to bias-free policing; and development of a recruiting plan which will attract a diverse group of applicants.
  • Use of force practices, including revising policies and improving training and guidance on when and how officers may use force; and strengthening systems for reviewing and investigating uses of force.

City of Cleveland sources told Tactics that, although the timing with the Brelo verdict was coincidental, Cleveland leaders worked hard to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the CDP’s numerous flaws.

This began when Mayor Frank G. Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams — who are both Black — held a series of highly publicized community town hall meetings in the months after the DOJ findings against the CDP.

“Our community relations board was active connecting with many groups, all talking about the same thing at the same time,” said one Cleveland source. “There was a whole different atmosphere of two-way conversations going on, and then a lot of rolling up the sleeves and hard work to get the consent decree done.”

“The professionals in the PR community in Cleveland are very strong and tuned into the city,” said Christian Hunter, APR, president of the PRSA Greater Cleveland Chapter. “We take a lot of pride in our city and are very vocal about issues affecting it, so it’s no surprise we come together to help each other in challenging situations.”

And Beres, who has covered politics in Cleveland for more than 30 years, gave Mayor Jackson high marks for his insistence on dealing with  the CDP’s deficiencies and quickly achieving a consent decree.

“The mayor’s outreach [efforts] also paid dividends,” Beres added. “Mayor Jackson and his team are [now] talking to a lot of people out there, and leaders are being educated on what the decree will do.”

The Rev. Maiden also applauded the settlement, with one major caveat. “What the DOJ did was unveil and reveal some things that most people in the community already knew,” he said. “A law cannot change a person’s heart, and there is a lot of skepticism in the African-American community. Will the police department go back to business as usual, or are there going to be any major changes?”

Overcoming hurdles

Cleveland’s peaceful reaction to police treatment of Blacks could change.

On June 11, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald B. Adrine ruled that there was probable cause to indict two CDP officers in Rice’s death.

“It will almost be a slap in the face of the community if [the courts] don’t do anything about [the Rice shooting],” the Rev. Maiden said. “African-Americans believe that we have two justice systems — one for Whites and one for Blacks.”

Additionally, Cleveland’s PR community has room for improvement in racial diversity. A majority of the city’s population is Black, but none of the Dix & Eaton personnel assisting the city with communications on the dissent decree were minorities. A survey of the area’s leading PR firms found very little diversity among their employees.

“When thinking about what it takes to have a robust, well-rounded team, PR groups should include points of view with a diverse perspective,” said Larcine Bland, a diversity management consultant with Texas-based LLB Consulting.

Bland added that PR firms and organizations should embrace diversity as an important value-added component, make diversity and inclusion top-down strategies, be intentional about inclusion and build community contacts and diversity liaisons.

John D. Kerezy, APR
John D. Kerezy, APR, is associate professor of journalism/mass communications at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. He is also director of crisis, governmental and political communications for the Unified Strategies Public Relations Network.


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