Public Safety & Justice

Gundemic

Every day, a kid is brought in -- head hung, wrists cuffed behind his (or, occasionally, her) back, a police officer on each arm, steering...
by | May 31, 2008

Every day, a kid is brought in -- head hung, wrists cuffed behind his (or, occasionally, her) back, a police officer on each arm, steering the offender into the small holding room in the basement of Cleveland's Juvenile Detention Center. These are Cuyahoga County's most dangerous -- and most troubled -- youth. The mother beaters. The school brawlers charged with aggravated assault. The "slingers" caught with crack cocaine on the corner.

Three years ago, charges of drug possession and trafficking were what brought many, if not most, of these kids here. Not anymore. To all intents and purposes, says Sam Amata, the head of the juvenile division in the Cuyahoga County public defender's office, the drug charges "have gone away." It's almost always firearms now. The most notorious recent cases -- five teenagers who terrorized a Shaker Heights lawyer out for a jog on New Year's Eve; a 15-year-old robber who shot a convenience store clerk and then demanded cash from him; the 17-year-old pulled out of the wreck of a stolen car with a bullet-proof vest strapped to his body -- all involved guns.

The city of Cleveland is awash in guns. Some are legal, thanks to Ohio's lenient concealed-weapons law. Many are not. Either way, they are ending up in the hands of young men who are willing to use them. The result, says Mayor Frank Jackson, has been "a lethal combination" that's driven the homicide rate up to levels that haven't been seen in more than a decade.

Since 2004, Cleveland's murder rate has risen by 56 percent, from 86 in 2004 to 134 in 2007. Cleveland's experience is not unique. After a decade during which violent crime fell across the country by 30 percent, violent crime in general -- and gun crime in particular -- has returned to many American cities. Since 2005, Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia have seen alarming increases in homicide. The trend is not yet a national one: In the first half of 2007 (the most recent period for which data are available), nationwide violent crime rates were essentially flat. But many big cities have been hit hard. The worst numbers, says University of Pennsylvania criminologist Lawrence Sherman, are in cities with highly concentrated, racially segregated poverty, lax gun laws, and relatively few of the immigrant newcomers who seem to make dangerous areas safer.

However, even cities that have so far avoided homicide spikes are worried. Earlier this year, Los Angeles and New York, long considered national models for falling crime, saw sharp and worrisome homicide increases. Equally ominous, homicide clearance rates are falling in most of the country -- meaning that more people are getting away with murder.

Faced with this bad news, police departments have been focusing their attention on guns. In Baltimore, gun offenders are now required to keep police informed of where they live. In Boston (which saw sharp increases in homicide in 2005) and in Washington, D.C. (which experienced 7 percent more homicides last year than in 2006), police have begun to send officers into high-crime neighborhoods to ask parents for permission to search their kids' rooms for illegal firearms (with the understanding that any guns found will be removed, with no charges filed).

But Cleveland and Philadelphia have gone further. In both cities, African-American mayors have directed their police departments to use tactics in high-crime, black neighborhoods that few white mayors would dare to authorize. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has instructed police to conduct more "stop-and-frisk" searches. In Cleveland, Mayor Jackson signed off in January on an aggressive new gun-suppression strategy that hinges on profiling pedestrians who might be carrying guns. If it is successful, it could redefine the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in policing. If it fails, it could inflame the very tensions that Jackson has spent much of his life trying to alleviate. The mayor puts it bluntly, "I say to people, 'Don't call the pit bull out and tell it not to bite.'"

Changing Course

There is not only considerable risk in what Jackson is doing -- there is a fair amount of irony in it. A tall, courtly 62-year-old man, the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother, Jackson has lived on 38th Street in Cleveland his entire life, and currently lives one door down from where he was born. He is skeptical about the ability of policing to solve the problem of crime, which he sees as deeply rooted in economic deprivation. "It's the culture that keeps you in check, not the law," says the mayor. "What we've gotten to now as a society is we look to the law, to the police, almost like an army that keeps everyone in check. That's a dangerous proposition and it leads to a dangerous outcome."

Indeed, when Jackson challenged incumbent Mayor Jane Campbell in 2005, one of his main issues was police conduct -- or misconduct, as many African-Americans saw it. For years, Cleveland had been roiled by police shootings in black neighborhoods, which were invariably followed by slow, secretive, multi-year investigations. In the months before the 2005 primary election, the city experienced another wave of police shootings that undoubtedly contributed to Jackson's big victory.

Jackson moved quickly to make good on his campaign promises, announcing a no-tolerance policy toward excessive use of force and moving to clear up the large backlog of investigations into past complaints. But then events forced him to change course. In the spring of 2007, in the Cleveland neighborhood called Mount Pleasant, a 15-year-old armed with a handgun attempted to rob a man in front of his home. Instead, the intended victim shot and killed him. Neighbors responded to the incident by memorializing the would-be robber and hounding the shooter out of the neighborhood. The city's mood turned angry. In response, Mayor Jackson and the police department decided to go after guns. The mayor ordered near-daily deployments of gun-suppression teams, and rotating, three-day "neighborhood crime initiatives" designed to saturate high-crime neighborhoods with law enforcement officers who would take a "zero tolerance" attitude towards crime of all sorts, but especially the illegal possession of firearms.

"What we're trying to do," says Police Chief Michael McGrath, "is persuade people that it's not necessarily a smart thing to carry a weapon. A lot of these killings arise from violent confrontations -- they just happen. If we can persuade people to leave their weapons in a car or at home," a lot of deaths could be averted.

Stop and Frisk

Targeting guns is not new. The first and perhaps most successful example of a police department using this strategy occurred in Kansas City in 1992 and '93. The department there selected two demographically similar districts. In one, police practices were left unchanged. The other district received additional patrol units, which focused on stopping cars and searching them for weapons. The results were impressive. Over the course of six months, gun crimes in the targeted area fell by nearly 50 percent from the level of the previous six months, and homicides declined, as well. In the other area, gun crimes increased. In the years that followed, a handful of other jurisdictions tried similar tactics, with generally encouraging results.

The Kansas City police, however, were targeting people in automobiles. The Cleveland police have chosen to do something trickier -- target individuals on the street. In doing so, they have come face to face with one of the most common -- and most controversial -- tactics in policing: "stop and frisk."

The history of this approach is complicated. Until the late 1960s, police departments enjoyed sweeping powers to stop and search pedestrians they suspected of potential criminal involvement. In 1968, in a case called Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the rules somewhat.

The case concerned a Cleveland detective, Martin McFadden, who observed three men apparently casing out a store in the neighborhood. McFadden confronted the men, identified himself as a police officer, and asked for their names. When their response was unclear, he spun one of the men around and patted down his outside clothing. He felt a revolver. He patted down a second man and found another gun. All three were booked for illegally carrying concealed weapons.

The defense argued that these actions amounted to an unconstitutional search and seizure. The Supreme Court disagreed, in a departure from its series of rulings favoring criminal suspects and limiting police authority, and sided with Detective McFadden. "Where a reasonably prudent officer is warranted in the circumstances of a given case in believing that his safety or that of others is endangered," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, "he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous." So McFadden's approach was given legal sanction as a method of crime control -- although with some modest restrictions.

Ever since, "stop and frisk" has become a deeply resented tactic in African-American neighborhoods around the country. The fact that it now is being relied on heavily by black mayors such as Jackson and Nutter -- Nutter campaigned in favor of it and won easily -- is a testament to frustration with the sudden rise in urban violence.

Some experts have sought to temper the notion that an aggressive and questionable expansion of police powers is underway. "I don't like the word 'aggressive,'" says Sherman. As he sees it, the Philadelphia police department is merely making "a systematic effort to put specially trained police in the places at the times where and when gun violence is more likely to occurÉThe police need to be very thorough in observing people on the street who may be carrying guns because it is well known that people in that particular location can and do use illegally carried guns to shoot people."

Neighborhoods and Rights

The fact remains, however, that Terry allows police officers to stop and frisk suspects in high-crime areas in ways that would not be allowed in other places. As criminologist Peter Moskos has argued, "constitutional rights depend on the neighborhood where you live." Perhaps that's why public officials in Cleveland carefully avoid the phrase "stop and frisk." In Cleveland, "gun suppression" and "criminal profiling" are the order of the day.

The strategy, ordered by Jackson, was drawn up largely by Police Chief McGrath and by the public safety director, Martin Flask. McGrath had made a name for himself in the 1980s as an innovative member of the police department's SWAT team. His performance there led to a job commanding the Fourth Police District, which is responsible for patrolling some of the city's poorest and most violent neighborhoods. But as a district commander, McGrath was not entirely the tough guy some expected. He went out of his way to track complaints against police and reach out to citizens who were trying to live peaceably in a violent, underclass neighborhood. In the city's new gun-suppression initiative, it's hard not to see a reflection of McGrath himself: aggressive tactics, combined with a sensitivity to the concerns of law-abiding, inner-city residents.

Cleveland's efforts began cautiously. In the latter half of 2007, police sent out roughly 170 gun-suppression teams. They arrested 265 people and seized 102 guns. Then, in January, came the dramatic expansion of the gun-suppression initiative.

"It's not going into a neighborhood and bum-rushing it because they wear a certain type of clothes or look a certain way," says the mayor. "There has to be a balance of aggressive law enforcement with respect of citizens." Jackson insists that the Cleveland police are focusing on a more subtle game -- trying to guess who in the neighborhood is likely to have a gun.

Every policeman who works in a high-crime neighborhood soon picks up on the tell-tale signs of a suspect carrying a concealed weapon -- a bulky winter coat on a less-than-wintry day, the frequent belt-tightening that comes with having a 9-millimeter pistol tucked into your pants. Over the past two years, the Cleveland police department has made a major effort to bolster these skills. Central to the effort has been a one-day gun-profiling class offered by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"It's nothing magical," says Jeffrey Stirling, ATF's special agent in charge of the Columbus field division. "It's pointing out things for them specifically to focus on and look for." Precisely what those things are ATF won't discuss. However, Stirling insists that "it becomes very clear when you've had the training."

Even after the gun-suppression unit identifies a probable gun carrier, the initial interaction is not supposed to involve the use of force. "They go up and talk and ask if they have a gun," says the mayor. "Sometimes people say yes. Sometimes they won't answer."

So when a suspect walks away, do the police just let him go, even though the police officer has reason to believe that the person with whom he is talking is carrying a gun? "You've got to get the details from the chief," Jackson says.

McGrath's response: "Each individual arrest is a story unto itself."

On the Street

The Fourth District is a good place to take the measure of what Cleveland's police are up to. Southeast of downtown, the Fourth encompasses some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, just as it did in the days when Chief McGrath patrolled it. As a result, the department's gun-suppression teams conduct frequent operations in the district.

When gun-suppression or narcotics units are not working the area, responsibility for proactive policing falls largely to the Fourth District vice squad. A nighttime operation in mid-April offered insights into how the new strategy works -- and into the limitations.

The department doesn't allow media ride-alongs with the gun-suppression teams. It says the work is simply too dangerous. But it did allow Governing to observe another important part of the city's anti-gun strategy -- the first evening of a three-night, neighborhood safety initiative. Where gun-suppression teams focus on looking for weapons (although they also make drug arrests), the neighborhood safety initiatives have a broader purpose -- bringing zero-tolerance, quality-of-life policing to dangerous and often chaotic neighborhoods.

At City Hall or in the downtown Justice Center, these neighborhood safety initiatives are described as a three-day blitz against all forms of criminal activity. In the Fourth District, on upper Kinsman Road, this would seem an impossible task. To the extent that the neighborhood has a functional economy, it is largely an underground and illicit one. The officers who patrol it know that the streets flanking Kinsman Road are full of establishments that could legally be busted -- the grill that's "a notorious weed spot," the smoke shop that until recently openly advertised drug paraphernalia, the biker hangout-turned-illegal "after hours" club. But there are simply too many to shut down, even for a night or two.

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Mayor Jackson's new strategies have changed some things in important ways. At its most basic level, the initiative means more officers are on the street. In an area such as this, where just two months earlier a uniformed patrol officer was killed after he attempted to question a group of youths drinking in an abandoned building, that's very important indeed. Fewer suspects get away. Officers feel emboldened to be more assertive. They look harder for guns.

It's just after 10 o'clock on a rainy Thursday night. The vice squad already has been out for about two hours with a planted, confidential informant, doing drug "buy and busts" -- and also looking for illegal guns to take off the street. Thanks to the weather, it's been a quiet night. Only one gunshot has been heard. Over the course of two hours, the vice squad has made two arrests. They are over quickly. Plainclothes officers with binoculars and radios ("the eyes") stake out the corner where the informant -- known as "the property" or "the package" -- is making the buy, usually a $20 rock of crack cocaine. (The informant is paid $25 per buy and is usually good for six or seven buys before he is considered to be "burned out.")

Once the deal is made, plainclothes and uniformed officers move in for the arrest. The suspect usually tries to run. Most of the time, he is caught. This evening, one suspect gets away with $20 in taxpayer funds, leaving the supervising officer deeply annoyed. Another location doesn't pan out: The police arrive and quickly stop, frisk and cuff two men. One has $700 in cash but no drugs. He claims to be a contractor. The cuffs are removed. The police informant later says the deals were occurring inside the house, which the police can't raid without a warrant.

Then, with buy number five, the vice squad hits the jackpot. The police are staking out a dealer on the corner of Kinsman and East 143rd Street when their radio crackles. There is a drug dealer there with what is reported to be a rifle. The tension subsides a little when the stakeout officer radios in a correction -- it's a paintball gun.

The police move in to make the arrest. By the time the supervising sergeant and lieutenant arrive on the scene, the dealer is spread-eagled against a wall -- and a revolver is being removed from the back of his pants. One dealer has just learned a hard lesson about carrying a handgun. That, says Chief McGrath, is the point.

Only one gun is seized on the first night of this particular neighborhood safety initiative. The gun-suppression teams, however, have been more successful. In the first four-and-a-half months of 2008, the Cleveland Police Department sent out 104 gun-suppression teams -- basically, one a day. The teams made 287 arrests and confiscated 55 illegal firearms. There have been no reported complaints. On the contrary, says Mayor Jackson, constituents are asking, 'When is it coming this way?'"

The police department is confident the program is working. "Compared to the same period in 2007, homicides for the first quarter of 2008 are down 33 percent," says Chief McGrath.

In short, the view from the downtown Justice Center is pretty optimistic right now. Still, out on the street, the numbers aren't all so rosy. Two numbers from the paintball gun arrest make it clear just how difficult Cleveland's struggle against gun violence is likely to be. The paintball gun cost about $160. Anybody who wanted a revolver could get one on Kinsman Road for $65.

Guns are still everywhere on the streets of Cleveland.

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