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Dettelbach says listening is the key to changing police-community relations
The U.S. attorney reflects on what is likely his office's biggest legacy

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M.L. Schultze
The city agreed to a consent decree to develop and implement big changes in training, use-of-force and police-community relations.
Courtesy of M.L. SCHULTZE
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Steve Dettelbach is wrapping up his seven years as U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio and heading back to private practice. The work of his office has included high-profile corruption, civil rights and terrorism cases. But, as WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, the biggest legacy may be the binding agreement to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department.

LISTEN: A sea change in police-community relations

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In speeches and interviews, Steven Dettelbach is careful to note that police are crucial, have a hard job and are owed a great deal of thanks.  But, he says, there’s a problem.

“There is this issue of trust, which really lies at the heart of law enforcement. We can’t do our jobs unless the community trusts us. And we’ve had a series of incidents all over the country which demonstrates that there’s a gap between the community and the police in some places. And nobody wins except the bad guys when that happens.”

A pattern of problems and an attempt to resolve them
Last spring, the city of Cleveland signed a consent decree, with the goal of changing problems with use of force, training and other issues that are key to that trust. It came a decade after the city had agreed to a less-binding memorandum of understanding to address many of the same issues. But Dettelbach says the concerns – and efforts to address them – had continued.

"There were a series of incidents over the last five-six years,  which were really not in the public eye but were, I think, warning signs.”

Dettelbach recalls a motorist being pulled over on the Shoreway and beaten – an incident captured on infrared video, where officers' faces couldn’t be identified.

“None of the officers would step forward and say even who were the people who applied force. ... And no reports were filed on that.”

Conversely, community members lobbed charges against police that sometimes “didn’t seem fair or right.”

Nov. 29, 2012 and the public consciousness
None of that made national headlines, but they were crucial indicators, he says.

“The more sort-of notorious, famous incidents, sometimes I think -- while they galvanize attention -- they sometimes suck the air out of all the other things that are going on, and people only pay attention to those when there’s a broader thing that is going on.”

One of most notorious incidents occurred on Nov. 29, 2012, when more than 100 officers – some disregarding supervisors’ orders to break off – joined a pursuit that ended with 13 of them opening fire with nearly 140 shots on what turned out to be two unarmed people.

“The city had already had outside experts from the Police Executive Research Forum in town. People from the civil rights division of my office had already been meeting with them. But obviously, the public attention increased a lot after that one big incident.”

Applying more force and resources
Dettelbach says the consent decree is a well-thought out blueprint, but the most important part of it will be “that we follow through. ... It’s going to take the people dedicated to following through on that over a period of years for it to really results in change.”

And that, he says, means listening – something he’s learned to do better during this process.

“It’s OK to be passionate, but people really have to be open to listening to other people’s views on this issue: Stories they’ve had where a kid is doing nothing and gets put on the pavement by a police officer and how that stays with them for decades. And a police officer who’s just doing his job and gets horribly mistreated. Those two people need to be able to talk to each other.”

Beyond talk, Dettelbach notes, the consent decree has the force of a monitoring team of national experts in community policing, use of force and other issues – backed by the power of a federal judge. Some critics say that’s an overreach by the feds in a situation best left to the state and local community to resolve.

Constitutional policing every day
“They’re right that in an ideal world everybody would just reform themselves and we wouldn’t have the need for the federal government, or the civil rights division, or the U.S. attorneys office or the FBI. But just like all the other organizations and all the other people that we deal with, sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

“And when constitutional policing isn’t happening every single day, well then it is our time to come in.”

But Dettelbach acknowledges the consent decree won’t resolve everything.

“There’s going to be a day out there where no matter what we do, even if we’re perfect, there going to be a ... controversial incident involving use of force.”

Who we are
But if the decree is successful, he says, it will be because trust has been built. And some of that trust may already be there, as evidenced by the lack of riots and other violence after Officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of criminal charges in the chase and shooting, and after a grand jury decided not to indict officers in the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

“I think part of that is who we are as Clevelanders and who we are as Northeast Ohio people. We are very passionate about things, but we have some common sense. I also think part of it was that there was a feeling in the community that we were working in a real substantive way on this issue.

"And to some extent, I like to think that gave people some hope that, ‘Look people, things may not be where you want them to be now, but things are going to move in the right direction.”

This is Steven Dettelbach’s last week as U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio. He’s going back to private practice in Cleveland.

Dettelbach on changes in policing throughout Northern Ohio
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There’s incredible things going on. You look at Canton. Chief Lawver down there is doing some really innovative things in terms of police. I know one of the programs he has now is instead of just arresting the same person over and over for low-level offenses, he now has a partnership with social services and mental health services so he can call a social worker or mental health-care worker to the scene and arrange right there the beginning of a contact.

“Who knows if that will work or not, but that’s the kind of innovative programming I see chiefs all around doing.

“The chief of police and last chief of police in Toledo have done a tremendous job in terms of having their community use data in a way to help drive police decisions as opposed to just sort of a sergeant sitting at a desk and going all the time with a gut feeling which may or may not be right.

“Mansfield, where they’re doing crime analysis in a way they had never done it before.

“They are really using leading-edgee technology and data crunching to police certain areas of Lorain. They’re crunching down the numbers of where the shots are fired, where the arrests are made, not just to a neighborhood, but maybe to a corner or even to a specific building.

“So there’s a tremendous amount of really great law enforcement going on in the different counties and cities in this district.”

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