CLEVELAND, Ohio — I’m happy to blame the GOP for lots of things: showering tax cuts on the rich; shooting down common sense gun laws; Trump.
Still, even I draw the line at knocking Republicans for problems plaguing the city’s Sex Crimes and Child Abuse unit.
I’ll leave that to Safety Director Michael McGrath.
During a Safety Committee meeting at City Hall Wednesday, McGrath pointed a finger at the 2016 Republican National Convention when asked why still there weren’t enough detectives to properly investigate the more than 1,000 new reports of rape, other sexual assaults and severe cases of child abuse that flood the unit each year.
His reasoning? The four-day event in downtown Cleveland required an extraordinary deployment of cops — all badges on deck — to keep the peace. That delayed the graduation of a police academy class, and like a clog in drain, it caused a backup. Without graduates to put in squad cars to patrol the streets, Chief Calvin Williams couldn’t move more experienced cops out of those cars and into so-called elite investigative units like sex crimes, domestic violence and homicide.
But that was three years ago. Today, all those units are still “woefully understaffed,” said Safety Committee Chair Matt Zone.
In 2018, Williams promised Zone’s committee that sex crimes and other special units would be fully staffed by year’s end. Now, at the tail end of 2019, the police department is no closer to staffing goals than before.
“We’re falling miserably short. We need to do a better job,” said Zone.
“I was deeply troubled and humbled when I read the ‘Case Closed’ series,” Zone continued. The special report, written by Plain Dealer investigative reporter Rachel Dissell and me, followed the story of Sandi Fedor, a grandmother who had to solve her own rape when Cleveland police wouldn’t. She was there, in the room, as Zone surveyed the visitor’s gallery.
“First of all, I want to apologize to Sandi Fedor on behalf of the city of Cleveland,” he said. “Not only did we fail her but we failed hundreds of other strong survivors in our community.”
The apology is a good, first step but it isn’t enough.
Everyone was sorry 10 years ago too, on October 29, when the first bodies of the 11 women murdered by convicted rapist Anthony Sowell were found at his home on Imperial Ave.
“This was not the first time the Cleveland Division of Police learned of Sowell’s brutality,” Sondra Miller, head of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center wrote in a statement released the day before the committee meeting.
Long before the grisly discoveries, Miller wrote, police had received multiple reports from women that Sowell had raped them. “Because the survivors weren’t believed, and their cases did not receive thorough investigations, this predator was left free to harm and kill others.”
Though McGrath, then police chief, and Mayor Frank Jackson promised reforms to keep such an outrage from happening again, “the City failed to dedicate additional resources to sex crimes investigations, and rape survivors continue to face an inadequate response when they report crimes,” Miller wrote.
She told the committee Wednesday there needs to be a “dramatic increase” in the number of cops in the unit. Everybody thinks so. What’s the hold up? Afterall, the Sowell murderers happened well before the GOP came to town.
“The police department is losing credibility. The command staff is losing credibility,” said Michael Polensek, Vice Chair of the Safety Committee.
“How many times has [the Chief] sat there and told us, ‘We’re gonna ramp up the sex crimes unit, we’re gonna ramp up the domestic violence unit, we’re gonna ramp up homicide.’ And it never frickin’ happens!. . .I don’t want no more BS.”
As Polensek fumed, McGrath sat still as a stone.
He stayed that way as councilmembers reminded him that Cleveland has money in the budget to pay for 23 homicide detectives but only 10 are currently in unit. (Imagine how many more cases could be solved with 13 extra cops on the job?) The message sent is “we don’t care,” said a frustrated councilman Brian Kazy.
Hard to argue with that.
Don’t worry, McGrath said. Once the next police academy class graduates, “the [Chief will] be in a position where he can really start backfilling all these support units. . . ”
It’s a promise that has been trotted out for the last 30 years or so, almost as long as McGrath has been a cop, and it’s as empty now as it’s ever been.
More eager cadets on the streets aren’t going fatten the bone-thin squads that have been starved of resources for years.
Zone explained: Everybody wants to be on the SWAT team, a more glamorous gig where cops put on combat gear and go fight crime for the cameras. But sex crimes?
“Nobody wants to join a unit where detectives are overworked and have too many cases,” Zone said.
How do you make sex crimes and other troubled units more attractive? For starters, give unit commanders everything they need to do their jobs — proper training, equipment and personnel. Then offer incentives such as more pay, as Zone has suggested. And what about bringing veteran investigators out of retirement or other reinforcements, like law clerks to help with subpoenas and search warrants and civilian crime analysts who can pull criminal records and locate witnesses?
Solving a decades-old problem requires fresh ideas. Let’s hope McGrath and Williams have some the next time they come to the committee table.
If all they have to offer is more “BS” and empty promises, more rapes will go unsolved. More batterers will turn killers. More murder cases will go cold.
And for that, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.