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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

PUBLIC SAFETY - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

PUBLIC SAFETY. When Cleveland received its first city charter in 1836, it had only about 6,000 people, and its leaders did not see any great need for elaborate instruments to preserve public safety. In general, Cleveland, like its neighbors Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, followed the lead of eastern cities such as Philadelphia in matters of governmental structure and services offered. Innovations such as the establishment of organized, bureaucratic police began in the older and larger eastern cities and then spread to newer and smaller communities. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia organized modern police forces in the late 1830s and 1840s, after Cleveland had become a city, but Cleveland did not follow suit until the 1850s. Up to 1866 an elected marshal directed the police, so theoretically the voters exercised indirect control over the department. In the 1850s and 1860s, Cleveland's police acquired uniforms and a bureaucratic structure. Its members worked 12-hour shifts with only an occasional day off. In 1866 the state legislature intervened to establish a police board for Cleveland, with members appointed by the governor. That arrangement lasted until 1872, when the legislature ceded control of the department to a board consisting of the mayor and 4 locally elected members. Cleveland's "federal charter" of 1891 established a department of public safety under a director appointed by the mayor, which survived until 1902. At that time the Ohio Supreme Court declared existing municipal charters unconstitutional because all laws affecting cities had to be uniform in their operation. The legislature, dominated by Republicans, then adopted a uniform municipal code, calling for a bipartisan board of public safety. If the mayor and two-thirds of city council could not agree on the board membership, the Ohio governor would make the appointments. In Cleveland, TOM L. JOHNSON† frustrated the scheme by acquiring sufficient support in council to get the board he wanted. In 1908 the legislature substituted a single safety director for the board, and in 1912 the voters approved a constitutional amendment permitting cities to draft their own charters.

Riots and labor unrest, such as the mob violence of the Cleveland Rolling Mill Strikes of the 1880s, tested fledgling public safety forces. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. WRHS.

One problem that has never been satisfactorily resolved in Cleveland is the overlap and sometimes confusion between the powers of the safety director and those of the chief of police. In some matters, the chief reports to the safety director; in others the chief has independent authority. In disciplinary matters, orders for the suspension or removal of police officers approved by the chief and safety director could be revoked by the civil service commission. These administrative peculiarities aside, Cleveland's police developed much like those of other cities. Political influence was certainly useful in initial appointment, desirable assignments, and promotion, and MASONS were on faster tracks than CATHOLICS, ROMAN., The opposite situation prevailed within the CLEVELAND FIRE DEPARTMENT, which became heavily Irish. Despite the constant jockeying for personal and partisan advantage, the CLEVELAND POLICE DEPARTMENT was able to maintain order, provide services, catch some criminals, and periodically sweep the streets of beggars and drunks in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was an especially formidable force in labor disputes, usually directed against the interests of striking workers, as in the STREETCAR STRIKE OF 1899.

Mayor Harold Burton (left) and Safety Director Eliot Ness pose with the Police Department's new fleet of police cars, 10 Aug. 1938. WRHS.

Individual administrators could exert considerable influence on the operations of the department and the general public life of the city. The most newsworthy was the tempestuous FRED KOHLER†, chief of police 1903-13, who exercised substantial and sometimes erratic control over the police during his tenure. He insisted on a neat appearance, discriminated against Irish officers, brought his favorites downtown, and exiled his opponents to the "woods." He also initiated some substantive changes in Cleveland's policing, the most famous of which was the Golden Rule policy substituting waivers for formal arrests in the case of minor infractions. Cleveland police made numerous arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and the time-consuming paperwork clogged the lower courts and correctional facilities until Kohler's waiver policy saved time and resources for the authorities and for those accused of low-level misdemeanors.

Kohler's policy toward vice was one of "repression." If "resorts" (houses of PROSTITUTION) were orderly, they were not raided; if they were not, a policeman stood outside taking names and addresses of those entering. Saloons that kept things quiet were allowed to operate on Sunday despite the state law against Sunday sales. Both of these policies were approved by Mayor Johnson, who thought that municipal government had more important items on its agenda than satisfying the Civic Reform Union and other moralistic groups. Johnson's law director, NEWTON D. BAKER†, rejoiced in the shrinking size of the city's red-light district and considered it the result of sensible law enforcement policies. Baker also saw no point in trying to enforce the Sunday closing statute, so out of touch with a majority of the city's population. Baker's successor, Republican mayor HARRY L. DAVIS†, had little interest in the details of his job or in any sort of police repression of illicit enterprise. His safety director, Anton Sprosty, sought to prevent police raids without city hall approval, a move that opponents regarded as tantamount to protected vice within the city. Davis generated another group of opponents during the great steel strike of 1919 when he warned strikebreakers not to come to Cleveland. Employers fumed, but the more numerous, workers appreciated his threat to use the police to keep the scabs out.

Cleveland's police and court system received national attention with the publication of "Criminal Justice in Cleveland" in 1922, a comprehensive survey financed by the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION that was anything but complimentary. Although the section on the police appeared under the byline of Raymond Fosdick, the work had been done by Leonard Harrison. The Fosdick-Harrison report found the police to be disorganized, poorly led, with low morale, and observed that the department continued to function as it had when Cleveland was a much smaller community--not the 5th largest city in the country, as it was in 1920. There was an emerging consensus among scholars and interested civic groups that the police were primarily a crimefighting organization, and the chapter devoted considerable attention to the detective unit. It recommended that detective personnel should be separately recruited, since many able and ambitious people either refused to join police departments or left soon after appointment rather than spend long years doing routine patrol duty. Similarly, administrators should also be either separately recruited or chosen on some basis other than the ability to pass civil-service exams or have membership in the right political clubs. "Criminal Justice in Cleveland" called for a reformed police department and court system, one that would be efficient, incorruptible, free from partisan and councilmanic interference, and dedicated to rigorous law enforcement. Cleveland, however, was too diverse a community socially and politically for this program ever to be adopted in full.

In an effort to remove politics from the business of local GOVERNMENT, voters approved a charter amendment instituting a CITY MANAGER PLAN plan in 1921; but the party organization soon made their peace with the reformed structure, and political business proceeded more or less as usual, with council members continuing to intercede in disciplinary matters and on assignments and promotion for favored police officers. Certainly, George Matowitz survived as chief of police from 1931-51 in part because of civil-service protection and by concentrating more on keeping the plants in his office well watered than in providing strong leadership to the department. During his tenure in the 1930s, ELIOT NESS† came to Cleveland at the behest of Republican mayor HAROLD BURTON†, who appointed him safety director in 1935. Ness reorganized the police department extensively by eliminating many precinct houses and concentrating on motor rather than foot patrol. He divided the city into 38 zones, each of which would be patrolled by its own car. Changes of shift were to take place within the cars to eliminate time lost going to and from district headquarters. His reorganization brought Cleveland fully into the motor age. As in other cities, the automobile and, the motor truck had brought major changes to Cleveland before 1920. These changes intensified during the 1920s as the inner wards of the city lost population, and only the rapid growth of peripheral wards kept Cleveland from losing population. SUBURBS such as SHAKER HEIGHTS grew even more rapidly as many people in the outer wards and suburbs commuted to their city jobs in automobiles. The police responded to this upsurge in traffic by allocating 15% of its officers to facilitate its movement through Cleveland. Other policemen spent a portion of their day as school-crossing guards. More of the department's budget had to go to equipment so that crooks in cars could at least be chased by cops in cars. By the end of the 1920s, the department had its own radio frequency, although it was not until the late 1930s that all of its cars were equipped with 2-way radios.

Despite Ness's reorganization and the technological changes, Cleveland never became a "reformed" city. In an unreformed city, the police took a tolerant view of vice in certain sections of town, while political and personal connections were crucial to career development. In a reformed city, one usually characterized by social homogeneity and above-average income, the police emphasized service to the affluent and a legalistic approach to wrongdoing. Law enforcement in Cleveland, as in other unreformed cities with a diverse population, did not always follow the procedural purity so central to the reformed tradition. The operative principle of the city's political life was more "What have you done for me lately?" than "How can I fulfill all of the legal responsibilities of my position?" A Cleveland police officer's career depended on the clout and concern of his "quill," department jargon for a powerful patron, as well as the officer's own competence.

Police officers were not just passive pawns of their political masters, however; they could and did organize to protect their own interests. In 1935 Cleveland policemen started a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Although this action was contrary to the rules of the department and the specific orders of the chief, Matowitz failed to enforce his own order, and by 1945 the FOP had about 750 members out of a department total of 1,300. At this point the FOP was concerned mainly with pension rights and assuring elaborate due process and appeals procedures in disciplinary cases. FOP influence and civil-service rules helped the police resist any demands for change coming from outside the department, or even from their own leadership. Tradition and bureaucratic inertia ruled in many American police organizations in the 1940s and 1950s, Cleveland's included, in large part because there was not much public controversy over the nature of the police role during these decades. Police agencies could be criticized for their action or inaction in specific cases, but few people publicly questioned their conception of their functions or their, basic mode of operation. The 1960s were different. Cleveland had been a cosmopolitan city throughout the 20th century, with a rich ethnic mixture, but from 1940 on the black portion of the city's population grew rapidly, until it reached 29% in the 1960 census. The combination of a white exodus and a black influx in the 1950s meant that the HOUGH area on the east side went from 95% white to 74% black within the decade. While the city was experiencing this explosive demographic transformation, the police department remained much the same. In the late 1960s, AFRICAN AMERICANS were less than 10% of the police force and about 38% of the city's population.

Like many other cities, Cleveland experienced the "long, hot summer" of the 1960s when the department's law enforcement practices were questioned. In 1966 the federal Civil Rights Commission took extensive testimony about the police department's much slower response time to calls from blacks than from whites. In that same year the HOUGH RIOTS occurred, and in 1968 7 people, including 3 police officers, died in the GLENVILLE SHOOTOUT between black militants and Cleveland police. Mayor Carl Stokes, a black, dealt with the disorder by removing all white police from the area and having it policed by black officers and civilians. The police radio that night was filled with racist epithets against the mayor. Stokes's relationships with the police had never been easy; after Glenville they were impossible, because the black group involved in the fatal conflict with the police had received some funds from his CLEVELAND: NOW! program.

In 1967, the same year Stokes was elected mayor, the CLEVELAND LITTLE HOOVER COMMISSION, which conducted an in-depth study of the city's operations, was extremely critical of the police department, so much so that the commission as a whole refused to accept it. It offered 65 recommendations, of which the department rejected 34 major points while accepting 31 minor ones. Perhaps these tense relations accounted for the bluntness of the commission's language: "Its state of development, in the context of knowledge now available, is a generation behind modern police management concepts and technology." Cleveland's crime rate, bad enough as it was, would rise substantially with accurate and complete reporting. The commission dealt with the perennial cries for a larger force by asserting that "the mere addition of personnel to a poorly organized and managed department solves no basic problems." The commission's most serious criticisms came in the area of community relations: "The department is defensive, isolated and parochial, and mistrustful of the public it serves." Part of the reason was demographic. The police reflected the immigration of earlier generations, not the in-migrants of this one. Perhaps more important was the prevailing conception of police work and the, place of community relations within it. The police viewed themselves as crimefighters and community relations as a social-work approach to policing incompatible with crime control. The police had to use community relations for public relations to limit criticism and promote positive public feelings. Anything beyond that involved contaminating contact with radicals and others out to embarrass the police rather than to help them in the suppression of crime. Civil-right groups favored police-civilian review boards, an institution anathematic to the police, who believed that no one outside the department could ever properly judge decisions made on the streets under conditions of extreme stress.

By the 1970s another problem came to the fore: money. In 1967 Cleveland's safety forces succeeded in putting through a charter amendment that guaranteed them salaries 3% higher than those of any other Ohio city of 50,000 or more persons. This provision was only one of several factors causing the city fiscal distress; the basic problem was that the city's revenue needs were outstripping its resources. Population declined and factories closed, while calls for police and fire service mounted. Transfer payments from the federal government became ever more important in meeting the bills. In 1969 the police department had a budget in excess of $32 million. At that time nothing came from the federal government, but by 1975 42% of the more than $45 million budget came from Washington. At the beginning of the 1970s, Cleveland had more than 2,400 police officers; by 1984 the department had shrunk by one-third.

In the 1960s the fire department underwent a dramatic increase in workload without a corresponding increase in personnel. In 1960 Cleveland had 10,796 alarms and 1,272 firefighters; in 1971 the city had 30,084 alarms and 1,292 firefighters. Moreover, firefighters on east side runs found themselves targets of rocks and other missiles, perhaps because blacks made up an even smaller percentage of the fire department than they did the police. Cleveland's firefighters also had to struggle with outmoded equipment and stations closed because of lack of resources. By the 1980s Cleveland's safety forces were stretched thin and heavily dependent upon transfer payments from the federal government for basic operating expenses. How well they will be able to meet the needs of the city in the future depends upon decisions made in Washington as well as city hall.

James F. Richardson

Univ. of Akron

Last Modified: 13 May 1998 11:00:48 AM

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