Gunshots, Police, and Community: Safety and Trust in Cleveland Heights

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This past Sunday night residents in a couple of areas of Cleveland Heights heard loud bangs. Immediately NextDoor lit up, as people described what they heard and where they heard it, then others discussed whether it was fireworks or gunshots. But in one area, police arrived and confirmed that the sounds were, in fact, gunshots. 

Yes, the number of shootings is up. As the data show and Cleveland Heights Police Chief Annette Mecklenburg has reported to City Council, the increase in shootings since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is “not isolated to Cleveland Heights—it is happening across Northeast Ohio” and the nation

But knowing that this increase is not specific to Cleveland Heights is little comfort when there are loud bangs outside your house and you immediately wonder, “Were those gunshots?”. Even if you quickly realize that you only heard fireworks or a car backfiring, if fear surged through you in that moment, then you didn’t feel safe. And everyone deserves to feel safe in their own homes.

Police Response, and How We Respond to Conversations About Police

When there are shootings or other crimes that alarm our community, the conversations explode: What are our police doing? Can they be doing more? Should they be doing something different? Should we be doing something? . . . Are we safe?

Complicating these local conversations is the influence of the national dialogue about policing. Unfortunately, that dialogue is polarized, dominated by an “us vs. them” mindset. The problem with this is that it prompts people to feel like they need to take a side, and this can cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is:

We want everyone in our community to be safe—and to feel safe.

Our Cleveland Heights Police Force and Our Community

We have a good police department. And there’s always room for improvement.* But we know it’s a good department because its leadership continually works to make improvements where needed, responds thoughtfully to residents’ concerns, and proactively seeks out ways to better serve our community.

The CHPD also has a history of working in our community to build positive relationships with our residents. Unfortunately, just as 2020 brought us heated conversations about racial justice and policing—further eroding community trust in police—the COVID-19 pandemic significantly limited the CHPD’s outreach activities at a moment when we needed their trust-building impacts the most.

Trust between a community and their police force is vital. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing found that when police engage in ongoing, meaningful community outreach that builds trust, it transforms the police-community relationship in a way that decreases tensions and increases safety. 

And this is why the “us vs. them” mindset actually undermines our safety. For instance, we want police to help us stop these shootings, and to do that, they need, among other things, to investigate them. And to do that, they need residents to talk to them and work with them. But if someone doesn’t trust police, they are less likely to cooperate when police are investigating a crime.

Trust can’t be forced. Vilifying, denigrating, or blaming people who don’t feel safe with police won’t change that feeling—if anything, it will reinforce their experience. We need trust between our community and our police, and an oppositional mindset won’t get us there.

Trust must be built—consciously, thoughtfully, and compassionately. It can be nurtured through listening, responsiveness, transparency, and ongoing positive interactions. And this kind of work is what I see our Cleveland Heights Police leadership doing. Our city’s administration and our City Council must work with our police department to continue, strengthen, and expand these initiatives.

But What About the Shootings?

In addition to investigating shootings and making arrests, our police leadership is pursuing several tools to help them respond more quickly to shootings and to access more resources when investigating them. 

They are researching Shot Spotter, which uses high-tech sensors placed in key areas of the city that pick up the sound of gunfire (and can tell the difference between gunfire and fireworks), pinpoint its location, and, within a minute, alert police. Other cities have been able to acquire this technology through grants. 

City officials are looking into other surveillance technologies, such as license plate reader cameras that could be installed in areas with higher incidences of shootings (e.g., Noble Road north of Monticello; Crest, Maple and Wood roads; North Coventry [Eddington, Hillcrest, Belmar, and Glenmont roads]; Parkway-Superior-Lincoln, along with Altamont, Berkeley and Desota roads; and the Cedar-Lee neighborhood). 

Where these technologies are used elsewhere, there are also activist groups who express concerns about their efficacy in reducing crime as well as the risks of increased police-community tensions in areas with larger proportions of people of color. Any and all technologies we adopt need to be used with a clear understanding of their limits and their risks as well as a commitment to practices and protocols that help safeguard against biased-based policing.

What Can We Do?

Again, it’s all about TRUST. Communities with strong and visible infrastructures of trust are safer. Neighborhood-level organizing that focuses on tending to the appearance of the neighborhood while also helping neighbors get to know each other and watch out for each other result in not only lower crime rates but also higher quality of life for residents. 

Community gardens, neighborhood green spaces, and community development are just some of ways that neighborhoods can build social cohesion while also providing a visible signal that this is a protected space. Community groups like Noble Neighbors work on just these kinds of projects because the data is clear: This is how we make our neighborhoods safer.

It’s so effective, in fact, that in some areas, police leadership helps steward neighborhood organizing that creates better maintained properties, community green spaces, and stronger community solidarity.

At the end of the day, we are all in this together. This is apparent when residents flock to NextDoor to share information and provide sympathy, validation, and reassurance in response to loud bangs outside their homes. We see it when neighborhoods come together when disaster strikes and help each other when times are tough. 

Our challenge is to expand how we define and build community. It shouldn’t stop at the end of our block or get swiftly revoked when someone has a different perspective from our own. We are stronger—and safer—when we focus on our common ground: the well-being of our shared space.

* For instance, the recent report from the Diversity Institute found that in 2019 black people were pulled over for traffic stops 3.1 times more than white people in Cleveland Heights. There are many gaps in the data, many questions we can’t answer, simply because the information was not previously tracked. Action is being taken to increase collection of a wider range of data points so the city can better understand what is happening. Meanwhile, the CHPD is continuing to seek out ways to alleviate bias in police-resident interactions. Chief Mecklenburg has been open to dialogue and shown commitment to ensuring that the values of our community are reflected in how our police officers operate.