(Plain Press, November 2017) On October 10th, at Visible Voice Books in the Tremont neighborhood, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, Cleveland Traffic Commissioner James P. Muhic and Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack joined representatives of community newspapers in a press conference and roundtable discussion concerning the Cleveland Police Department’s pursuit policy.
Rich Weiss, publisher of The Tremonster and Executive Director of Neighborhood Media, organized the press conference. Weiss explained that at several meetings of block clubs in Tremont, Cleveland Police Officers had referred to “a no pursuit policy.” Weiss asked if there was such a policy in Cleveland.
Mayor Frank Jackson said the City of Cleveland had an “appropriate pursuit policy.” He said, “As you know, a pursuit can end in disaster for those doing the pursuit, those being pursued and those people caught up in the pursuit.” He said there are different rules for different types of pursuits, but “There is no blanket do not pursue policy.”
Police Chief Calvin Williams said the Cleveland Police Division has a fifteen-plus page policy governing police pursuits — when police can pursue a vehicle and when they cannot. “Basically, we pursue vehicles that are involved in a felony crimes, crimes of violence and …vehicles where we suspect the driver is intoxicated – operating a vehicle while intoxicated.”
Chief Williams said the Cleveland Division of Police also has a “tactical policy for all terrain vehicles, specialty vehicles, dirt bikes – things like that.”
“The mayor kind of touched on it a little bit; when you pursue a person for a suspected crime in the streets of any city in a vehicle, some vehicles in excess of 2,000 pounds, there is a certain danger in that. Our job, is to lessen that danger, as much as possible, while still being able to do our jobs,” said Chief Williams.
Chief Williams said, “For us, it is proposition that we weigh the benefit of catching that person, and this is addressed in our policy, versus the danger it inflicts on that community in having that pursuit. So, if that person gets away, are they going to go commit another violent crime? Or, if it’s a minor traffic offense, is it going to be a detriment to society? So, our officers are guided in that way,” said Williams.
When asked how familiar officers are with the pursuit policy and if the average police officer, if asked, could site the major points of the policy, Chief Williams said, “They should be able to do that, because they are held accountable for that policy.”
Williams went on to say, “Any police officer should be able to tell you the basics. We are allowed to pursue vehicles for violent felonies, for OVI (Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated), and for anything else that an officer can articulate to a supervisor that warrants a pursuit. They should be able to tell you those three things.”
Mayor Jackson said, “The other major thing you have to understand about pursuit policies, and whether…someone should pursue, is there comes a point where you have to check in. You have to notify a supervisor, that you are in pursuit. Then, depending upon what is going on in the circumstances of the moment, you update the supervisor periodically.”
Chief Williams said while the officer initiates the pursuit, the supervisor has the discretion to terminate a pursuit or allow it to continue. He described some safety concerns that may influence a supervisor’s decision. He said the supervisor will ask questions as to the reason for the pursuit, the direction the pursuit is going, traffic conditions and other factors to help decide as to whether or not that pursuit can continue. Williams noted the front-line supervisor is “ultimately responsible for what those officers do.” He said, “If a frontline supervisor allows a pursuit to continue that is not within our policy, then they are just as accountable as the officers that initiated the pursuit.”
In a reference to a police chase that ended with police 137 firing shots into an apprehended vehicle, Chief Williams was asked what policy changes occurred since the incident, that would ensure that Cleveland Police Officers would follow the chain of command when asked to beg off, or follow the rules of pursuit when in a pursuit. Chief Williams said, “We have a policy, and the officers are responsible for knowing and abiding by that policy, if they don’t’, there are consequences for the officers as well as the supervisors and anyone else involved in that pursuit.”
Mayor Jackson said that during the pursuit that ended up with 137 shots being fired in East Cleveland, if you listen to the tape, some supervisors terminated their officers from the pursuit. He said that those officers that continue beyond that order were disciplined.
Chief Williams said the pursuit policy is designed to make it as safe as possible for officers and citizens. Chief Williams noted that during the 137-shot pursuit incident, some supervisors got on the air, right then and there and said, “you will not pursue, my officers are terminated from this pursuit” while other supervisors didn’t and some supervisors didn’t say anything. “Our current policy makes it clear on what the duties and responsibilities are for a supervisor in a pursuit. We don’t think it was clear enough before. Although, I think it was clear. But, obviously, it wasn’t clear enough. So, we clarified it. We made it a lot stronger. We made sure our supervisors understand their responsibility in a pursuit,” said Chief Williams
The discussion then focused on the pursuit of all-terrain vehicles such as dirt bikes, and the pursuit policy developed in response to the growing presence of them. Prior to the roundtable discussion, those attending had a chance to see the Cleveland Police Division’s new BMW GS650 off-road vehicles parked in the lot outside Visible Voice.
Traffic Commissioner James P. Muhic said the Division of Police purchased three BMW GS650 off-road vehicles along with helmets with inside helmet speakers, chest protectors and protective gear for the officers riding the vehicles. The officers were sent to Alameda County California where they received two weeks of training from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department in the use and operation of the off-road vehicles. Muhic says that funds have been allocated in next year’s budget to purchase three additional off-road vehicles. Cleveland officers who have had training, will be involved in training additional officers in the use of the vehicles. Commissioner Muhic said that in purchasing the vehicles and the development of a strategy to deal with off-road vehicles, the Division of Police studied trends across the country to decide the best practices for Cleveland to pursue.
Muhic said the Division of Police will use their off-road, multipurpose vehicles to engage the dirt bikes. Intelligence gathering in each district is mapping out congregation places and escape routes used by dirt bikes. Three or four motorcycle officers, using Harley Davidsons, will be used to limit escape routes, while the off-road, multipurpose cycles can be used to pursue the dirt bikes over terrain such as railroad tracks and through wooded areas. Pursuing officers will be able to communicate with supervisors through the in-helmet speaker system and their exterior cameras will provide intelligence to the supervisors as well. Muhic stressed the number one goal is safety, not apprehension. He said often the intelligence gathered can help with officers being able to go back and issue tickets.
Traffic Commissioner Muhic said if police officers learn of an address where dirt bikes are parked that have been reported to be involved in illegally riding on city streets, police officers can knock on the door. He said in cases where the dirt bike rider is a juvenile, officers can talk to their parents who may not be aware their child is operating the vehicle illegally on city streets. Police Chief Williams and Commissioner Muhic said if police officers see a person drive up to a house and park a dirt bike, they can confiscate it because it was being ridden on city streets.
Police Chief Williams said zone cars will not pursue dirt bikes down city streets, because “it is almost impossible to catch a dirt bike with a four door police car.” He noted the damage that would occur to police cars if they drive over curbs or on sidewalks to pursue a dirt bike. He offered examples of other cities where pursuit of dirt bikes by police cars have not resulted success in stopping the dirt bikes. He said of such pursuit policies “With all that metal flying around, somebody is bound to get hurt. That is not how we do things in the city of Cleveland.” He said that after looking at policies all over the country, we came up with what we believe is “the best tactical plan.” Chief Williams said he believes the plan keeps people safe while disrupting the use of dirt bikes on city streets.
Mayor Jackson said, “The use of dirt bikes is not going away. It is very popular and is growing all over the country.” He said the goal is to impress upon people what the parameters are and that you have alternatives. He said between the pursuit policy and the tactical things the police are doing such as intelligence gathering, the message is getting out that riding dirt bikes on city streets is illegal. He said what we attempt to do is “prevention, intervention and choice. We look at this in a holistic way. Legislation has been introduced that strengthens the penalties associated with this, even to the point where you can’t ride up to a gas station and just put gas in an off-road vehicle. If you brought it in a trailer or a pick-up — that is different.”
Mayor Jackson talked about the holistic approach of the city of Cleveland which he said is unique in the country. He said the strategy not only involves doing enforcement in a safe way, but also involves talking to leaders in the dirt bike community so they can communicate to others about what is improper behavior. He said Cleveland is also looking to create an opportunity for dirt bike riders to have a place to ride locally so they don’t have to transport their bikes for an hour and a half or two hours, to go to a place to ride them.
Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack talked about a problem with dirt bikes at Clark Field. He noted the collaboration between community residents, the councilman’s office, the administration and Second District police that involved intelligence gathering and sharing of information about the dirt bike activity at the park. He said that Second District officers did an incredible job of mitigating the problem at Clark Field. “It has gotten much better,” said McCormack.
“I’m familiar with that situation, because I talked to the Sergeant that ran that situation,’ said Commissioner Muhic. “They handled it correctly. Didn’t do it while guys were riding. They waited until they were parked. That was it. No danger. Nobody got hurt and they put a big dent in it.”
Traffic Commissioner Muhic urged residents seeing illegal activity by dirt bikes to call 621-1234 to report the activity. Muhic noted that his officers work with the Communication Control Center to review the calls involving off road vehicles as part of their intelligence gathering operation.
Editor’s Note: This report was produced through a Neighborhood Media partnership between independent Cleveland newspapers — Plain Press, The Tremonster, The Collinwood Observer, El Sol de Cleveland, and East Side Daily News. A video of the round table discussion is available on Tremonster.TV & YouTube at: (https://youtu.be/uOvPUrx55Oc).