South Brooklyn Branch Cleveland Public Library Community Meeting addresses neighborhood safety
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, November 2019) On July 23rd, 19-year-old Brandon Cutnoe was fatally shot by Paul Sender inside the bathroom of the South Brooklyn Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Mr. Sender was arrested and faces aggravated murder charges, which could result in the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.
In response to the deadly shooting, Cleveland Public Library organized a task force to address safety issues. A Safety Community Meeting was scheduled to meet in late September at the South Brooklyn Branch, which included Executive Director of the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) Felton Thomas, Jr.; Ward 13 Councilman and Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelly; Director of Community Health at Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation Heather McMann; and representatives from the Cleveland Division of Police.
Hours before the meeting, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed in the chest a few blocks from the library in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood. The victim was taken to MetroHealth, where he was pronounced dead.
The two murders sent chills throughout the South Brooklyn neighborhood leading many to question whether enough is being done to provide safe places for children and the rest of the community. A group of visibly upset and emotionally charged residents attending the meeting expressed their fears that rising crime, gangs, and drug use will continue to unravel this once safe neighborhood.
CPL Executive Director Felton Thomas, Jr. shared his concerns that the community find a way to work together towards a solution.
“We want to have a conversation to tell you what we’re doing to examine our safety procedures,” he said. “Then we’re going to look at the community assets available to us as we move towards safety. We also plan to examine how South Brooklyn Branch can be part of helping to make South Brooklyn a safer neighborhood.”
Mr. Thomas stressed to residents that the answer is not entirely up to the library. He cited short and long-term solutions that include encouraging library staff to recognize when a situation might turn more dangerous and ‘see something and say something’. The task force is also looking at whether the libraries should hire more guards or add professional social workers to the staff as well as examine the library’s expulsion policy to ensure that safe practices are upheld throughout the library system, according to him.
The Department of Homeland Security has been asked to examine each library for safety and security procedures, report on any areas of weakness and vulnerabilities, and offer suggestions to strengthen overall process of providing a safe environment for the community.
Adding armed guards to the library security force was suggested but Mr. Thomas was quick to point out that libraries need to be a gun free zone.
. “Our library guards are not armed,” he said. “Our staff does not feel comfortable around armed guards. For some people, it seems like an easy answer but there are only a few libraries in the country with armed guards. Ohio is an open carry state,” he added. “Folks come to the library armed just to challenge our policy of restricting weapons of any kind, but people feel like they can carry anywhere they like.”
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelly stood up, adding, “Unfortunately, the City of Cleveland is situated in the State of Ohio. Any gun laws that we had on the books were obliterated by the Ohio General Assembly and affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court.”
Ohio is an open-carry state, which means anyone who legally possesses a firearm can openly carry it in the state, either with or without a concealed handgun license. The federal government prohibits firearms in schools, courthouses, police stations, post offices and other government property. This applies to both open and concealed carrying. No permit is required to buy a handgun in Ohio, and there is no waiting period between when you pay for the handgun. There is no permit, background check or firearms registration required when buying a handgun from a private individual.
Installing metal detectors at the library entrance was suggested as a determinant but the Cleveland Public Library does not use metal detectors at any of its branch, according to Mr. Thomas.
Police substations, a satellite police facility used to establish community relations and
solicit information, were closed many years ago leaving the community without a place to report crime, according to residents. Reopening the Pearl Road substation was suggested but rather than address the issue, representatives from the Cleveland Division of Police deferred the conversation back to Cleveland City Council President Kelly.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” said Kelly. “Those substations were gone by the time I got here.”
Peggy Scanio, a resident of the South Brooklyn community, suggested neighbors get more involved with the day-to-day activities. “Communities are not as involved as they used to be and we need to be,” she said. “We don’t talk to our neighbors. We communicate more on social media and that’s anti-social.”
Several complaints came forward about the role of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, in particular with the Crime Watch Program meetings, which some residents felt were used for public relations purposes on the part of the CDC rather than to promote crime watch.
“A lot of us are really upset. We want a crime watch program,” issued one resident. “We get ten minutes for crime watch. The meetings are nothing more than an infomercial for the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation.”
Heather McMann, Director of Community Health at Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, was quick to reply. “Our role as a CDC is to build networks for people so we don’t have to rely on the police,” she said. “It’s a little bit of an infomercial but we want people to come to the library and farmers market to network.”
Laura McShane, Youth Service Librarian at the Cleveland Public Library Brooklyn Branch, wasn’t convinced library administrators were doing enough to support their staff.
“We do the best that we can to provide a safe and welcoming environment for kids,” said McShane. “Adding social work services to our workload is causing burnout. We’re not social workers.”
“I understand that,” Thompson replied. “We know that compassion fatigue is an issue that we’re all facing but in the same sense, where do we go? What do we do? The system isn’t working.”
McShane couldn’t disagree more. “The libraries are a place where people feel comfortable. We know how to mobilize in the event of a threat and responded to protect our people. We know how to strategize if there’s a riot. These are the things we can do but I am not a social worker.”
When finished taking questions, CPL Executive Director Thomas suggested attendees at the meeting break out into smaller discussion groups and provide input to the task force; half the crowd headed for the exit door including Cleveland City Council President Kelly. The remaining few raised safety concern issues, offering suggestions to curbing the deadly violence.
With the meeting coming to a close for the night, Tana K. Peckham, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at the Cleveland Public Library, offered an overview on the library task force process moving forward.
“We’re looking at the library infrastructure for ways to use equipment, technology, and the design of our buildings to improve safety and security,” said Peckham. “We’re the Cleveland Public Library. We’re in 27 branches across the city so people that come to our branches reflect the people that live in the city. We’re an open institution, no different than any neighborhood that’s dealing with rising crime.”