(BLOGGER ADDITIONAL COMMENT: This story appears in the July 2015 edition of the Public Relations Society of America publication TACTICS. There is a link to the onlne portion of the publication below. It was written before the tragic shootings in Charleston, SC, on June 17. One final note — Rev. Rodney Maiden said in his interview that there are two justice systems in the U.S. — one for whites and one for blacks. Sadly, he’s right.)
Just weeks after devastating rioting and looting in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, it became Cleveland’s turn to take center stage in the growing national debate over police treatment of blacks
In November 2012, 62 Cleveland police vehicles went on a 20-minute high-speed chase after a car whose driver disobeyed a police pullover order. The car had two black occupants. The chase ended when numerous police cruisers stopped and surrounded the car, then 13 officers fired 137 bullets at the occupants, killing both. They turned out to be unarmed. One officer, Michael Brelo, was charged with manslaughter. In a four-week bench trial, Cuyahoga County Judge John P. O’Donnell found Brelo not guilty, despite his firing 15 shots into both suspects from the hood of the car after the chase had ended.
National news networks broadcast the verdict live on Saturday, May 23. Anticipating violent protests after the announcement, Cleveland Police mobilized and called in back-up from the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Additional safety forces were on standby.
At nearby Mt. Zion Church, 800 people of all races were attending a Northeast Ohio Gridiron Men’s Conference. When event organizers heard that the verdict announcement was imminent, they immediately suspended the program and collectively prayed for peace in Cleveland.
“It was God’s timing,” says Rev. Rodney Maiden, senior pastor of Providence Baptist Church on Cleveland’s southeast side for the past 35 years. “(We) got on our knees and asked the Lord no matter what the verdict … don’t riot.”
ALL IN THE TIMING
National observers believed that by May 2015 Cleveland was trapped in race relations zugzwang, a German term meaning no matter what move the city made next, it would be worse off. Six months earlier, a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, was killed by Cleveland police officers responding to a 9-1-1 call. It turned out that Rice was wielding a toy gun. A month later, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced findings in a 21-month investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP), calling the CDP “structurally flawed.” Some of the DOJs conclusions included:
- During encounters with citizens, CDP officers frequently used excessive force;
- CDP officers were not trained properly on how to act in encounters with physically or mentally ill citizens; and
- Cleveland failed to properly investigate and discipline officers who used excessive force
Over this template came riots in Ferguson, Mo., protests in New York over the chokehold death of Eric Gardner, excessive police force resulting in deaths of blacks in other cities, and then Baltimore.
Events in late May proved that Cleveland was different. Perhaps divine intervention helped. Certainly the city and its leaders benefited from excellent public relations counsel. Additionally, timing played a role in the public reaction.
“During early discussions, a weekend morning verdict was mentioned as a potentially good time because that’s when the fewest people would be downtown,” explained Darren Toms, Community Outreach Coordinator for Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. “A work-day announcement could have led to traffic jams and additional safety concerns. We did it on Memorial Day Weekend Saturday simply because the verdict was ready, and there was no reason to prolong it for another week.”
Additionally, the court system also closely coordinated with law enforcement and safety leaders as well as the Cleveland Municipal Court, which was responsible for processing of anyone who was arrested. “Having these groups on the same page was critical in the organization and reading of the verdict,” Toms added.
Additional factors helped make May 23 an even more opportune date. School was out, helping to prevent a repeat of the teen protests seen in Baltimore. The Cleveland Cavaliers were home for the NBA Eastern Conference Finals and superstar LeBron James, who called for justice in the Eric Gardner death, used his Twitter account to plea for peace. CDP allowed peaceful protests, but eventually arrested 71 people after a couple of the protesters turned violent.
“So much time had passed that much of that anger and passion of the moment had dissipated,” said Tom Beres, senior political correspondent at WKYC-TV in Cleveland, about the Brelo verdict. “Even though Cleveland had the same potential brew of poverty, crime, hopelessness … and other conditions as a backdrop as Baltimore, the outcome was not the same outrage and violence.”
Beres added that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson had been making extensive outreach efforts with community groups and clergy leaders such as Rev. Maiden. Street peacemaker groups also helped keep matters calm.
SETTLEMENT DECREE CHANGES THE FOCUS
Two days later, on Memorial Day, media reports circulated that the DOJ and Cleveland had reached a consent decree addressing the CDP’s many flaws. Different players now took over as the national spotlight intensified on the city.
DOJ and Cleveland held a joint news conference to announce the agreement on May 26. Here the city benefitted from experienced hands. Dan Williams, Cleveland’s Media Relations Director, is a U.S. Army public affairs veteran who helped manage the Abu Ghraib crisis in 2003-2004. Additionally, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (similar to a chamber of commerce) called upon Dix & Eaton, a leading Cleveland public relations firm, to assist the city.
In the consent decree, which Chief U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. approved on June 12, Cleveland will make substantial changes in its CDP in six major areas. Three are:
- Community engagement, including creation of a Community Police Commission to provide input on police policies, training, civilian oversight, and community engagement; and implementation of a comprehensive community and problem-oriented policing model to strengthen partnerships and solve problems;
- Search and seizure practices and bias-free policing, including revision of policies and training to ensure that all stops and searches are Constitutional and take community values into account; tracking and analysis of interactions between the police and residents; community input into comprehensive training related to bias-free policing; and development of a recruiting plan which will attract a diverse group of applicants; and
- Use of force practices, including revising policies and improving training and guidance on when and how officers may use force; strengthening systems for reviewing and investigating uses of force; and creating a Force Review Board to review serious uses of force.
City of Cleveland sources told TACTICS that, although the timing with the Brelo verdict was coincidental, Cleveland leaders worked hard to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the CDP’s numerous flaws. This began when Mayor Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams, both black, held a series of highly-publicized community town hall meetings in the months after the DOJ findings against the CDP.
“Our community relations board was active connecting with many groups, all talking about the same thing at the same time,” said one Cleveland source. “There was a whole different atmosphere of two-way conversations going on, and then a lot of rolling up the sleeves and hard work to get the consent decree done.”
Dix & Eaton declined requests for interviews for this story. “The professionals in the PR community in Cleveland are very strong and tuned into the city,” said Christian Hunter, APR, President of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of PRSA. “We take a lot of pride in our city and are very vocal about issues affecting it, so it’s no surprise we come together to help each other in challenging situations.”
Beres, who’s covered politics in Cleveland for more than 30 years, gave Mayor Jackson high marks for his insistence on both dealing with the CDP’s deficiencies and quickly achieving a consent decree. “The Mayor’s outreach (efforts) also paid dividends,” Beres added. “Mayor Jackson and his team are (now) talking to a lot of people out there, and leaders are being educated on what the decree will do.”
Rev. Maiden also applauded the settlement, with one huge caveat. “What the DOJ did was unveil and reveal some things that most people in the community already knew,” he said. “A law cannot change a person’s heart, and there is a lot of skepticism in the African American community. Will the Police Department go back to business as usual, or are there going to be any major changes?”
HURDLES, WORK STILL TO DO
Cleveland’s peaceful reaction to police treatment of blacks could change. On June 11, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald B. Adrine ruled that there was probable cause to indict two CDP officers in Rice’s death. “It will almost be a slap in the face of the community if they (the courts) don’t do anything about it (the Rice shooting),” Rev. Maiden said. “African Americans believe that we have two justice systems – one for whites and one for blacks.” He added that blacks are paying rapt attention to the case, seeking justice.
Additionally, Cleveland’s public relations community has room for improvement in racial diversity. A majority of the city’s population is black, but none of the Dix & Eaton personnel assisting the city with communications on the dissent decree were minorities. A quick survey of the area’s leading public relations firms found very little diversity among their employees.
“When thinking about what it takes to have a robust, well-rounded team, PR chapters should include points of view with a diverse perspective, “ says Larcine Bland, a diversity management consultant with Texas-based LLB Consulting. Bland has worked for and helped to shape diversity initiatives for national retailers such as Dunkin’ Brands and 7-Eleven.
Bland adds PR firms and PR chapters should embrace diversity as an important value-added component, make diversity and inclusion top-down strategies, be intentional about inclusion, and build community contacts and diversity liaisons.
Link to Tactics: PRSA Tactics
Link to USPR Network, of which Larcine Bland and I are members: USPR Network
Kerezy is associate professor of journalism/mass communications at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. He is also director of crisis, governmental & political communications for the Unified Strategies Public Relations Network.