I-Team Exclusive: New Cleveland Police Chief Promises Major Changes

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CLEVELAND – In his first sit-down interview, new Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams tells the I-Team’s Bill Sheil that he plans to make dramatic change to how his division functions – and to how it relates to the community it serves.

The ideas come in the midst of a Department of Justice investigation into a deadly chase sixteen months ago that left two people, 43 year-old Timothy Russell and his passenger, 30 year-old Malissa Williams, dead in a hail of 137 police bullets.

The two had been chased by over 60 Cleveland police cars for nearly a half-hour into East Cleveland.

No weapon was found on either Russell or Williams.

The chase may have started when an officer mistook a backfire from Russell’s car for a gunshot.

“There’s a penalty for running from the police,” says David Malik, the attorney for the Williams family, “and it’s not death.”

Chief Williams has already tightened what was a fairly strict pursuit policy already. He seems ready to do more.

“There are a lot of things that we are going to change,” Chief Williams says, “that we have to change.”

Two weeks ago, the I-Team profiled sweeping changes to policing that took place in Cincinnati after three days of unrest in 2001 that started after a series of police shootings.

Those changes have culminated in what’s known as a “collaborative” – an agreement where the police and the community agree on the basics of how police will do their jobs.

All sides in Cincinnati say it has helped that city – with the police union saying officers jobs are easier as a result, and some officers saying they feel safer.

Asked about the Cincinnati model, Chief Williams said, “it’s something we’ve definitely looked at it the past couple weeks.”

“Our model,” the Chief continues, “is going to be based on officers getting out of the cars, and actually engaging and talking to citizens out there.”

Cincinnati and a number of other cities employ versions of this community-based policing.

It is marked not only by the style of policing, but the level of accountability imposed on both the police and the community.

In Cincinnati, there is a robust outside agency that reviews complaints against the police with full transparency.

And the community is held responsible for helping the police solve crimes.

“Our model is going to be based on officers getting out of the cars,” Chief Williams says, “and actually engaging and talking to citizens out there.”

For that to have a chance to work, the community would have to be willing to work with the police – including, the Chief says, finding ways to have people report lower-level problems online or over the phone, rather than calling for a police car.

“We have to make that more available for people, and the community has to sort of embrace that in order to free up officers,” Chief Williams says.

But before embracing change, community members must trust the police.

And the head of the local NAACP says that could be a tall order.

“There’s a community we represent who feel terrorized by the police department,” says Sheila Wright, executive director of the Cleveland NAACP.

Wright adds the NAACP would want a voice in any proposed changes.

Chief Williams acknowledges a trust problem, and says he plans to start a dialogue to try and bridge the gap.

“I have to know what your feelings are,” Chief Williams says, “and you have to know what my feelings are, and now we can start working on, ‘can we get those feelings out of the way?’ and get some solutions on the table.”

Chief Williams says reaching a consensus on how to move forward will make the streets safer for both the community and police officers.

Jeff Follmer, head of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, says his organization is open to being part of the dialogue as well.

He says the right changes could make the city “a lot safer for us, and things could go a lot smoother.”

Chief Williams made clear that he respects his predecessor, Mike McGrath, whose now the city’s Safety Director, as well as Martin Flask, the former Safety Director who now works in the Mayor’s office.

But he also made clear that he’s very much his own man.

“For the people who say that Director McGrath and Martin Flask are going to continue to run the Division of Police,” Chief Williams says, “they don’t know those gentlemen very well, and they don’t know me very well.”

“I think this city is headed up,” Chief Williams continued, “and this division will not be the anchor that drags this city down. As this city goes, this division is going up with it.”

Chief Williams agreed to sit back down with us in six months to see how much progress has been made.

“Really, what I hope,” Chief Williams says, “is that we are further along as a city, and a division than we are today.”

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