‘Preventing the Next Ferguson’

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Photo by Julie Vennetti/Canton Repository

Photo by Julie Vennitti/Canton Repository


The police were outnumbered.

A body camera worn by one officer captured shaky footage of him and three other officers in a street basketball game against a group of kids in a Canton, Ohio neighborhood. As the ball was shot, the camera captured the sound of a rim hit but no view of the net.

“We still got this,” the camera-wearing officer said. “We ain’t done yet. We’re just playing easy.”

He tossed a football with the boys as they moved to the side of the road to let an SUV pass. The department’s year-old video has 2,000-plus shares and more than 400 overwhelmingly positive comments on Facebook.

The video moment came as the Canton Police Department began its brand of community policing in the city’s northeast. Seven months earlier, teens in the Shorb area on the city’s northwest — a high-crime area and first to receive the new treatment — were upset after officers confiscated their street-side hoop.

So the basketball video from the northeast side of town stands as a small but significant step toward improved perception of the department.

Since 2014, Canton police have played basketball, bagged trash and walked door-to-door in high-crime neighborhoods in hopes of decreasing violence and building community trust. They have spent nearly $34,500 in grant money to pay for expenses such as officers’ overtime and safety brochures.

Police, community leaders and residents say it’s paying off.

[The department incorporated a two-year state grant into a philosophical shift in policing strategy that began when Bruce Lawver became chief in 2012.  Officers focused on quality-of-life issues and established a presence through foot patrols in two high-crime neighborhoods of the city which regularly produced about 26 percent of Canton’s crime until 2014. ]

Violent Crime Decreases

Statistics provided by the department show violent crime decreased by 41 percent and quality of life crimes, such as burglary and theft, decreased by 27 percent in the Shorb area between June 2014 and 2015 compared to the prior year. Citywide, violent crime was down 3.4 percent and quality of life crime was down 12.2 percent in 2015, as compared to the three-year average from 2012 to 2014.

“Those have been the two consistently violent, crime-ridden areas in our city,” said Lt. John Gabbard, who leads the initiative as commander of the newly created Priorities Bureau.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to significantly reduce crime, [and] keep it down.”

Crimes considered violent include murder, burglary, assault, robbery, rape and menacing. Offenses categorized as “quality of life” are breaking and entering, burglary, theft, damaging, vandalism, harassment and illegally discharging a weapon.

Although burglaries, break-ins and thefts in Canton dropped considerably in 2015, simple and felonious assaults rose by 10 percent and 6 percent, respectively. The reason for the increase was uncertain. Gabbard said simple assaults have been increasing for years, possibly because more people are making reports for minor offenses and officers classify them as assault more often than lesser crimes.

The rise in felonious assaults, he said, “was not associated with gun violence.”

The number of shooting victims citywide in 2015 decreased by 30 percent compared to the past three-year average. Shots fired decreased by 22 percent citywide and between 15 and 26 percent in the northwest Shorb neighborhood and northeast Gibbs neighborhood.

“We’re still on the right track,” Gabbard said.

…Police will not evaluate their approach on statistics alone, though. Lawver said they’re not a complete representation of performance, which would include resident perceptions of safety and law enforcement. It’s also difficult to measure how many crimes officers deter.

“You don’t get the credit for something that never did happen, that you prevented,” Lawver said.

Building Trust, Increasing Diversity

….The department’s neighborhood involvement has improved relationships with residents, particularly minorities.

Ron Ponder, a local show host who moderated some of the department’s community discussions, said trust is being rebuilt. As president of the Stark County NAACP in the 1980s, he sued the city to force safety services to hire more blacks and women.

“I can look back and see how it was, and I can compare it with what it is right now,” Ponder said. “And it’s a big difference, really big difference.”

The department of 165 sworn officers includes 24 black officers, two Hispanic officers and one Asian officer. There are 13 women on the force, including three who are black, according to police.

As the city’s population dwindled from about 80,000 to 72,000 between 2000 and 2014, the Hispanic population grew from 1.2 percent to 2.6 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau recorded the city’s makeup in 2010 as 69.1 percent white, 24.2 percent black and 2.6 percent Latino.

The Canton Police Department’s new goal has been to work with youth, community groups, and black and Hispanic leaders toward a safer city.

“If we don’t have respect, people don’t trust us,” Lawver said. “They’re not going to call us. They’re not going to confide in us, and we’ll never reach any type of potential.”

With a department history [of] racial tension, misconduct and brutality, administrators know it will take time. They’ve tried to communicate better with residents, in English and Spanish, and explain their policies and practices at community meetings.

People have responded in kind. The Stark County NAACP invited area law enforcement and state Attorney General Mike DeWine to have a dinner conversation last spring at the first local gathering of its kind.

“The dinner grew out of a concern that every city would be the next Ferguson,” Deb Shamlin, president of the Stark County NAACP, said of the community near St. Louis where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed in 2014 by a white police officer. “And that it was important that there be a community-police relationship.”

She had recently taken office in Canton after moving from Chicago. Despite criticism for cooperating with police, Shamlin said, her first year as president has established crucial relationships.

She attended a Police Executive Research Forum meeting last year in Washington D.C. with Lawver, who is a NAACP member, and said NAACP staff, the police and city officials have shared information to “de-escalate situations.”

‘Receptive’ Cops

“What I find helpful is they are open,” Shamlin said. “They are receptive to comments, suggestions and criticism, and in return, we are also open to the response.”

….Wilter Perez Barrera, formerly executive director of the Latino Business League and now a self-employed consultant, said the language barrier is one of the greatest challenges and can deter Spanish-speaking residents from contacting police. He helped translate safety pamphlets but said police, who have said they want people to report crime and are not concerned with immigration status, could work even more closely with Spanish-speaking residents.

“It goes beyond brochures,” Barrera said.

Alfredo Carranza, founder of the Latino Business League and an occasional translator for police, said communication has improved but could benefit from more bilingual officers and dispatchers. He began working with police about two years ago when residents contacted him about assaults, robberies and break-ins.

“I believe, from the time that we started working together, the issues with Latinos have reduced a lot, and they got more respect,” Carranza said.

Carranza and Barrera both are natives of Peru.

Henry Renfro, a Hartville resident and owner of the 12th Street Laundromat in Canton, said he opened his business in 2014 despite “horror stories” about the area’s crime.

Shortly afterward, a nearby Mexican grocery store was robbed, and police visited the businesses near 12th Street and Fulton Drive NW to share crime information and security suggestions.

Renfro, who was born and raised in the United States by his Mexican mother, said it was reassuring.

“If people don’t feel safe down here, no one will come down here and shop,” he said.

At the laundromat, which is in the police department’s initial target area and frequented by Hispanic residents, several signs warn of security cameras and metal bars cover the front door. Renfro’s few complaints include sometimes slow police responses, officers who haven’t shown interest in his security footage, and an apparent decrease in patrols since the fall.

Renfro believes in the neighborhood’s future, so much so that he is trying to buy the entire plaza, which is less than two miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and its proposed attractions.

“We believe that it’s going to become safe for tourists, safe for people,” Renfro said.

[Project Rebuild, an education and job training center for at-risk youth, is another point of contact for police and residents.]

After Executive Director Joanna James contacted the department about a partnership, officers began to visit. They served as mentors to the students, who are between 16 to 24 years old. Most in the nine-month program have had experience with law enforcement or the court system, James said, so she wanted to remove the “us versus them” mentality.

Officers’ presence a few times a month still takes new students by surprise.

“The majority of the time, they go see my students,” James said. “They know where the classrooms are, the computer lab. They know where to find them.”

That’s where an officer found Darius Smalls, 20, who had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear. Instead of making an arrest, the officer told him to take care of it.

Smalls did.

“They don’t harass you no more like they used to,” Smalls said. “They used to harass you a lot.”

Craig Burnett, 18, agreed and said he has a new respect for police since joining Project Rebuild in late 2015.

He couldn’t recall the officer’s face, but a smile spread across Burnett’s when he remembered the details of their basketball games last summer on the city’s northwest side.

“They’re actually trying to do something in Canton,” he said. “They’re actually trying to, you know, be human.”

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Canton Repository, the first of a three-part series stories examining community policing in Canton Ohio. Reporter Kelly Byer produced the stories as a John Jay College and Solutions Journalism Network Reporting Fellow.  For the complete story and access to the series please click HERE. Kelly welcomes readers’ comments.

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