It’s been well over a decade since the Crack epidemic reached its brutal peak in American urban centers. But as one Cleveland group is determined to point out, some of the harsh drug policing that came with that era has yet to recede.
When Shakyra Diaz steps into Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral Commons Church this Thursday evening for a Townhall meeting to discuss drug policy with city residents, she’ll be facing at least two major hurdles: how to fully confront ongoing and unfair policing practices in drug crimes and how to elicit support for its primary targets, suspects arrested and booked for felony cocaine possession.
“It’s difficult, let me tell you,” says Diaz, Education Director at the ACLU of Ohio, and member of Townhall sponsors, Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland. “Everyone says, ‘Of course we don’t want those people in our neighborhoods.’ We don’t want drug dealers in our neighborhoods, nobody wants that. What we’re saying is let’s treat everybody fairly.”
The Townhall is being overseen by the ad hoc Citizens coalition — composed of “stakeholders” from the ACLU, 100 Black Men of Greater Cleveland, Cleveland’s NAACP Chapter, and the Cleveland Job Corps Academy. It is further populated with independent local organizers and legal advocates. The group, which began meeting this spring to address ongoing and unspoken policing inconsistencies regarding drug crimes, is attempting to expose this outraging law enforcement discrepancy.
“When we first started meeting we wanted to look at issues of drug enforcement laws, says Diaz. “Everyone in the room, myself included, and a number of people from lawyers, judges, grassroots organizers, and everyone was well aware of the fact that ‘Crack Pipe Cases’ were going to be treated differently if they were caught in Cleveland as compared to the rest of the county.”
The expression “Crack Pipe Cases,” refers to cases where an arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia is made within city limits and turned into a felony cocaine possession charge. If the charge occurs outside of the city, in one of the neighboring suburban communities in the greater Cuyahoga County area, it would be treated as a misdemeanor. Cleveland’s own city code says it should treat these cases in the same way.
As early as 2002, city leaders in the African-American and Latino community, such as Reverend Marvin McMickle, came forward to decry racially-motivated drug prosecutions and aired their concerns to the local media. The Townhall event is yet another attempt to shore up support for juridical reform, and in this case to pushing the city into changing their protocol.
“[All of the city ordinances in Cuyahoga County say the same thing in terms of how to handle Crack Pipe Cases,” adds Diaz. “Crack pipes are supposed to be tested for residue, to determine if it’s an instrument being used for drug use, and then you charge it as a misdemeanor. Cleveland is the only city in the county that charges residue under the higher revised code as a felony.”
The group claims that the enforcement variance can be traced to biased policing strategies-and have sponsored research to bolster their claims. According to legal studies scholar Mona Lynch’s recently-released study, “Selective Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County, Ohio: A Report on the Racial Effects of Geographic Disparities in Arrest Patterns,” “There is evidence that the differential enforcement by geographic location results in African-Americans and other minorities being disproportionately charged with felony drug possession within the county.”
Given the majority African-American population within Cleveland’s limits, Lynch’s research points to the need to critically assess how drug charges are policed and prosecuted in the city. The San Jose State University -based researcher’s report further states, “Because the city population is majority nonwhite, whereas the surrounding county population is overwhelmingly white, the differential enforcement practices disproportionately impact the non-white population of the county.”
The effects of such police measures are staggering: Diaz estimates upwards of 6,000 individual Crack Pipe Cases, and her group is attempting to comb through often hard-to-reach municipal and state data to track even more. African-Americans in Cleveland are arrested at a rate four-times higher for felony drug charges than white residents.
In light of these statistics and an on-going dialogue with city officials, Diaz and ACLU Executive Director Christine Link co-authored another report comparing ordinances in Cleveland and four neighborhing counties (Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Parma, and Lakewood). The take was much of the same — the city is policing and prosecuting crimes differently in Cleveland.
Says Diaz, “If you live on one side of the street you can get help. If you live on another side of the street, you’re going to jail with a felony conviction. It impacts not just that individual, but the individual’s family, and the entire community. Because at the end of the day, how can this person contribute to this community if one, they don’t get help, and two, they’re coming back unemployable?”
Though the state of Ohio permits former felons to vote, stigmas associated with a felony drug conviction run deep. “It really does make you unemployable,” says Diaz. “Almost all employers do a felony background check. The likelihood you’re going to get a job is slim to none, the likelihood you’re going to get public housing is slim to none.
She adds, “It’s even deeper than that. It’s fighting the stigma of drug use of African American Clevelanders. This stigma is not being attached to anyone else in the county.”
The Citizen’s collective favors increased access to drug treatment, as well as a equal revamping of policing practices. They remain open to continued talks with the city, and hope the Townhall will offer a chance to share their research and might yield further perspective on the matter.
“We hope the community is empowered enough to say, ‘Hey this is how this is affecting my life, my family’s life, my community.'” says Diaz. “People need to find another way, they just don’t know how. This is just the way it’s always been done.”