Cleveland police seek to bridge the divide with Browns players after NFL protests
Cleveland police seek to bridge the divide with Browns players after NFL protests
CLEVELAND, Ohio — In December 2014, then-Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins inserted himself into the national debate over police violence when he showed up for warm-ups wearing a shirt that read “Justice for Tamir Rice.”
The gesture came more than two years before the Browns joined a movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest the police-involved shootings of mostly black men in cities across the country. Eight Browns players chose to kneel during the opening ceremony of the Aug. 22 pre-season game against the New York Giants, setting off a new round of controversy that reached all the way to the White House.
“It’s just ignorant for someone to do that,” Cleveland police union head Steve Loomis would say in a Sept. 2 interview about the Browns’ pre-season protests. “It just defies logic to me. The fact that management was aware of what they planned on doing, that’s as offensive as it can get.”
The controversy led to a Sept. 7 meeting between the Browns, Cleveland police Chief Calvin Williams, and other members of the city’s police administration. In years past, the Browns and Cleveland police had regularly partnered together on community initiatives. But this year, the players made it clear to management that they wanted to expand that partnership and open up a dialogue in their adopted city about the issues at the heart of their protest.
“We didn’t want to leave it at just us going onto the field with (the Browns) one day,” Cleveland police Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia said. “It’s evolving and blossoming into more, and it’s inspiring to see it coming together on both sides.”
The Browns now appear to be quiet leaders in mending the mistrust between local police and the NFL players who are compelled to continue addressing the issues that separate many black communities and the people who police them. It’s a dialogue that many officers understand.
This new approach led to two unconventional outings with Cleveland police in the weeks that followed: a series of ride-alongs, and a summit with local high school students where players, officers and kids talked over policing in the community.
Officer Richard Mauer, who attended the Oct. 24 summit, told the group at one point that police still need to work on the latter half of their mantra of “protect and serve.”
“We’ve become really good at the protection part, but the service part is a little bit lacking,” Mauer told the students. Though there’s no current way to measure positive interactions, Mauer said officers ought to be thinking about it every day: “How many people did I stop and talk to? How many kids have I engaged with?”
Cleveland and Shaker Heights police offered Browns players an opportunity to participate in the ride-alongs on Oct. 10. They, along with the Miami Dolphins and a few others, appear to be the only teams who have reached out to police for ride-alongs since the controversy erupted at the start of the 2017 season.
Tight end Randall Telfer, in his third season with the Browns, said that he and other players have a vision of “getting to the bottom of the issues that are plaguing this community and this country.”
Telfer balked at the notion driven by pundits and politicians that the players participating in the protests were disrespecting the flag, the military or America.
“A lot of folks believe we’re protesting the flag or military, which is so far from the truth. We don’t mean for any of this to be divisive, especially as divisive as President Trump’s comments were. We hope for a better America.”
The police department hoped the ride-alongs would show that “no matter what side of the issue you are on, there is always common ground,” Cleveland police Det. Reginald Lanton said.
It was a rare opportunity for one-on-one dialogue between officers and athletes, who talked over police brutality and the ongoing protests as they drove around, making stops at Cleveland homeless shelters, high schools and recreations centers along the way.
“We have a huge platform in the NFL. A lot of guys in the league — where the majority of players are African American — come from small towns where little boys and girls feel underprivileged and not heard. We’ve made money and done well for ourselves, but that can’t be the reason why we turn our backs,” Telfer said.
The other Browns who participated were tight end Seth DeValve, linebacker Christian Kirksey and defensive linemen Tyrone Holmes and Carl Nassib.
Children at the recreations centers and schools were shocked to see those players stepping out of police cars during the ride-alongs, but it was good that they were able to witness athletes working peacefully alongside police officers, Telfer said.
Adrian Calhoun, a city police officer of four years, and a Cleveland native, said he had a similar feeling.
“Police and athletes — we’re both a positive influence and kids look up to us. We’ve got a platform we can use to help bridge the gap, and I think this is going in the right step,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun teamed up with Kirksey for their ride-along and the pair bonded over similar upbringings in the inner city. Calhoun told Kirksey that the negative experiences he had with police as a child partly inspired him to go into police work — so that he could raise the bar and be a better influence in the field.
Efforts to foster trust between the team, the community, and law enforcement continued on Oct. 24, when eight players, several dozen Cleveland and Cleveland State University police officers, and 40 Cleveland high school juniors and seniors met for the Neighborhood Equality and Unity Summit at the university.
The high schools that participated were John Adams, Rhodes, Martin Luther King Jr. and East Tech. The players were Telfer, Kirksey, DeValve, defensive backs Jason McCourty and Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., wide receiver Ricardo Louis, and center Marcus Martin.
The event began with a handful of kids, a pair of officers and a player breaking off into round table discussions about social inequality, police use-of-force, and what’s happening in Cleveland’s streets. After dinner, a panel of police and players took questions from the students.
Responding to one child’s inquiry about how police can begin to better relations with the community, Cleveland police Chief Calvin Williams said the first step was having conversations like the ones they were having that night.
The second step, Williams said, was getting to know officers on a personal level, so that kids feel comfortable talking to them if or when the police are needed for an incident at school or at home.
At a roundtable discussion, McCourty asked kids about how they feel when police show up in the neighborhood. Several high schoolers said they get uncomfortable or even scared when a police cruiser pulls up, and one girl said she feels more nervous if white officers approach her as opposed to a black officer.
Lynn Hampton, president of the city’s Black Shield Association, later told cleveland.com that that is one reason why the department needs to continue recruiting officers who are demographically representative of the communities they police.
He lauded the department’s efforts to track officers’ implicit racial biases, and said cultural diversity training for new recruits is key. Still though, he mentioned that older officers often haven’t undergone sensitivity training in years.
James Hardiman, president of the Cleveland branch of the NAACP, echoed that perspective.
“A (discussion) session is a tiny step, but it’s a step, and I applaud what they’re trying to do in that regard,” Hardiman said. “But there has to be a lot more than just dialogue — there has to be policy in place, training, and a commitment that the community (members) that police serve are not the enemy.”
Cleveland police have made some progress under the reforms mandated by the consent decree, which stemmed from a Justice Department report that criticized the department saying it often functioned as an “occupying force instead of a true partner and resource in the community it serves.”
The department’s efforts with the Browns may be one more step toward that partnership with the community, and both the Browns and police say they hope to continue and expand their collaboration.
“He’s an athlete and I’m a police officer, but we’re both human beings,” Calhoun said. “We can come together.”