Naming a new Cleveland Heights police chief: Little ado about something

The Observer does not take editorial positions. Though I am a board member of FutureHeights and chairman of its committee to oversee operation of the Heights Observer, what follows is my personal opinion as a lifetime resident of Cleveland Heights. It has not been endorsed or supported in any way by FutureHeights or the Heights Observer.

Martin Lentz–on the Cleveland Heights Police Department for 51 years and its chief since 1974 – will retire at year-end. He has a reputation as an innovator and leader–to the point that his most noted innovations now seem routine. But our city has some serious public safety issues. With gangs and despair in poor communities on our boundaries, armed robberies on neighborhood streets, and the effect of 1,500 vacant/foreclosed homes, our police officers have their hands full.

I have high regard for the work they do, but I am not alone in my concern that – while speeding is firmly under control on Mayfield Road – maybe the criminals are gaining ground.

In 2009, a couple folks in the Fairfax neighborhood invited people to a meeting with public safety officials to discuss crime; more than 200 showed up. What they seemed to want was a different relationship between the police department and those it is sworn to protect. They wanted a partnership – to somehow participate in making this community safer and better.

But the message they got – intended or not – was dismissal. They felt as if they’d been told that the only real problem is their perception that there’s a problem.

If the police department now needs a new leader, I hoped our government would use the moment to bring a next-generation approach to the job – a strategy that seeks to engage those who are being protected.

That’s why I was so concerned in July, when I asked Mayor Ed Kelley how the new police chief would be chosen. He told me city council has nothing to do with it; it’s the city manager’s job and that’s the law. That struck me as a bit dismissive.

More recently, on behalf of the Observer, I asked the same question of City Manager/Public Safety Director Bob Downey (see page 3). He didn’t describe a thoughtful, serious process; he provided a bureaucratic brush-off, saying it’s just a civil service promotion based on an exam taken by internal candidates. The implication is that he has limited discretion over whom he appoints.

When I asked some simple follow-up questions, such as when the exam was scheduled and who is on the Civil Service Commission that reviews the results, he declined to answer, prompting me to file a disclosure request (now in city hands) under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

What I’m hearing is that the selection of a police chief isn’t really anybody’s job; it just sort of happens.

But I believe selecting a police chief in 2010 – after a generation of status quo – is a both a big deal and a great opportunity. I’m not asking for it to be done in public. I don't believe it needs to be a referendum on Martin Lentz. I just want to know that the right people are taking it seriously.

But those people seem to respond as if an ordinary citizen like me is somehow overreaching by giving it a thought.

Yes, the process is defined by law; city council has had 36 years to legislate its improvement. The city manager could have satisfied me simply by providing a more serious answer to my questions. Those inconvenient options have been dismissed.

So, sometime soon, someone who gained most or all of his experience working for Chief Lentz will quietly get the job. I’ll be pleased if he brings the kind of innovation that Cleveland Heights so valued back in 1974. But, I won't be surprised if such thinking simply gets dismissed.

Bob Rosenbaum is a media consultant, and a former journalist and publishing executive.

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Volume 3, Issue 10, Posted 5:28 PM, 09.27.2010