Racist Grafitti in the Cleveland PD

July, 1999


White alleges police racism

Thursday, July 22, 1999


An unknown number of Cleveland police officers in at least three of the department's six districts have scrawled racist or Nazi graffiti throughout their quarters, presenting the department with the most serious crisis he has seen since he took office, Mayor Michael R. White said yesterday.

White also confirmed reports from law enforcement sources that some officers allegedly have been seen wearing pins on the lapels of their uniforms that are believed to symbolize white power. In recent months, signs and graffiti depicting swastikas also have been removed from police locker rooms, those sources said.

No officers were disciplined yet "because we don't know who the perpetrators are," White said.

"This is going to be a defining moment for the Police Department and this administration," the mayor said, adding that he only learned about the problem "within the last 24 hours."

White said he met yesterday with Police Chief Martin L. Flask and other top members of his administration to determine how to address the problem of racism within the department in a "holistic" manner. The mayor said he had asked Flask not to discuss the matter but said Flask had been unaware of the problem until yesterday.

"This is not just going to be an investigation of a couple of racist police officers wearing some symbols who are going to be disciplined and then we're going to go on with business as usual," White said. "I don't want to just cure what you see. I want to see if there is a way of curing what you don't see. What you don't see is the scary part."

White said racist symbols found in the 4th and 6th districts on the East Side included pins some officers wore depicting a star with seven or eight spokes. The so-called "chaos" symbol, law enforcement sources said, is known among police officers to represent white power.

Sources said the number "311," a reference to the Ku Klux Klan, also has been found scrawled in police restrooms in the lst District, located on the far West Side. Ted Almay, superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, said the "11" in "311" represents the letter "K," the llth letter in the alphabet. The number "3," he said, refers to the three Ks in Ku Klux Klan.

White said he also learned that the word "Elvis" was found in various locations in the 4th and 6th districts, which he said was a reference to racist convictions attributed by some white supremacists to the late Elvis Presley.

John Kincaid, first vice-president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, expressed outrage at White's allegations, saying he was unaware that any of the Police Department's stations were scarred with racist graffiti.

He also scoffed at White's characterization of the word "Elvis" as having a racist connotation, saying, "As far as we're concerned, Elvis is a rock star. Tell the mayor to go to the rock hall. Elvis hasn't left the building. The mayor's claims are outrageous and inciteful to the Police Department and to the community in general, and do not deserve a reply," Kincaid said. "There are no racist police officers on the Cleveland Police Department."

Before Kincaid made his comments, the mayor predicted that the police union would issue a blanket defense of its members. Referring to anticipated denials by Kincaid's boss, union President Robert Beck, that racism in the department is a problem, White said, "I consider him to be a part of the problem - a big part of the problem."

Beck, who was reached last night in Boston, said: "No one, not from ... (the Black Shield Association) club, not from our union members, not from the mayor's office has ever told me anything about this. We would have taken this very seriously. I can't believe this is happening, but if it is, it's by an extreme minority."

About 600 of the department's 1,800 officers are minority-group members, said Nancy Lesic, White's spokeswoman. Until 1995, the department operated under a federal mandate for higher levels of minority hiring.

White said that the problem of poor race relations was still endemic to the department and that officers who privately hold racists beliefs most likely allow those beliefs to affect public duties.

"I find it hard to believe that a person with overtly racist tendencies can put that behavior off just by wearing a uniform," White said.

"Nothing I have heard and nothing you guys write is going to surprise me," he said. "We have been struggling with these issues for 10 years."

Anthony Ruffin, president of the Black Shield Association, which represents black police officers, said yesterday that racist symbols and graffiti were causing tension at work for black officers and for white officers who do not espouse racist beliefs. He said racist graffiti was a recurring problem, with the offensive material returning shortly after it is painted over or washed off.

"When you walk past a swastika at work, you've got to feel something," he said.

Ruffin said union members told him last week that the Elvis graffiti was particularly pervasive.

"It's some kind of catchword or phrase for the Nazi mentality," Ruffin said. "We believe it is racist without a doubt."

White, who yesterday criticized Ruffin for not confiding in him about the problem, agreed.

"Elvis and chaos and 311 are all symbols for organizations or behaviors that could best be labeled racist or Nazism," White said. "Worst of all, they undermine the confidence the public has in the Police Department."

White's claims were corroborated yesterday by Councilman Roosevelt Coats and former Councilman Charles L. Patton.

"About a week ago, I received information from a police officer that called and left no name," said Coats, who chairs council's Public Safety Committee. "He was very angry that we were not doing anything." He said he did not share the information the caller provided about racist graffiti with the administration because the caller said he had already spoken with the mayor's office.

Ruffin and Patton, who sat on a council affirmative action committee before he was defeated in the 1997 election, said several Black Shield members testified about the racist graffiti two years ago, but that nothing came of their testimony.

Asked why, Patton said: "We all got busy running for re-election."

White said he was disturbed that police supervisors in the three districts had not taken any actions to address the issue of racism within their ranks.

Patton said several black officers had told him that a joke began circulating in recent weeks after White confirmed that he was considering allowing the Ku Klux Klan to don their hoods and robes in a police garage before an announced rally on Aug. 21.

"The joke," he said, "was that some people wouldn't have to go very far to get changed."

Plain Dealer reporter Robert Vickers also contributed to this article.

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