In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that have rocked our cities and small towns, the village of Bratenahl recently sponsored a resolution calling on Congress and the state legislature to “ensure Black Americans have equal protections under the law” and declare racism a public health crisis. But a resolution that calls on the state and federal government to take action won’t mean much if the village keeps balancing its budget on the backs of their less-fortunate neighbors.
My battle with Bratenahl began after I’d been living there just over two years. That’s when the ACLU of Ohio released a report about mayor’s courts showing that Bratenahl generated 10 percent of its revenue through court fines and fees. The ACLU made sure residents knew it by placing a billboard on I-90 near the Eddy Road exit that proclaimed: “Bratenahl Mayor’s Court Collected over $500,000 in 2017.” Fresh off working on Issue 1, the failed ballot initiative to reform Ohio’s drug sentencing laws, on behalf of Policy Matters Ohio, I was eager to direct my energy elsewhere. When the ACLU called out my hometown, I couldn’t ignore it.
Mayor’s Courts are peculiar institutions found only in some Ohio and Louisiana villages. The mayor presides as judge over people accused of traffic and municipal ordinance violations. Small villages like Bratenahl, Newburgh Heights or Linndale use their police departments and mayor’s courts to generate revenue by ticketing people driving through the village. The ACLU found that in 2016, Ohio municipalities with mayor’s courts issued one out of every six of the state’s traffic tickets. The mayors and magistrates who preside over the courts don’t have to be lawyers. The only requirement is six hours of training a year.
Even though it’s in the middle of the city, the Bratenahl government’s main function seems to be guarding against Cleveland. In 1968 the village sued to stop the state’s effort to desegregate schools by dissolving Bratenahl’s school district to join with Cleveland’s. After a 12-year fight, the village lost in 1980. The ACLU report prompted me to observe the court for myself, which I did in April 2019. I realized then that the effort to defend Bratenahl plays out most dramatically on I-90. The highway separates the village from the mostly Black Cleveland neighborhood next door, Glenville. By my unscientific count, more than three-quarters of the people waiting to appear before the mayor or magistrate were Black and most were pulled over on I-90. When I was there, the mayor and magistrate often waived court fees and told people they could set up payment plans. Some people who aren’t required to go to court choose not to and just pay their ticket. However, a sample of records obtained by the ACLU shows in 2017 the village issued warrants for people who failed to pay fines ranging from $110 to $690 – some people who were cited for things as minor as failure to signal and driving with a suspended license.
My own records request of citations from January and July 2018 showed that police made 86 percent of citations – 198 of 227 – on the highway (see full analysis via Google docs here.) I couldn’t understand why I-90 was the priority, especially considering the risk to officers. Several were hit by drunk drivers. The village spent $150,000 replacing police vehicles due to crashes on I-90 last year. Living on Lakeshore with a small child, I would have supported police making sure people travelled carefully on the village’s main thoroughfare, but the misspending on wrong priorities here was obvious.
Bratenahl PD’s preoccupation with I-90 becomes more troubling when considering the racial data. Bratenahl shares a zip code – 44108 – with Glenville. Nearly 94 percent of the people who live there are Black. In the village, 82 percent of residents are white and just under 14 percent are Black. Yet 55 percent of those cited in Bratenahl were Black in July and January 2018 compared to 39 percent white and 5 percent other or no race was indicated. In addition, during those two months, police cited 10 percent of white motorists solely for nontraffic violations, like having expired plates, driving under suspension or not wearing a seatbelt, compared to 18 percent of Black drivers. White people were far more likely to get speeding tickets as Black people (65 percent compared to 38 percent) while Black people were more than twice as likely to get cited for running a stop sign or stop lights (17 percent v. 7 percent). The communities immediately surrounding Bratenahl are mostly Black, but each day people from across the region travel through Bratenahl – many from predominantly white communities, according to Census commuting data.
While visiting the mayor’s court, I spoke to Henderson Deal, a 60-year-old Black man who teaches at a nearby high school. He said a Bratenahl officer pulled him over on I-90 for coming too close to a stopped police car, which Deal denied. He told the officer he didn’t drink when the officer asked if he was drinking. The officer retorted: “You never have drank in your life? Not even in college?” The officer made Deal, who uses a walker, walk in a straight line. He said he considered name-dropping. I asked him why he didn’t. “Because it’s night time, and I’m a Black man and I’m in Bratenahl.”
Mayors are not impartial jurists. They have a clear interest in generating revenue for their communities – especially since state lawmakers slashed the local government fund. Bratenahl police issue many reasonable citations. No one should be clocking 90 miles per hour or driving drunk. Yet according to data obtained by the ACLU, in 2016, at least 109 people appeared before Bratenahl mayor’s court for driving with a suspended license. Of that group, 87 percent were Black and just over half had no other citation.
So why did police pull them over in the first place? Through a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Cuyahoga County, Bratenahl, like many local police departments received “automatic license plate readers.” According to DHS documents I obtained through a public records request, the readers should be used to reduce “crime through the identification of suspected criminals and their vehicles,” and prevent crime by collecting data that can be shared with police departments in other areas. Bratenahl stopped using the readers in 2018, about the same time the ACLU started making records requests.
According to my records request, the citation disparity narrowed significantly after the village stopped using the scanners in March. In January, 64 percent of drivers ticketed were Black compared to 50 percent in July. After doing away with license plate readers, the number of Black people cited for solely nontraffic offenses fell by nearly half in July compared to January. In July, police gave Black people more speeding tickets (47 percent) than they did in January (25 percent). Yet, the percentage of Black drivers cited for running a stop sign or traffic light jumped from 9 percent to 22 percent.
When I attended mayor’s court in 2019, people were still frequently cited for driving with a suspended license. It’s a common issue in communities with high poverty levels, where suspended licenses are most concentrated, according to a 2017 article in Cleveland.com. Bratenahl’s median household income is $89,000 while Cleveland’s is $29,000, about $3,000 above the poverty line for a family of four. About one million Ohioans have suspended drivers’ licenses, according to the Ohio Poverty Law Center. In most cases, most drivers’ licenses aren’t suspended for unsafe driving, but for a financial issue like falling behind on child support or insurance payments. With a weak public transit system, drivers who have to work and run errands make a calculated risk. If they get caught, the fines and fees dig them into a deeper hole. Ohio recently passed an amnesty bill for those struggling to reinstate their licenses, which should help somewhat.
Based on my friendly interactions with Mayor John Licastro and village councilmembers, I thought raising these issues would make village leaders uncomfortable, but could spark a productive dialogue. I compiled data about mayor’s courts and police practices. I interviewed experts about potential reforms, including the mayor of Yellow Springs, who the ACLU held up as an example of practicing restorative justice within the confines of an inherently unjust institution. In June 2019, I presented my findings to the mayor and village council. I recommended the village record all court proceedings, create a justice taskforce with members of surrounding communities, and engage an expert to audit the police and mayor’s court for bias. The next day, after I emailed my presentation to the mayor and council, Mayor Licastro wrote back that he was disappointed by my “inaccurate statements and erroneous conclusions.” And that “the insinuation that our Police racially profile is completely false and uncalled for.”
“[W]hen you look at the makeup of the people at the court, it’s pretty hard not to raise the question,” I wrote back. “And that’s all I did: raise the question. If you feel that there is nothing to be concerned about, you should welcome an audit and a robust and open discussion of these issues. I hope you do.”
By September, I hadn’t heard anything from Mayor Licastro or village council and decided to follow up. Clerk of Court Julie Kreiner sent me a courteous email explaining how the court works with defendants who need payment plans. Someone must have added police chief Richard Dolbow to the thread because suddenly he showed up in my inbox.
“Hope you or your family never suffer an incident by one of these law breakers you so passionately advocate for, but if you were to fall victim, be assured we would fairly and appropriately do our jobs as the law requires,” he wrote. “Maybe you should talk to the law makers and trust that this Village is following the law as required instead of insinuating we do anything other than that. Without the Court, and the required police enforcement of current laws that everyone should obey, this Village would not be the safe and peaceful community it is today.”
I never anticipated a response like this from Bratenahl’s chief law enforcement officer – just as I never anticipated the mayor’s tolerance of it. When I asked Licastro how he disciplined Dolbow for his emails to me, Licastro said that was between him and the chief.
Had I known more about the community, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. In 1903, wealthy Glenville residents balked at becoming part of Cleveland and founded Bratenahl. Today, the village closely guards access point to the lakefront. “Sunset Park” at the end of Bratenahl Road abuts the estate of Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam and the gated community of Lakehurst. Although the public space doesn’t even have a bench, some Lakehurst residents wanted to make it less inviting by making the northside fence taller and pushing it back 60 feet south into the park. There’s also lakefront access at the end of Eddy road by the luxury high rises of Bratenahl Place. To use it, residents must unlock the fence with a key kept at the Village Hall, located about a mile away.
Beyond the problematic way they interface with the public, the Bratenahl police department appears to have internal problems. Former Bratenahl officer Shannon Darby is suing Mayor Licastro, Chief Dolbow and the entire police department for wrongful termination, according to village council meeting minutes. Her complaint includes allegations that fellow officers minimized rape and made unwanted advances and that Dolbow physically intimidated her. She alleges Mayor Licastro told her “she should have no trouble finding another job” because she’s “attractive” and a “minority.” An attorney for the village said Bratenhal denies the allegations. Just recently, when a Bratenahl resident asked about the case during a virtual village council finance committee meeting, Dolbow held up a sign that said “Fake News.”
At first, I enjoyed living in Bratenahl. Days after we moved in, our neighbors showed up with a home-made, hand-carved wooden pen and bottle-opener. They cooked us meals after our son was born and showered him with gifts. We loved having our friends over to enjoy the Fourth of July fireworks display set off from the park behind our backyard. The Memorial Day party was one of my favorite events. After a short parade and ceremony, the village provided free hot dogs, ice cream and music in the park. When our basement flooded, Licastro showed up in my driveway to check on us.
Yet I feel much more at home in our new city, Shaker Heights, where we moved earlier this year for the schools and to be closer to my older step-children. There’s no denying that Shaker has plenty of its own racial problems. Black and brown students are few and far between in the high school’s honors and advanced placement classes. Some who are in those exclusive classes say some teachers treat them unfairly. But I’m happy to at least be living in a community that tries to be better.
As many Americans are realizing how racism permeates every fiber of our nation, so are some in Bratenahl. When Councilman Keith Benjamin recently sponsored a resolution calling on Congress and the state legislature to “ensure Black Americans have equal protections under the law” and declare racism a public health crisis, council passed it unanimously with the support of both the mayor and police chief. After it passed, Lt. Charles LoBello thanked Benjamin for clarifying that the resolution wasn’t a condemnation of the Bratenahl police force and made a few remarks.
“I am insulted by the actions of these bad officers, personally and professionally,” he said. “And the community, council, Mayor, have my word that as long as I wear a Bratenahl badge, I will not stand for anything like this in the Village of Bratenahl.”
I emailed Licastro to ask if in light of the resolution, the village would change its practices in the mayor’s court and the police department. He said “the village has no comment at this time.”
I’m impressed and grateful Bratenahl’s leaders took the steps they did. But much more is needed. Since its inception, Bratenahl has been preoccupied with supposed dangers lurking beyond its borders. Instead of using its police force to protect the resources it hoards, the village would be better off if all its neighbors lived in safe, stable communities. That means sharing a bit, and I’m not sure Bratenahl is ready for that.
Caitlin Johnson lives in Shaker Heights with her family. She is the communications director at Policy Matters Ohio and sits on the board of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.