How a wealthy suburb profits from ticketing Black drivers

Bratenahl has assessed more than $700,000 in fines, court costs and other revenue since 2020, mostly from Black Clevelanders who drove through the village’s jurisdiction.
Bratenahl police chat at the entrance of the village hall while the Mayor’s Court is in session October 11, 2022. (Gus Chan for The Marshall Project)

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Carolyn Quinnie said she’s been pulled over or followed by Bratenahl police on more than one occasion on her short drive home to Cleveland from Bratenahl where she works as an in-home private caretaker.

The 68-year-old grandmother takes every precaution she can think of to avoid trouble while driving in the affluent village on Lake Erie’s shore. She often checks to make sure her driver’s license and car registration are up-to-date, and that none of her car’s lights are out. She refuses to allow her grandson to drive her the few blocks home to Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, fearing for his safety.

If you’re Black and driving in Bratenahl, Quinnie says, the chances of getting pulled over are high.

“The police don’t care if you’re young, old or in between,” she told The Marshall Project-Cleveland recently at her home, as she worked in a flower bed next to her front porch. “It’s just harassment.”

Many Cleveland residents say Bratenahl police officers target Black drivers to raise money for the village of waterfront estates, mansions and towering trees interweaving above the streets. They all say they want it to stop. 

A Marshall Project-Cleveland investigation found that the majority of drivers cited for traffic violations by Bratenahl police since 2020 were Black.

Bratenahl officers did not note race information in nearly half of all cases. Until 2020, it was not a requirement. Reporters reviewed randomly selected arrest reports, analyzed records from time periods with higher percentages of data on race, examined U.S. Census demographics of drivers’ addresses, calculated conservative estimates for the missing data, and interviewed more than 30 drivers at the Mayor’s Court, which hears traffic cases. In all, an estimated 60% or more of drivers cited for traffic violations since 2020 were Black.

The investigation found:

  • The village has assessed more than $700,000 in fines, court costs and other revenue since 2020, mostly from Black Clevelanders who drove through the village’s jurisdiction.
  • Over 60% of drivers ticketed in 2022 came from areas with higher poverty rates, lower household income, and larger non-White populations than most Ohio communities. Almost all of the 1,006 tickets through Sept. 15 were issued to people from outside Bratenahl.
  • Out of 23 randomly selected police reports from stops that ended in arrest, officers arrested 20 Black drivers, and none lived in Bratenahl. Officers arrested 115 drivers since 2020, but rarely recorded their race.

Approximately three out of four people in this village of 1,400 are White. The village is home to people such as Cleveland Browns football team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Cleveland Cavaliers’ basketball star Kevin Love. It is surrounded by Cleveland and shares a ZIP code with Glenville, one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods. 

Longtime Bratenahl Mayor John Licastro said the village’s officers patrol side streets and a three-mile stretch of Interstate 90 that runs along the village’s southern edge. 

“We have no idea who is driving the car, what color they are, nor do we care,” Licastro said. “But if they break the law, we pull them over. … There is no intentional profiling. We pull over people that break that law, and that’s the bottom line. Whatever color they are doesn’t matter.” 

Licastro said Bratenahl generates about 6% to 8% of its annual general revenue budget from traffic citations and court costs. The village has no quota system to generate revenue from drivers, Licastro said. The general fund is used to pay salaries, vehicles and landscaping, among other things, he added.  

People sit in a waiting room as they wait for their case to be called in Mayor’s Court at Bratenahl Village Hall October 11, 2022. (Gus Chan for The Marshall Project)

A Packed Waiting Room

A large sign in the driveway at the village hall reads: “Parking on city streets ONLY POLICE ORDER” for court hearings. On Oct. 11, two officers flanked by SUVs stood behind the sign. 

People were arriving for Mayor’s Court, which hears traffic citations and local ordinance violations.

As they approached the village hall, a red brick building with two ornate columns, a locked door prevented them from entering. A sign on the door read: “Only defendants and their legal representatives will be allowed into the building.” 

Before the hearing, drivers paced the sidewalk, porch and lawn. None had ever attended a hearing in this court. Several asked each other what would happen if they couldn’t pay the fine and costs on this night. “Will I be arrested?” a woman asked. “Can I make payments?” 

Minutes later, an officer opened the door and instructed seven drivers, six Black and one White, to sit in the lobby and to wait to be called into the waiting room. Others sat outside on the hall steps and porch until space cleared inside.

LaiDoris Johnson, a 45-year-old Cleveland resident, found the scene inside Mayor’s Court stunning.

“There were a lot of me in there,” said Johnson, who is Black. “Everybody looked like me in court. It was just so aggravating. All they asked me was, ‘How do you plead?’”

Once hearings started, village prosecutor Tom Hanculak, an attorney who represents police unions in his private practice and earns $11,000 annually to hear cases for Bratenahl, huddled individually with drivers in a corner to discuss charges. 

For the next two hours, 26 drivers — 21 Black and five White — settled charges with Hanculak. Each driver then met with a magistrate to finalize the agreement.

Cleveland resident Taquita Brown, 26, said an officer stopped her when she failed to use her turn signal when switching lanes entering the interstate on her way to work.

The healthcare worker said the officer grilled her about where she was going and why she had a baby seat in her car. She found it odd to be pulled over when there was no traffic. 

“I felt he targeted me,” she said. “I thought he was fishing for anything.” 

The fine for not using a turn signal is $135, but Hanculak downgraded the charge to “muffler, excess smoke.” The non-moving violation still cost Brown $185, including $75 for the charge and $110 in court costs, according to court records.

Truck driver Isaac Williams, 57, of South Euclid, faced a charge of not moving over when passing a public safety vehicle on the roadway. 

Williams said he told Hanculak to produce a video of the incident to show that he did not move over. Hanculak pressed him to plead no contest to the charge. 

Williams refused, demanding dashcam video of the incident. Hanculak dismissed the charge, records show. Hanculak didn’t comment on the case because he said he couldn’t remember the details.  

Fines, forfeitures and court costs from traffic tickets brought the village $251,000 in 2020; $315,000 in 2021; and $140,000 through August 2022, records show. 

Bratenahl officials tried to stop The Marshall Project-Cleveland from attending Mayor’s Court after being told a reporter and photographer would attend. 

Clerk of Courts Julie Kreiner said a 20-year order from a former mayor banned the news media. When asked why the village banned court attendees from using the parking lot, Kreiner said it needed to stay open for residents visiting a nearby park and apartment complex.

“These people come in here and damage cars,” Kreiner said about the people attending Mayor’s Court. “They’re not happy campers. It’s been this way for a long time.” 

Hanculak said not to photograph him during the public proceeding.

“I don’t give you permission,” Hanculak said. “You cannot publish it. When I get death threats, I’m coming for you. You do know I’m a law enforcement official.” 

Ohio law allows the media to attend public hearings, given the public’s right to know.

Missing Race Data

Ohio does not have uniform guidelines requiring officers to report race on traffic citations. 

Bratenahl officers did not list race in 45% of the traffic stops in the town’s computer system between January 2020 and September 2022, records show. 

In 2014, Gov. John Kasich called on law enforcement leaders to change how agencies police communities of color.

The Ohio Collaborative, a 12-person panel of law enforcement experts and community leaders, established state standards for use-of-force, body-worn cameras and tracking race data. 

After nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder by a White Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Bratenahl police sought accreditation from the Ohio Collaborative in the fall of 2020 and started recording race data in traffic stops.

Bratenahl Police Chief Charles LoBello became the village’s top cop in September 2021. He said his first act was to mandate state training for the village’s 15 full-time and two part-time officers because of the department’s reputation for targeting Black drivers, which he said is not true. 

“My No. 1 goal was to ramp up professionalism in the police department,” he said. “I can definitely state I’ve never said to cite any one group or not cite any one group.” 

He urged the public to take into account that the village is surrounded by Cleveland. LoBello said he understands that the data looks disproportionate, but it reflects the makeup of the area.  

“I am not naive enough to think I have not heard of Bratenahl’s reputation,” LoBello said. “In the 21 years I have been here, I would like to think it has improved — more specifically, in the year that I have been in charge.” 

Prosecutor Tom Hanculak, center, talks to Isaac Williams, right, as a Bratenahl police officer watches over the proceedings during Mayor’s Court at Bratenahl Village Hall October 11, 2022. (Gus Chan for The Marshall Project)

Days after meeting with The Marshall Project-Cleveland about its findings, LoBello said supervisors reeducated officers to make sure they enter race data into the computer system.

“We truly are about transparency and making corrections that need to be made,” LoBello said. “If there is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Bratenahl Police Department, we want to address it. We want it to be brought to our attention.”

Ronnie Dunn, executive director of the Diversity Institute at Cleveland State University and an associate professor of urban studies and public affairs, said driving is a “necessity” in the city and that the majority of Cleveland’s drivers commute to work. He called the findings on Bratenahl’s ticketing practices “very problematic.” 

Dunn, who has authored several studies about racial profiling and racial disparities around issuing traffic tickets in Greater Cleveland, said the most frequent interaction citizens have with police come from traffic stops. 

“It is not consistent with best practices in 21st century policing to not record race, particularly, in light of the climate that we’re in,” Dunn said.

In Los Angeles, the police department and its civilian oversight commission changed a policy in March that required officers to reduce traffic stops for minor violations such as broken tail lights and expired registrations. Officers are now stopping far fewer drivers for minor offenses since the policy started, the Los Angeles Times recently reported.

Mayor’s Courts

Mayor’s courts are largely unregulated and are a product of the legislature. Ohio has about 300 mayor’s courts, which are only operated currently in Ohio and Louisiana.

The Marshall Project-Cleveland asked Licastro about the village’s ticketing practices. He contended the ACLU of Ohio found no issues in a 2019 report and stressed the village received no complaints. 

“We can’t control who drives through Bratenahl,” Licastro said. “The fact  we are surrounded by a different demographics often dictates who drives through our community. We encourage our magistrates to be reasonable, knowing that some people in court, even though they broke the law, don’t have the means.” 

Cars enter the westbound ramp of I-90 as they cross into the Village of Bratenahl October 6, 2022. (Gus Chan for The Marshall Project)

He said the village “is very generous in court” and goes out of its way to reduce the number of citations for drivers and doesn’t charge additional fees for a payment plan. 

Kreiner, the village clerk, said the court offers payment plans when people can’t pay their fines and costs. The village, she said, does not charge fees for unpaid citations or payment plans. 

From 2020 to late 2022, the Mayor’s Court dismissed less than 3% of about 3,400 total cases and about a quarter of all offenses. (An individual case could include multiple offenses.) 

But Cleveland State’s Dunn said there are many hidden costs associated with traffic tickets for people from low-income communities.

“Aside from the fines, you have to look at the time people have to take off work, parking fees, the potential for them to get points on their license … and if their license is suspended, then they have to pay reinstatement fees,” he said. “It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that motorists — particularly Black motorists — find themselves in.” 

Bratenahl and other municipalities in Northeast Ohio, Dunn said, should establish a law prohibiting racial profiling. In addition, he said traffic data should be collected and made public to ensure transparency during police stops. 

Of the 1,006 citations issued through September, 49% went to Cleveland residents, records show. While only seven Bratenahl residents received citations, Licastro said they don’t get free passes. 

Former resident Caitlin Johnson, who is White, disagreed. 

Radar speed signs greet drivers as they enter the 25 mph speed zone on Lakeshore Blvd. in the Village of Bratenahl October 10, 2022. (Gus Chan for The Marshall Project)

In 2019, she raced home on Lakeshore Boulevard, one of the village’s main roads, after hearing her baby suffered an injury. An officer stopped her and let her go, she said. While she appreciated the break, all drivers should receive equal treatment, she said. 

“Everyone deserves to be treated with compassion by the police,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t be something that’s afforded only to Bratenahl residents.” 

Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, a Black Bratenahl resident, called village officers “professional, respectful and mostly honorable people.” But the judge said the traffic data shows a problem exists.

“I think something needs to be fixed,” she told The Marshall Project-Cleveland recently. “You can’t say it’s not true. The mayor’s reaction was immature and insensitive.” 

Cleveland Outrage

Councilman Kevin Conwell, who represents the Glenville neighborhood, has repeatedly raised alarms about Bratenahl officers stopping Black Cleveland residents.  

During an October interview with The Marshall Project-Cleveland, Conwell called the village the “poor person’s shortcut” and described Bratenahl officers as “the border patrol.” 

The tickets, he said, have created a barrier to employment for his constituents. The traffic tickets increase insurance rates for drivers and prevent some of the residents in his ward from being hired for courier service and delivery jobs, he added.

“There should be justice for all,” Conwell said. “It should be equal. This is not right. We need to make this stop.” 

Business owners and workers say they want the targeting to end. 

Many say they bypass Bratenahl, even if it means driving more miles, to avoid village officers, the fines and court costs. Some people called it the “Bratenahl tax.” 

“Bratenahl police have been harassing African Americans for years,” said Kimberly Carter, 56, a Black woman who co-owns the Bud Styling clothing store on East 105th Street in the Glenville community. “Some people are scared to go through there because they’re gonna be targeted.” 

Eric Ming, 58, a Black Cleveland resident, said he has been stopped in Bratenahl before and works a few hundred feet from the village border. To bypass Bratenahl, he said he drives several miles out of his way — down St. Clair Avenue to Eddy Road — to get on the Shoreway. He urges young Black drivers to avoid Bratenahl, too. 

“If you’re older, they don’t seem to target you as much,” Ming said at the Enterprise Center at Glenville on East 105th Street. “This has been going on for years.”

Additional reporting by Tara Morgan, News 5 Cleveland

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated Ronnie Dunn’s title: he is an associate professor of urban studies and public affairs at Cleveland State University, not an assistant professor.

Read The Land’s previous coverage of this issue here and here and The New York Times’ story here

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