By Lee Chilcote
When Angelo Trivisonno, a patent examiner with the US Patent and Trademark Office who lives in Ohio City and is on the board of Ohio City Incorporated (OCI), learned that anyone who organizes a block party event in Cleveland is required to hire two armed off-duty police officers, he was at first puzzled, then incensed.
“Is it necessary to ensure safety? Why are Clevelanders presumed lawless in some way?” he asks. “I don’t think it’s because anyone actually thinks that … but to make that the official policy and required component of block party seems heavy handed.”
“I can only imagine how financially discomforting it might be for other groups and other neighborhoods in our city to have to figure out how to do this, and to put up with all the barriers and requirements,” adds Trivisonno, who is white, arguing that the policy disproportionately affects low-income, minority communities.
So far, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition that Trivisonno created through change.org.
The petition states, “The City of Cleveland requires that neighborhood groups hosting local block parties hire and pay for two police officers for any event in the street in order to obtain a permit. This rule is not part of the event permit law, but is demanded by the Mayor’s commissioners. The costs of hiring two off-duty police officers can add up to at least $280 (plus $20 permit fee and added cost of required money order), more than 65% of an ordinary event budget. The City’s Department of Recreation, who issues the permit, refuses to allow for either privately hired security or for the police officers to attend without firearms. This cannot continue to be our City’s policy.”
The costs are especially high in a city in which 60 percent of residents live at or near poverty, the petition argues: “Consider the choice many face: pay the police or your block party is illegal.”
The online initiative requests, “Please sign and share this petition to eliminate Cleveland’s requirement that all organizers of special events, including block parties, hire and pay for armed police officers to monitor the event. We want City Council to introduce and discuss the amendment below that changes ‘business-as-usual.’”
The petition is especially relevant at a time when America is facing a policing crisis in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and others, Trivisonno says. One way to approach the problem of over-policing in urban communities and make it easier for residents to foster safer, more neighborly communities is to reduce or remove this requirement.
Trivisonno says the petition, which calls for a wording change to the city’s codified ordinances that would eliminate the requirement that residents pay two off-duty police officers, is intended to be a conversation starter.
“This isn’t all or nothing,” he says, noting that police are clearly needed at large events but it seems like “overkill” for small block parties.
A request was presented to city council’s safety committee two years ago and despite garnering some support, nothing changed. Research completed then by Detroit Shoreway resident Emily Muttillo shows that Toledo, Dayton and Cincinnati do not require security for block parties, while Columbus does so on a case by case basis.
Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone says that the city’s requirement was crafted in response to a tragedy, when a car plowed into a crowd at Dancin’ in the Streets on Clifton Boulevard in 2012, killing Mitchell Andelmo and injuring four others, yet it’s not appropriate for small events. “As a result of that, the city really started to reevaluate,” says Zone. “They came up with a new policy, but they did it in such a way that they created this blanket cookie cutter approval that affected small scale block parties.”
Zone blames the city for not acting but admits council could have done better followup. “The administration acknowledged the challenge, and they were going to come up with new policy, but it didn’t happen,” he says of the hearing. Zone is working with Ward 3 Councilperson Kerry McCormack and Ward 12 Councilperson Anthony Brancatelli to craft a new policy, and promises hearings on the subject in the near future.
Trivisonno says that other cities in Northeast Ohio require permits but do not have similar requirements. A quick online search reveals that Cleveland Heights simply provides street barricades and loans out a volleyball and net; Parma requires a petition signed by the majority of residents on the affected street; Lakewood requires a petition signed by 75 percent of residents if a block party hasn’t been held there in the past three years; South Euclid offers an online block party planning guide; and Bedford provides barricades, as well. Obviously, these rules don’t necessarily apply during Covid-19, when large gatherings are discouraged.
In Cleveland, according to the permit application, if residents want to organize a block party, they must hire off-duty police officers from an organization like Cleveland Watchmen Inc., which bills itself as “a staffing company that provides professional police officers to businesses and events for a uniformed police presence,” or a similar company. In addition to the nearly $300 fee, multiple residents report that they’ve been asked to pay in cash.
One city resident emailed Trivisonno after he organized the petition, “We tried to hire an outside security firm but they would not approve the firm and required a police officer. Why? Is this just a monopoly? I had to have multiple people reach out to the guy that coordinates police for this because he would not respond to my messages. So, I couldn’t even fill out the form despite trying my best to follow protocol.”
“Even when we finally did hire the required amount (2…why???) last time only 1 showed up and he did absolutely nothing,” the resident continued. “”When we finally scheduled officers, we were offered a discount if we paid in cash instead of check, but the one officer that showed up did not honor that discount. I was offered no receipt. It felt very shady and he sat in his car the entire time, over a block away from where the people were actually attending the event. He did not step out of his car once.”
The police-as-security requirement is a high hurdle for communities of color concerned about over-policing. In a City Club forum, “We the Public Space,” held on March 6th, Neighborhood Connections organizer Julian Khan said that residents need their own community spaces. “Base needs, we need community,” he said. “In a lot of instances, there just aren’t spaces where community can be found at. So you have to be creative.”
He went on to describe Buckeye Summer Soul series, where last summer residents gathered in the Soul of Buckeye park at East 118th and Buckeye without security: “The times when I’ve seen it most vibrant, when we’ve really been able to engage every facet of the community, are times we haven’t had security there, just the community. People were a little unsettled about not having security there, but once it happened, my goodness, we reminded ourselves that community was all we really needed to begin with.”
In the same forum, Buckeye resident Christina Keegan described her efforts to organize community events. “A primary barrier that has come up is the institutionalization of policing and police presence in public space,” she said. “When neighbors want to organize a block party, we have had to take that to vacant lots instead of the actual street, because neighbors were not willing to bring police into the neighborhood.”
Zone says that events should be looked at on a case-by-case basis instead of having a single blanket policy, and people should be able to use their own vehicles to block off the streets. “If you have approval from councilperson and local district commander, I don’t see what you would need over and above that. This policy creates tremendous hardship. Most block parties are all volunteers. To funnel a couple hundred dollars to hire police officers, particularly in today’s environment where many believe we’re over-policing, just the presence of a couple police officers creates a potential problem with perception.”
McCormack agrees. “I support the removal of the requirement to have armed security at smaller community events like block parties, community celebrations etc.,” he says. “It’s an unnecessary, expensive and onerous requirement. We are looking right now whether this is best as a legislative change or administrative rule change.”
Trivisonno is glad to be driving change. “I decided that proposing this amendment might be some incredibly small action that I can take to make our communities better, to reduce barriers for communities to gather and get to know each other better,” he says. “It’s certainly somewhat scary to stick my neck out and push for something, but I don’t think there’s any reason to hold back right now when something doesn’t seem right.”