It was a Wednesday in June, and Zack Reed, a son of Cleveland’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, was out doing what he hopes will score him a win in the mayoral election this fall: walking the sidewalks he’s walked since he was a kid.
“That’s what the mayor in this city needs to be: visible,” said Reed, dressed in a plaid, bullet-gray sport coat and bright beige khakis.
As he walked west on Kinsman, a major thoroughfare, he attracted attention. A slew of passersby yelled his name as if they were uncles or cousins.
“That’s what I learned from [past San Francisco mayor] Willie Brown: The best way to know your city is to walk your city.”
“Zack, Zack!” a man shouted at the corner of Kinsman and E. 158th.
“Hey, brother!” Reed answered, amicably. “Can I count on your vote?”
“Yes, sir!” the man said, driving off.
A veteran politician and former council member with a checkered past, Reed occupies an interesting spot in this year’s seven-way race to succeed Frank Jackson.
Sixty years old, he’s the third oldest candidate, behind former mayor Dennis Kucinich and council president Kevin Kelley, and the oldest Black candidate.
Both of these are qualities that could either help or hinder Reed as he runs a campaign focused on safety. (He ran, unsuccessfully, against Jackson in 2017, yet won over 40 percent of the vote.) After 17 years on city council, safety, he says, is the issue that qualifies him more than all his rivals.
“Do people want access to broadband?” Reed asked. “Yes. Make the lakefront prettier? Yeah. But at the end of the day, they want those bread-and-butter issues. They want to be safe.”
A focus on gun violence
Reed is perhaps best known in local politics for addressing gun violence. In 2016, he posted on Twitter about the shooting of a 14-year-old teenager in his ward just minutes after he’d finished complaining to city council about Cleveland’s mishandling of rising homicide rates. He has been vocal about the city’s shortcomings in addressing gun violence, and when he ran for mayor in 2017, one of his most common refrains was, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
His focus on neighborhood safety therefore makes strategic sense, especially since more than 100 Clevelanders have been murdered so far this year. According to the Cleveland police, that’s the worst murder rate in Cleveland since 1972. Cleveland ranked 6th in the rate of violent crime per 1,000 residents in 2018, according to a report by Policy Matters.
The problem isn’t limited to Cleveland, either. Homicides across the country spiked by 25 percent in 2020, according to an analysis by The Guardian. The city of Philadelphia just marked its 300th homicide this year, and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a statewide disaster emergency declaration to address gun crime statewide. (Robberies, property crimes and rapes are all down, and there’s been a 3% increase in overall violent crime, according to the Guardian report).
Reed’s 10-point safety plan, released on the steps of City Hall in June, may appeal to Cleveland neighborhood residents beleaguered by gun violence. It includes the following:
Beefing up the number of officers by an unspecified number (Mayor Frank Jackson raised the number of police officers from under 1,400 to more than 1,600 a few years ago, but currently the number stands at less than 1,500 because the department has had trouble filling positions);
Emphasizing “community policing,” including what Reed cites as “Community Service Units to patrol parks, schools and recreation centers”;
Investing additional resources in “Proactive crime prevention, including the Cure Violence Model, which helps to reduce violence using public health and behavioral modification methods” (the city is doing this through its partnership with Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, which Reed wants to expand);
Employing officers to what his campaign dubs “hotspots” rather than “a broad, sweeping approach to neighborhood violence and crime”;
Improving technology for police officers;
Hiring additional homicide detectives;
Using what Reed’s team calls a “Focused Deterrence Model” to offer programming in lieu of jail time for persistent offenders;
Increasing gang suppression and illegal gun suppression citywide;
And increasing Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) “to help officers address mental health disturbances and emergencies using de-escalation tactics.”
If some of Reed’s proposals seem light on details, he nonetheless stands behind them, saying they differentiate him from other candidates. “It’s looking at violence from a public health lens, the approach that no other candidate is using,” he said (in reality, other candidates tout similar approaches, with Justin Bibb advocating “evidence-based” policing and Kevin Kelley calling gun violence “a public health crisis”).
An “incomplete” approach
Although some critics agree with Reed’s comprehensive approach to revitalizing Cleveland’s policing system, others like LaTonya Goldsby think that it’s incomplete.
As co-founder of Cleveland’s Black Lives Matter chapter and a community organizer with Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, Goldsby understands the staffing problems faced by Cleveland police and the fact that the explosion of COVID-era gun violence requires proactive solutions, like those found in the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance.
But what Reed’s 10-point plan for Cleveland is missing, she said, is language that verifies that Reed would ensure independent, citizen-led oversight of the police department if, say, another Tamir Rice incident were to happen. The city of Cleveland has doled out $28.5 million to the families of victims of police misconduct since 2010, and she said the main problem is accountability.
“We could hire one thousand more officers, but if they’re not held accountable for their actions, then what’s the point?” Goldsby says. “Any candidate that is pushing policing without police accountability—that’s a problem.”
According to Policy Matters, law enforcement in Cleveland is already high compared to other cities, suggesting that adding more officers alone won’t cure the city’s safety problems. The city has paid out $46.9 million in judgments and settlements for Cleveland police misconduct since 2010. It has reached operational or general compliance with 37% of the 255 monitored elements of the 2015 consent decree, and the timeframe for compliance was recently extended from 2020 to 2022. The Policy Matters report recommends focusing on police reform and different approaches to public safety.
Not without controversy
Born during the Civil Rights era, Reed grew up in a family that nourished a political career from a young age. Family lore tells of a 12-year-old Reed, then a newspaper delivery boy for the Cleveland Press and The Plain Dealer, with a precocious gift of gab and hustling work ethic.
These drew the attention of Ward 10 councilman William “Bill” Franklin. After poaching Reed from his paper-route to hang political flyers on summer breaks, Franklin allowed him to audit City Hall meetings, thereby giving Reed “the political bug.”
In 2000, after a stint managing a California golf pro shop and working for the San Francisco Housing Authority under Mayor Willie Brown, Reed returned to Cleveland to run for Franklin’s old position in the newly organized Ward 3.
Gregory Reed, his older brother, recalls that early campaign as prescient of his current call for neighborhood improvement.
“He’s always had what I call a magnetic personality,” Gregory Reed says of his brother. “He’s always had a vision of the neighborhood. Once he gets that message, he likes to get that message out.”
Yet Reed’s lengthy tenure on council was not without controversy. From 2000 to 2017, he had three drunken driving arrests. In 2005, when Reed was 47, he was found by police nodding off in the front seat of his BMW. A 2008 profile of Reed in the Cleveland Scene paints Reed as a bespectacled “playboy” with a two-faced persona: A councilman vowing to fix a broken neighborhood when he himself was in disrepair. Two similar events in 2007 and 2013 prompted Reed to finally address his alcohol problem publicly. To date, he says he’s remained sober. His brother Gregory says Zach “hasn’t taken a sip since his last DUI.”
“Hey, I’m not a perfect person,” Reed says, going on to quote scripture. “We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Out of step with reform
Still, there have been other controversies, as well. In 2014, he proposed instituting a version of the “stop and frisk” policy in with Cleveland police, one that in New York City led to high-profile incidents of racial profiling. He embraced the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association’s endorsement in 2017, prompting backlash. The police union previously endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016; fought to reinstate Timothy Loehmann, the officer who killed Tamir Rice; and opposed the 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the police.
Then there’s Reed’s stance on policing, which is pretty much the opposite of the“defund the police” movement. In the age of racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd, he sees a need for more policing, not less, a position he knows puts him at odds with some.
“You’ll never get to the place I’m trying to get to if the police are afraid of the people they’re trying to protect and serve,” Reed said, arguing that police are hesitant to work in the face of rising gun violence. “And to deploy these police in a different way. Who needs the police the most? It’s in communities of color.”
Yet an examination by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, found that police in many cities stopped doing their jobs in response to police reform efforts: “If reformers hope to succeed in curbing over-policing, they will first have to overcome the challenge of underpolicing, which has often allowed officers to exercise an effective veto on reform,” reported Alec McGillis.
This may be true in Cleveland as well, given the slow pace of implementing the consent decree. Policy Matters recommends using a portion of the $512 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to create “a public safety agenda that goes beyond traditional policing.” The report concludes, “Such an approach could lighten the burden on the CDP, allow the Division room to comply with more consent decree provisions, and direct its resources to stopping and solving violent crime.”
Finding a message that resonates
Hours after his walk down Kinsman, Reed goes canvassing two blocks north and south of the intersection of Lee and Harvard, where there’s a shopping center purportedly plagued by an increase of, Reed says, “lawlessness.”
Four others go along with him, all Black men his age or older, a mix of volunteers and employees new to his campaign. In what seems to be a hastily organized canvassing operation, they follow Reed to put flyers in door jams, spread his tough-on-crime message, and inform residents through shut or barely-ajar front doors: “Zack Reed is running for mayor!”
As Reed sees it, the candidate himself and his crew are the only ones capable of taking neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant, which never fully recovered from the Great Recession, back to its days as a “suburban paradise” for middle-class Black homeowners. Strolling past the Lee Harvard Shopping Center, while planting yard signs with manager Dee Drain, he recalls a conversation with the center’s leadership, and his proposal to create miniature police stations there. Without any more cops, Reed says, “lawlessness” could very well kill off the shopping center. Scared residents may stop coming altogether.
“If that shopping center does go down, you might as well turn the lights off in Lee Harvard,” he said. “It’s an economic engine in that community.”
Reed said creating more police presence would keep places like the Lee Harvard shopping center vibrant. “Then, these guys won’t be coming here no more,” Reed said, adding, “See, these are the things that will get guns off the street.”
The candidate’s stance on crime has become more politically moderate over the years, but he remains adamant about hiring more police. “Whether it’s 400 or 40 [officers], the bottom line is we have to hire more,” he said. “If you don’t fill the sex crime unit, people that commit sex crimes against our children, they continue. If we don’t fill the homicide unit, people that go out and commit these heinous crimes—well, they continue.”
Happily for Reed, his message resonates with residents like Dolores, 80, a longtime Lee-Harvard resident who refused to give her last name due to fear of violent retaliation. She’s long been frustrated by COVID-era school closings, the sounds of gunfire, and bad behavior from teenagers roving by on ATVs and motorbikes. In April, she was traumatized by the sound of four shots just outside her window. It’s pushed Dolores into a near constant feeling of anxiety.
“I’m afraid to even sit in my living room,” Dolores says, standing on her front stoop on Lee Road. “There are just too many shootings. You know the only thing keeping me in Cleveland? Family.”
She’s followed his lengthy career and trusts that he’ll apply his council experience to good effect in Cleveland.
Reed’s job now is to see that others feel the same.
“I’ve seen him take care of his ward,” Dolores says. “I’m sure he’ll take equal care of his city.”
Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based independent journalist who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.