What Trump and Biden should debate at the Cleveland Clinic: Why the hospital’s private police mostly arrest black people

A few minutes after noon on a September day in 2018, Jacarvi Jackson and Darcell Williams were crossing Euclid Avenue, a main road through Cleveland’s medical area. Both of them worked for a vendor that supplies food to patients at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. Still in their work uniforms after finishing their eight-hour shifts at the hospital’s loading dock, they were heading to a Burger King lot where their cars were parked. They were in a hurry — Jackson was worried about getting to his classes at Cleveland State University — and didn’t take the crosswalk.

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This story was originally published by ProPublica

A few minutes after noon on a September day in 2018, Jacarvi Jackson and Darcell Williams were crossing Euclid Avenue, a main road through Cleveland’s medical area. Both of them worked for a vendor that supplies food to patients at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. Still in their work uniforms after finishing their eight-hour shifts at the hospital’s loading dock, they were heading to a Burger King lot where their cars were parked. They were in a hurry — Jackson was worried about getting to his classes at Cleveland State University — and didn’t take the crosswalk.

A police cruiser was coming toward them. Eric Parks, the officer inside, rolled down his window and shouted at Jackson and Williams to use the crosswalk. When they didn’t, Parks pulled up and drove onto the sidewalk curb to block their path, they said. Parks then jumped out of the cruiser, grabbed Jackson, bent his arm behind his back and pinned him against the vehicle. Parks held him there for several minutes as two more officers responded to the scene.

In a police report, Parks said that the pair initially refused to provide identification, and that he held Jackson against the cruiser because “I felt he might strike me.” Parks and a second officer, Steven Jevnikar, wrote that Jackson and Williams cursed repeatedly, complaining that the only reason they had been stopped was because they were Black.

Parks also said Jackson had begun to flee, which Jackson and Williams denied. Jackson said he had no reason to run away. He was steps from his car, his clinic identification badge was draped around his neck and he was carrying a backpack filled with textbooks. According to Jackson, Parks told the other officers, “They usually run.” It was clear, Jackson said, that the comment referred to Black people.

Jevnikar apparently mocked Jackson’s distress. When Jackson, his lip quivering, was “staring me down,” Jevnikar wrote in his report, “I asked him if he was having a stroke.”

Parks cited Williams and Jackson for jaywalking. “I was scared as hell,” Williams said. “It was traumatizing.”

Bruised and in pain, Jackson immediately went to the clinic emergency room, missing his class. “I felt violated,” he said. “These people are supposed to be protecting me.”

Even though this incident took place on a public street and sidewalk, the officers who confronted Jackson and Williams were not Cleveland police. Instead, they were part of Cleveland Clinic’s private force, which is granted policing powers by the city.

These hospital cops don’t just handle disturbances in hospital corridors or emergency rooms. In look and practice almost indistinguishable from Cleveland police, the clinic’s 153 officers are armed, make arrests and stop motorists on city streets, including major commuter routes. Along with smaller private police departments operated by University Hospitals and the nonprofit University Circle economic development group, they patrol the city’s medical zone, an island of prosperity and promise that cuts through one of the poorest sections of Cleveland.

On Tuesday evening, Cleveland Clinic and University Circle police will help provide security for the first presidential debate, which will be held on the clinic’s main campus. At the same time, the three private police forces illustrate a little-known dimension of a pervasive problem that has drawn national attention this year and is likely to come up in the debates: racial inequities in law enforcement. As if posting a “Keep Out” sign, private police in Cleveland’s largely white and affluent hospital zone disproportionately cite and criminally charge Black people, often for traffic violations or misdemeanors such as trespassing, jaywalking and possession of marijuana. Some Black people who are charged or cited, like Jackson and Williams, work at the clinic; others are simply passing through the area.

Racial disparities in enforcement of low-level offenses are characteristic of police departments nationwide, said Lynda Garcia, director of the policing campaign at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington. Trespassing and marijuana possession “are not violent crimes and they are generally used to harass folks,” she said. “In more affluent areas, they give officers the grounds to stop people, arrest them and keep them away from these areas. For all those reasons, they are problematic. There is no real pressing public safety issue.”

The tens of thousands of people who work in the hospital corridor along Euclid, are treated as patients there or drive its streets are predominantly white. Yet most of those cited and charged by the private police agencies along Euclid Avenue and surrounding roads are Black, according to court data obtained by ProPublica.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, private police officers operating in the area on Euclid that begins at the sprawling clinic main campus and stretches to the University Hospitals complex have brought more than 8,000 criminal charges and traffic citations against 5,600 people in Cleveland Municipal Court. Nearly three-fourths of those arrested or ticketed are Black, well above the percentage of Black people among the area’s workers and visitors.

The proportions were even higher for the two criminal charges most commonly filed by the private police. Since 2015, the three private forces have issued criminal charges of trespassing to 466 people. Nearly 9 in 10 of those — 405 in all — were against Black people. Similarly, Black people comprised more than 90% of the 242 people charged with misdemeanor possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana.

Overall, nearly 90% of the people charged by two of the private forces — University Hospitals and University Circle — are Black. The Cleveland Clinic’s disparity was less extreme but still significant. Almost 7 out of 10 individuals charged by the clinic were Black.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and University Circle police have disproportionately charged or cited Black people, especially for trespassing, possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license.

As part of their agreements with the city of Cleveland, the three private police departments in 2018 were required to set up civilian boards to review complaints. They were supposed to do so within 30 days, but the clinic said it established a review board this past May; University Hospitals and University Circle said they are in the process of doing so.

In written responses to ProPublica’s findings, the clinic said that it reviews data annually “to ensure there are no concerns for biased policing.” It did not say whether those reviews have indicated any concerns. Statistics that it supplied to ProPublica show that almost two-thirds of the people it arrested in 2018 and 2019 were Black. Of the 275 people arrested in 2018, 65.1% were African American and 27.6% were Caucasian. Arrests soared to 425 in 2019; 64.7% of those arrested were African American and 28.2% were Caucasian.

The clinic said that it issues most of its criminal trespass citations outside traditional business hours, and most individuals found to be on its campus without a “legitimate business purpose” come from the local area. “As a result, the racial composition of those citations will generally reflect the racial composition of the City’s neighborhoods,” it said. Its police issue a verbal and written warning to first-time trespassers, and then can cite or charge them if they trespass for a second time within six months, it said.

Clinic police participate in “robust community outreach initiatives that include working with community partners and local schools to educate residents and students on crime prevention and security awareness,” it said. The clinic seeks to recruit a diverse group of officers that reflects the community, and its officers undergo training in diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias, the clinic’s response said.

University Hospitals said in a statement that its forthcoming civilian review committee will “enhance oversight” of its police department and “reflect our commitment to equitable treatment, social justice and safety.” The committee will be “fully empowered” to “examine individual incidents and practices in the department,” the hospital said.

The hospital also said that its officers “do incredible work” and are trained in diversity and de-escalating situations. It said that its police have issued citations to 260 people since the beginning of 2018 — an average of three individuals cited per officer per year. “We very carefully examine situations when citations are issued and take steps to fully address any concerns,” the hospital said. Unlike the other private police departments, University Hospitals did not comply with ProPublica’s request for disciplinary records. A spokesman said that University Hospitals was “leaning toward the side of caution” to protect patients’ privacy.

Chief James Repicky of the University Circle police said that the nonprofit’s lawyer is reviewing a proposal to establish a review board. He said that his officers don’t target Black people, and that traffic in the area largely flows from predominantly Black communities. “The city of Cleveland is probably 60% Black and we are next to East Cleveland, which is 90% Black,” he said. “It is what it is. We are not looking at color but basically trying to slow people down.”

Cleveland’s population is 50% Black and East Cleveland’s, 91%, according to census data. The ZIP code that includes the clinic, University Hospitals and University Circle is racially diverse, 42% Black and 41% white. Neighboring ZIP codes are as much as 93% Black. The picture changes when the employees, patients and visitors who saturate the area every day are included. University Hospitals said patients at its Cleveland center reflect the demographics of the northeast Ohio market, which is about 75% white. In addition, 62% of the 8,500 employees there are white.

The Cleveland Clinic would only provide patient and employee demographics for its entire system, which includes other locations in northeast Ohio as well as hospitals in Florida and Nevada. The system’s patients in 2019 were 77% white and 15% Black. Its employees break down similarly with 73% white and 16% Black.

Some nearby residents support the extra policing provided by the private departments. “It’s a force multiplier with a lot of deterrence,” said City Councilor Blaine Griffin, who represents the area.

Read the full ProPublica story here.

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