CLEVELAND—Mayor Justin Bibb intends to eliminate more unfilled police jobs in order to pay for big raises he hopes will eventually grow Cleveland’s shrinking Division of Police.
The reductions are included in Bibb’s proposed 2024 budget. It was delivered this morning to Cleveland City Council, where members are already sharing concerns about continued declines in the size of the force.
This is the second year in a row that Bibb is seeking to employ a budgeting strategy that reduces the money set aside for police jobs the city doesn’t expect to be able to fill, so it can make way for better pay for existing officers, and, ideally, boost recruitment long-term.
Like last year’s budget, this year’s plan would not reduce the size of the existing police force, according to Chief Finance Officer Ahmed Abonamah, Police Chief Wayne Drummond and Assistant Director of Public Safety Jakimah Dye, who spoke with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer about this year’s budget figures.
Because the actual size of the Cleveland police department will not be changing, Drummond said the budget plan would have no impact on police response or operations.
As of the end of December, there were 1,169 uniformed Cleveland police officers. That’s far below last year’s budgeted level of 1,498, which had been reduced from the previous target of more than 1,600.
In 2024, Bibb intends to budget for 1,350.
Councilman Mike Polensek, chair of council’s safety committee, said he and council members are deeply concerned about how the actual size of the police force continues to shrink.
“It’s taking far too long to hire people,” Polensek said. “The issue comes down to recruitment and deployment. We need more people on the streets.”
But realistically, it’s unlikely the city would even hit that new 1,350 target, Abonamah said. If attrition in 2024 reaches last year’s levels, the city would need to hire at least 340 officers just to reach the 1,350 target.
“The reality is that [1,350] is a really optimistic figure. So adding any additional budgeted [positions] on top of that…is doing nothing more than tying up budget funds in headcount that we are almost certain will not come to pass,” Abonamah said.
The budgeting strategy, he said, is an attempt to be more “transparent and realistic,” given declining interest in policing as a profession and other hiring hurdles. It’s likely going to take incremental steps year after year – such as this step with the 2024 budget — to build the department back up, Abonamah said.
“If we had any hope of building the size of the force, we had to first stabilize the the numbers that we had. That comes with some trade-offs. Reasonable people might have different opinions on whether one trade-off was worth the benefit. But there was a philosophy here...to staunch the flow” of officers leaving, Abonamah said.
Even with the reduced headcount, Bibb’s budget estimate sets aside more money for the Division of Police in 2024 than it did last year.
Last year’s budget called for $217 million in spending department-wide; this year’s calls for about $231 million. Of that $14 million difference, most of it – about $11.5 million – would cover the cost of pay raises enacted last year that police union leaders called an “historic” bump for Cleveland officers, according to Abonamah.
Bibb and the unions agreed on those raises last August and October. City Council later signed off. New recruits were bumped from $16 to $24 an hour, plus a signing bonus. Veteran officers received a roughly 14% increase, and newer officers received 2.5%.
The pay increases are part of Bibb’s plan to reduce the number of officers who are leaving Cleveland police in favor of jobs elsewhere, and to increase the number of new officers who are joining the division’s ranks.
Drummond and Dye declined to share recent recruitment numbers with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. But Drummond said he has reason to be optimistic. And Dye did offer a glimpse of the number of applications the city collected in recent months, after the pay raises were announced.
More than 600 people applied to be Cleveland police during the last three months of 2023, Dye said. She said that application level hasn’t been seen for at least three years.
Polensek questioned how many of those applicants the city will actually hire. Bibb’s administrators were unable to answer that question for him when they spoke earlier on Thursday, Polensek said. Also, new recruits hired this year would not hit the streets until fall at the earliest, because they must go through the academy process first, Polensek said.
If enough recruits happen to be hired in 2024 and the city manages to hit its 1,350 target, the mayor and police would re-evaluate their budget numbers, Drummond said.
When Bibb deployed the same budgeting strategy last year for the first time, he was also seeking to cover the cost of additional pay raises that had been approved in the preceding months. Cleveland City Council ultimately signed off, but some members were skeptical of the approach of slashing vacancies, even if the aim was to pay for raises to aid recruitment and retention. Some on council are already reacting negatively about the continuation of Bibb’s strategy in this year’s budget.
Polensek said Bibb’s budget seeks to keep $46 million in reserves unspent. He questioned why that money couldn’t be moved from the city’s savings account into the budget, in order to cover the cost of more police positions.
Drummond said Cleveland police will continue to be strategic in how it deploys its officers and in the way it targets hotspots for criminal activity.
“I want the public to know that their safety is the number one priority for this administration and Division of Police,” Drummond said.
Drummond is quick to point out that pay raises and budget changes aren’t the only way City Hall is seeking to shift its approach to policing and safety.
The city is currently working with a consultant to create a recruitment and marketing plan aimed at boosting the number of applicants even higher.
It also raised the maximum age for new Cleveland police officers from 40 to 55.
And last year’s budget included the addition of five civilian crime analysts – one stationed in each district – who are intended to bring a more data-driven approach to solving crime. Four have been hired and a fifth is on the way. Drummond said they’re already paying dividends. One analyst was able to solve a string of library break-ins, he said.
Also underway is a major shift to the way officers are deployed, which was aimed, in part, at getting more officers on the street at any one time. In exchange for last year’s raises, the unions agreed to switch to two 12-hour shifts, rather than three 8- or 10-hour shifts, starting Jan. 1. Though the change happened only a few weeks ago, Drummond said he’s already received some positive feedback from officers.
Polensek, however, said he and fellow council members are not seeing an improvement in response time or visibility.
“We’re not seeing the end results,” he said.
Once the 12-hour shifts have been in effect for a while, it should give the city a better idea of what police staffing levels ought to be for the long-haul, rather than the current approach that’s relies more on how many officers the city can realistically hire in a given year, Abonamah said.
“There’s still some learning that we have to do to really figure out the optimal size of the police force. That said, whatever that number is – it may be 1,350, it may not be – but we’re not going to get there in a year,” he said.
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