CLEVELAND, Ohio — Daryl Robinson grabbed a bottle of hot sauce off the shelf and prepared for the worst. It was a defensive move. His life was being threatened in a checkout line of a Glenville neighborhood convenience store. The bottle was about to be deployed as a weapon.
“I guess the young man was mad because I let an older woman get in line ahead of me. The dude started cussing and pushed up on me. He said he’d be waiting outside. I told him we could settle it right there.”
When Robinson left the store, the tough-talking teenager had disappeared. Nonetheless, he had a nervous walk home. Robinson, 52, an unemployed carpenter who said he once worked for Habitat for Humanity, was careful to make sure he wasn’t followed.
I met Robinson Thursday afternoon while canvassing Glenville and asking residents their thoughts about public safety. Two weeks after a Glenville High School football practice was interrupted by gunfire, I wanted to know how folks typically react to the sound of shots fired around their homes.
No one bothered to call 911 after legendary Coach Ted Ginn Sr., and his team were caught in gunfire at Robert Bump Taylor Field on June 21. There were no casualities but neither was there an emergency call.
Robinson shot me a quizzical look when I asked if he had ever dialed 911 to report gunshots. Laverne Wright, a neighborhood friend of Robinson who works with special needs children, gave me the same look.
“Where do you live?” she demanded.
“Euclid,” I responded.
“How often do you hear gunshots?” she continued.
“Well, we hear guns all the time. If we called every time we heard a gunshot, we would stay on the phone with 911. Besides, I’ve called 911 before, and you want to know what they told me?” asked Wright.
“They told me to keep listening and call back if I heard more shots!”
Glenville residents have a running familiarity with serious gunplay. The neighborhood has never fully recovered from a riot that nearly destroyed it 49 years ago. The riot erupted four months after AT&T launched the 911 emergency response system, which wouldn’t have made a difference in Cleveland. The system didn’t arrive here until the mid-1970s.
Troubling 911 questions linger nearly a half-century later: Why are people in distress the most reluctant to call the police? What complicates the social contract between law enforcement and city residents?
Sociologists say they’ve noticed a pattern. After a high-profile police shooting, especially if an officer is charged with misconduct, African-Americans are much less likely to use 911 to report crime or suspicious activity.
“Police misconduct can powerfully suppress one of the most basic forms of civic engagement: calling 911 for matters of personal and public safety,” according to a study published in the American Sociological Review last October.
In the wake of the Tamir Rice tragedy, building law enforcement trust is a primary challenge facing Cleveland. But it works both ways. Inner-city residents claim to want a quicker emergency response and a police department willing to deal with quality of life issues, such as non-stop gunplay and lawless young men on dirt bikes.
But when police push back against criminal misconduct, who will have the courage to support them?
A man stood in his driveway Friday morning across the street from the Glenville football field. He said he’s never considered using 911, even after recently witnessing a drive-by-shooting. He said he lives by the evening streetlight rule.
“When the streetlights come on, I’m in my house. Not in my backyard. Not on my porch. I’m in my house. I’m a 50-year-old man, and I refuse to make myself a victim.”
Sadly, that’s where Cleveland finds itself. Men are unwilling to call 911, but will defend themselves with guns — and hot sauce.