ROLDO: A City of Systemic Failure at All Turns

By Roldo Bartimole

Add them up: The Imperial Avenue atrocity of 11 women raped and murdered by Anthony Sowell; the gunning down of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams by out-of-control Cleveland police; and now the revelation that three young women have been held captive for years in a home on the city’s near West Side right under our noses. And who knows how many other failures?

What does this tell us?

It tells us a version of what Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine reported about the recent police chase and gunning down with 137 bullets of two unarmed suspects, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

DeWine said that the police chase of some 62 police cars — 59 without permission — racing at very high speeds through the city streets of Cleveland to capture and kill two unarmed suspects was a “systemic failure” of command and communications. It was more than that.

It goes a lot farther, doesn’t it?

The revelation that these three women were held captive, no matter what the circumstances get revealed, shows that the SYSTEMIC FAILURE goes far beyond the police force.

Who is paying attention? What is happening on Cleveland streets?

Who are on the streets of Cleveland with open eyes? Apparently not the Cleveland police. They’re paid to do that job. Where are they — at Progressive Field?

These tragedies are only a symptom of a systemic failure of a town and its leadership that has utterly avoided giving a damned about its ordinary citizens.

The failure is through and through the system with no hint that it is even going to be recognized.

The disinterest just keeps showing up. But no one seems to put it together. No one seems to be looking at the pattern we’ve adopted and set in stone.

The media can run as big headlines as it wishes and as many breaking stories as it likes to air but it doesn’t go beneath the surface.

It can’t or it won’t.

I watched city government for a long, long time and up very close at city hall.

The problems of carelessness go, of course, from before my time here — from the disastrous and uncaring days of urban renewal that destroyed communities and ways of life to the glorification of sports teams that overshadowed our problems.

We care more about how many new restaurants there are in downtown than in how the rest of the city lives. To hell with the people. Our leaders shout it in so many ways. But who hears?

How could Sowell the rapist and murderer and Ariel Castro — the apparent kidnapper of the three women, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — quietly live on Cleveland streets for years without anyone knowing?

Why is there a police force?

Where were the mayors and other political leaders — from George Voinovich, George Forbes, Jay Westbrook, now Frank Jackson and Martin Sweeney — and what have they been doing? Our leaders.

They were more concerned about developers, building stadiums and arenas, attracting a gambling joint and doling out all kinds of subsidies but not paying attention obviously to where their citizens lived or how.

Crime stories and police have not been the focus at all of my attention through the years.

However, I have watched what the focus of this community’s political, business and civic leaders has been. It has been far, far too much on what the Sam Millers, the Dick Jacobses, the Carneys, the Gunds and the Ratners have wanted. What business, developers and foundation leaders have said we need.

No one asked the ordinary people.

They have paid much less attention to the average Clevelander. The tragedies at Imperial Avenue and Seymour Avenue and in the street attest to this.

So does the poverty. The bad housing. The ill and dying children.

I don’t know how Mayor Jackson, Safety Director Martin Flask and Police Chief Frank McGrath and the entire police force feel. They should feel deep, deep shame today.

They may have to swim in national attention now. I hope so. Because this town needs a drastic shaking up. And it won’t come locally.

We need a lot of questions answered. Hope someone asks the right questions.



Roldo Bartimole has been reporting since 1959. He came to Cleveland in 1965 to report for the Plain Dealer where he worked twice in the 1960s, left for the Wall Street Journal in 1967. He started publishing his newsletter Point of View in 1968 and ended it in 2000.

In 1991 he was awarded the Second Annual Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in Washington, D.C. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, Cleveland chapter, in 2002, and was named to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, 2004. [Photo by Todd Bartimole.]


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6 Responses to “ROLDO: A City of Systemic Failure at All Turns”

  1. Chris

    My mother used to live in Cleveland, in a lovely home near Slavic Village that had been in the family for decades. In the past few years, her house was broken into 21 times. Copper pipes stolen, tools taken, sinks & walls smashed in. Each time she’d add more locks and board it up tighter, but eventually it would happen again. Police were called numerous times. They showed up, but it was always treated it as an isolated incident. Councilmen were called. Nobody recognized or dealt with the systemic issues. I’d like to believe the city is doing all they can, but I’ve seen the failure to connect the dots myself. I know it doesn’t compare to what happened to those young ladies, or the other incidents mentioned. But the system as a whole is broken.

  2. You forgot to mention Mike White in your list of failed Mayors.

  3. Roldo Bartimole

    Thanks for the comments and the response from Hank
    is all too true, an unfortunately overlook. He’s a major
    culprit here.

  4. There is an almost lynch-mob impulse to blame the police. And it may be that the department under-performed. But blaming the police, or decent public servants like Councilman Westbrook, is cheap and lazy. Castro was clearly a psychopath; by definition an accomplished deceiver, who was aided by the grotesque and unlikely brazenness of what he did. On a larger level, blaming the police for our social ills gets us nowhere. Like blaming teachers or school administrators, it shifts the focus from “us” (e.g. parents and neighbors) to “them” (cops, pols, rich guys, bureaucrats, fill-in-the-villain, as long as its not us). Citizens taking responsibility for their lives and their families will get us a lot further than the incessant left-wing fixation on a bigger, better and more potent government.

  5. Roldo Bartimole

    Max: I guess we disagree and Westbrook’s name belongs where it is though
    I’m missed Mayor White, as another commenter pointed out.
    If there was any lynch mob try the 137 bullets.

  6. Dick Peery

    Roldo–You left out the core failure of Cleveland, the virtual abandonment of the bulk of the its children to educational poverty. Sure, a few select public and charter schools are cherry picked and hailed as examples of overall progress, but most of the city’s public and charter pupils have languished at the bottom of the state’s achievement rankings year after year. Some teachers opened this year with more than 50 students in classes. Yet, the mayor–after seven years in charge–has been praised for his education vision. The accolades flowed after the area’s poorest voters approved an unprecedented school tax increase, even though no child has benefited yet. Kind of like lauding a fighter for his knockout victory before the fight even starts.

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