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Facing staffing crunch, Cleveland public safety officials look to closed high school for recruitment boost

Cleveland police
Posted at 5:30 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 18:57:28-04

CLEVELAND — No matter if it is McDonald's or municipal government, staffing shortages and recruitment crunches continue to be massive hurdles for all employers. That has proven to be especially true for Cleveland's public safety division, namely the Division of Police, which began the week nearly 120 officers short of its budgeted amount. In an effort to expand the size of cadet classes in hopes of filling vacancies more quickly, city officials are exploring the adaptive reuse of the South High School building in Slavic Village as a centralized training facility for public safety forces.

At a lengthy hearing before the Cleveland City Council's Safety Committee, Public Safety Director Karrie Howard outlined the early conceptual plans for the so-called Public Safety Central Training Academy at the high school, which closed in 2010. The former high school features a labyrinth of classrooms, large meeting rooms and lecture halls spanning over 250,000 square feet. Adjoining South High School is the Stella Walsh Recreation Center.

Howard envisions the centralized training facility as being a community anchor, providing space and opportunity for the city's future public safety forces to interact with the community they serve.

"We see this as an opportunity for community engagement, through shared used of the basketball court, swimming pool and football field," Howard said. "It gives us a significant response to the issues of recruitment and diversity. There will be increased traffic enforcement, increased police presence, increased foot patrols for community engagement. There's also opportunity for shared use of the basketball court so the community and the public can interact together."

The proposal remains in its infancy and no set budget has been established. Multiple City Council committees will be holding hearings on the proposal in the coming weeks. The CMSD Board of Education agreed in June to sell the property to the city for $435,000.

"The training center is just an amazing idea and amazing concept that really could change the face of how we recruit, train and engage with officers in our city," said Councilman Tony Brancatelli (Ward 13). "We do not know the finance numbers of what the cost is to renovate. The money may be in place but that is going to be a critical issue in taking possession of this. There is no intention of taking possession if there is no money set aside to be able to fully invest into this facility."

Two of the primary benefits of adapting the South High School site into a training facility are that it will allow public safety divisions to train more recruits and cadets simultaneously compared to the city's current capacity. Additionally, the city and CMSD are in discussions to create a public safety career pipeline that would provide vocational opportunities for students looking for careers in public safety.

Howard told council members that converting the school into a training site could allow for the city to have cadet classes that double or even triple its current capacity.

"South High School is part of the plan to have the larger class sizes as opposed to the limited class sizes that we have now," Howard said. "We have to fill the vacancies but we also have to have larger class sizes in the future across all divisions."

Larger class sizes are only possible with more recruits, however. To that end, the issue of recruitment and, specifically, retention, are some of the most pressing issues for the city's public safety forces. As of July 19, the Division of Police had a staffing level of 1,521 uniformed members, which is 119 uniformed members shy of the division's 1640 members.

"The recurring theme here is not [the city's] statistics. It's the fact that we continue to fall behind in budgetary respect with regards to the administration proposes," said Councilman Mike Polensek (Ward 8). "You cannot figure out how to get ahead of the curve here as it pertains to staffing. A McDonald's restaurant even knows how many people it needs to have to operate efficiently. For some reason, we repeatedly can't figure out how many people we need to run our most primary and critical divisions."

The shortfall of 119 officers is primarily due to CPD's patrol unit being understaffed by 187 officers, which has prompted varying levels of mandatory overtime for officers, Chief Calvin Williams said. The division has 94 cadets in current and upcoming police academies but it will still be short 119 officers from the budgeted amount.

Williams also noted that almost every city department is looking to hire and fill open positions. Private businesses across all sectors have also reported staffing crunches.

"Almost all of them are looking for people. Just like you're talking about McDonald's, Mcdonald's is looking for folks too," Williams said to Councilman Polensek.

Williams cited a litany of issues that continue to hamper the division's recruitment process.

"There's the current rhetoric going around this country and if you add together things like salary and [the fact that] people just don't want to deal with the type of violence in big cities now, all those things come into play when you try to recruit people," Chief Williams said.

The recruitment challenges at the police department, however, have grown more and more apparent over the past several years. Williams told council members that public safety officials have broadened their recruitment efforts — both online and in-person. Unfortunately, it takes about a year for a new police officer to go through the application, selection and training process, meaning any officer that retires or resigns in 2021 more than likely won't be replaced until 2022 at the earliest.

The division has also not received the same number of qualified applicants as it once did.

"Every time the division goes out and gives a test, we take everybody off of that list that is a viable candidate," Williams said. "We exhaust the entire list. I'm frustrated by the process myself because it takes almost a year again from the time we give a test to the time that person graduates the academy, it's almost a year."

Howard hopes the re-imagining of South High School opens the door to a more robust recruitment effort. Whether there are enough people ready to open the door remains to be seen.