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Dangerously Understaffed: Cleveland locates vehicle in fewer than 1 in 5 hit-skips

'It makes us look like a trash city,' the niece of a fatal hit-skip victim says
Alexis Johnson hit skip damage
Posted at 4:59 PM, Sep 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-23 08:53:44-04

CLEVELAND — An investigation by News 5 found systemic failures in the Cleveland Division of Police leave families waiting for justice, victims waiting for help, and criminals free to offend again.

We tracked down answers to find out why police locate the vehicle involved in fewer than one in five reported hit-skips, despite the crime's lasting impact on victims and their families.

News 5 Investigators made multiple interview requests to interview the Cleveland Division of Police and Mayor Justin Bibb for this report, but, like the victims' families, we're still waiting for answers.

Hit-skip stats

We found Cleveland police said officers located the vehicle in only 18% of the hit-skip cases reported between January 2020 and June 2022, according to information provided by the department.

Police said 14,228 hit-skips were reported to the city during the two-and-half-year time period.

The remaining cases were quickly written off as "unsolvable" by police due to a lack of evidence, according to police.

Police said only 5,941 cases, or 42% of those cases, were assigned to a detective in the hit-skip unit.

In the Cleveland Division of Police Mid-Year Budget Report, police reported a backlog of 3,399 open and unsolved cases out of those 5,941 cases assigned to a detective.

'A trash city'

"It's not a good look for the city at all," said Alecia Smith. "It makes us look like a trash city."

Her uncle, Dennis Mason, was hit and killed by a driver as he crossed the street at East 79th Street and Medina Avenue on June 24, 2021.

The police report said Mason sustained severe injuries to his right leg, a broken pelvis, lacerations to his face, and trauma to his head.

The driver left him for dead.

"Anybody human in their right mind would have stopped," said Mason's sister, Anita. Instead, she said, the driver left him there, "like he was a dog."

Dennis Mason was killed on June 24, 2021 while crossing E 79th St. and Medina Ave. Police say the driver who killed him didn't stop.

Mason's case is one of 26 fatal hit-skips in Cleveland since January 2020, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol data.

His case is also one of the 3,399 hit-skip cases that remain unsolved.

"I feel like they [hit-skip] cases should be a higher priority, especially when the victim dies," Smith said.

"The system is broken," echoed Anita, who is also Smith's mother.


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'Absolutely not fair'

The vast majority of reported hit-skips involve only property damage.

Our analysis of OSP data found that 10,192 cases or 75.6% of reported hit-skips in Cleveland during the time period we reviewed did not involve injuries or deaths.

Cleveland resident Alexis Johnson said leaving even minor hit-skip accidents unsolved can have significant emotional and economic impacts on victims.

"It’s absolutely not fair," she said. "I should not have to be responsible for the finances when it comes to repairing my vehicle, being that it wasn’t my fault."

Cleveland resident Alexis Johnson, 27, says she was hit by a truck on I-77 N near Broadway Ave. in Cleveland on July 29, 2022.

On July 29, 2022, Johnson said she was driving north on I-77 near Broadway Ave. when a dump truck smashed into her front passenger side as it merged into her lane.

Johnson said she pulled over to find one of her front headlights shattered, front passenger side tire flattened, and fender pushed in, among other damage that made the car undrivable.

She said the driver who hit her kept going.

Just as frustrating, she said when she called Cleveland Police, a detective told her that her case would not be investigated anytime soon because the hit-skip unit was still working on cases from 2020.

"I was honestly just baffled," she said. After all, Johnson has evidence. She said a witness captured video of the truck, including its license plate number.

'A pretty simple case'

"It seems like a pretty simple case to close the books on," said Michael Lewis, President at Confidential Investigative Services, Inc. "You would think they would at least run it (the license plate) and look into it right away."

Lewis, a longtime private investigator, said, with the property database, it only takes "a few seconds" to run a license plate number and determine a vehicle's owner.

At the request of News 5, Lewis ran the plate number involved in Johnson's accident. He immediately located the name and address of the company the truck is registered to in Cleveland.

"The fact that the Cleveland police department isn’t capable of doing what you guys were able to do... is very frustrating to me," Johnson said.

News 5 shared the information Lewis found with the Cleveland Division of Police.

Crushing caseloads

So why do Cleveland police investigate and solve so few hit-skips?

It may have to do with the hit-skip unit's crushing caseloads.

Remember the 5,941 cases over a 2.5-year period assigned to the hit-skip unit?

The city's mid-year budget report said there are only four detectives assigned to the hit-skip unit.

This means each detective was assigned an average of 1,485 cases during the period of time we reviewed.

Dangerously understaffed

The hit-skip unit's small staff is just one example of a far more significant and systemic problem.

For months, we've reported that the Cleveland Division of Police is dangerously understaffed.

READ MORE: Dangerously Understaffed: 1 out of every 4 Cleveland police officers left the job during the pandemic

Our investigation found the City of Cleveland lost 404 officers or 25% of its police force during the pandemic.

The departure of officers has other critical units understaffed.

For example, there are currently 17 detectives in the homicide unit, according to the city's midyear budget report. Experts recommend that 38 detectives be assigned to the unit.

READ MORE: Dangerously Understaffed: How Cleveland fails to protect residents from the most violent criminals

The department's lack of staff is costing the city's residents and taxpayers.

Last year, Cleveland police spent millions of dollars in overtime, just at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport.

READ MORE: Dangerously Understaffed: How a Cleveland police officer earned more than the mayor in 2021

In August, Mayor Justin Bibb announced plans to hire a marketing firm to help recruit and retain officers. Bibb also negotiated an 11% raise over three years with the city's police union. Officers can now also wear ballcaps, grow beards and have visible tattoos.

As for whether more attention will be paid to hit-skips and the death and destruction they leave behind, Mayor Bibb has only said safety and all police units are "a priority."

'They don't care'

In the year since his death, Mason's family said they miss his generous smile and how the handyman would always "pop up" to help out.

"Dennis was just a wonderful guy," Smith said. "He lit up any room he walked in."

For months, Mason's family heard nothing from the detective assigned to his case.

News 5 Investigators found the detective retired in June.

"No one called us," Smith said. "To me, it says they don't care."

"It hurt," said Mason. "It hurt."

After we informed Cleveland police, the sergeant in charge of the hit-skip unit reached out to Mason's family.

Do you have information to help solve these or other crimes?

You can submit tips anonymously by calling Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County at 216-252-7463 or download their mobile app at P3TIPS.com.

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