EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — Judge William Dawson has sat on the bench of East Cleveland’s Municipal Courthouse for nine years. In those years, he said he’s seen it all.
“We see everything from your standard traffic violations up to felonies,” said Dawson. “I see the individuals. I set bonds. I get a chance to talk with them for a moment. I pretty much see everything.”
Equipped with a gavel and a robe, at first glance, he’s your typical judge. But you may also see another tool in his courtroom he uses to uphold law and order: a phone.
“Maybe the same mistakes that the person in front of me has made, someone else has made in California or another country,” he said. “Through social media, I can reach even more people and let them know that ‘hey, the justice system can work for you. It doesn’t always have to be negative.’”
Judge Dawson broadcasts many of his hearings live on TikTok.
“TikTok is all about fun dances and challenges and I’m totally different, but this is an audience that wants to see this positive information,” he said.
He started creating content on the app in February 2021 and, since then, has amassed nearly 330,000 followers and more than 1 million likes.
“My goal has always been to change the narrative of justice in our country and part of that, I like to show correction with compassion,” said Dawson.
Every week, he does a segment called ‘Ask Judge Dawson,’ where his followers will send in their own questions about the legal system.
“I want to help people know about this justice system in a way that they can avoid negativity,” he said.
In some videos, he’s reacting to other viral videos. One of his videos shows a driver of a 4-wheeler resisting arrest and Dawson reacts “Don’t resist. Don’t make it worse by resisting, just simply take your ticket, take your court date and argue your case in front of a fair judge.”
In other videos, he’s simply having fun and dancing.
“I think it’s important to show people that we are people, too, even though when I put on the robe, I am very serious, I’m going to call it how I’m supposed to call it as a judge, but I’m also a father, I’m a husband and I like to have fun, too,” he said.
But in most, he’s showcasing bits and pieces of actual court hearings with real-life defendants. He said it’s about educating that people can break the cycle, that a mistake isn’t the end of their life, but it can be the beginning of a new start.
In one video he is talking to a defendant and says “You’ve been here a couple of times over this past year and I think it started as little as marijuana, and now I have you sitting here looking at 2 to 8 years in prison. They’re alleging you shot somebody.”
Dawson goes on to tell him it’s time to turn his life around.
“You’re 22, at some point, whether it’s a year from now or whatever, you can shed that old image.”
He said while it’s his job to serve, it’s his personal oath to make sure he’s serving as many people as he can, including sharing his wisdom any way he can.
“As long as I’m blessed to be a judge, I will use every moment on that bench to educate in some way,” said Dawson.
It’s important to note that broadcasting court proceedings is legal, as they are open to the public, but Dawson said he chooses not to put any of the defendants in his courtroom on camera.