CLEVELAND — On Oct. 29, 2009, Cleveland police arrived at 12205 Seymour Avenue to serve an arrest warrant on Anthony Sowell. It was a list of charges that would soon grow. Sowell wasn't home, but inside the home police found the remains of two decomposing bodies. The next day they found an additional three. The number would eventually grow to 11.
"Tonia Carmichael, Nancy Cobbs, Tishana Culver, Crystal Dozier, Telacia Fortson, Amelda Hunter, Leshanda Long, Michelle Mason, Kim Yvette Smith, Diane Turner, and Janice Webb were not just cases, victims or names, they were mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins," Sondra Miller, President & CEO of Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center, wrote in remembrance of the Imperial Avenue victims. "They left behind families and friends who loved them—who still mourn them."
Miller, reflecting on this 10th anniversary, said she hopes this serves as a reminder that there were promises made to the community when the city convened the Special Commission on Missing Persons and Sex Crimes Investigations to make recommendations about how to improve response in the hopes that a tragedy like this would never happen again.
"After some initial momentum, the efforts of these groups and their related recommendations were largely forgotten," she wrote. "Public attention moved to other areas of concern. The city failed to dedicate additional resources to sex crimes investigations, and rape survivors continue to face an inadequate response when they report crimes."
"This is especially concerning because we know that women and children are the most vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse, as are people of color, those who live in poverty and those who suffer from addiction or mental illness. These same factors seem to make it more likely for our criminal justice system to re-victimize survivors by not believing them, not fully investigating their cases and not helping them find a path to healing and justice."
Miller shared her thoughts with Cleveland City Council's Safety Committee last week while appearing to speak on behalf of a grant the city received that will add a second full-time employee from the rape crisis center to work with police.
"As enthusiastic as I am about the training opportunities that are presented with this grant, I think they will have a limited impact if we're not able to provide additional staffing resources in particular to the investigative unit," she testified.
Councilman Matt Zone, the committee's chair, agreed.
"We haven't done enough," Zone said. "We still have our specialty units that are still woefully understaffed and as a city we need to do a better job."
The problem, he said, isn't a matter of funding. The money has been allocated to fill the open positions in the sex crimes, domestic violence and homicide units.
"It just has to come with an intentionality and an urgency within the police department and this has to become a priority of our chief's and he has to really push this thing through. Right now people are overworked, they have too many cases assigned to them, we need to get more people in this division."
Zone plans to hold a council hearing with Chief of Police Calvin Williams looking at the sex crimes, domestic violence and homicide units. "It will be his opportunity to share in real time where they're at, what efforts they're making to increase these particular units."