Did the Cleveland Cops Botch the Search for the Missing Women?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
May 9 2013 2:19 PM

Did the Cleveland Cops Botch the Search for the Missing Women?

They did everything they could and it still wasn’t enough. Here’s why.

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Cops can’t enter a house without permission or a warrant, and they can’t get a warrant without probable cause. Ariel Castro did not have a long criminal record, and there was no reason to suspect that anything was actually happening there. I’ve seen it implied that Castro’s record of domestic abuse and his poor performance as a school bus driver should have triggered suspicions. These things may well have triggered suspicions that Ariel Castro was a jerk. It’s unreasonable to expect, though, that the cops could have magically inferred that he was holding three women captive in his house.

In a Plain Dealer column yesterday, Mark Naymik writes that the disappearances of DeJesus and Berry, at least, were a longtime department priority. “I've seen police follow up on the most tenuous of leads, from teenagers too young to remember DeJesus' disappearance.” Other reports bear this out: For example, the cops dug up a vacant lot in 2012 after a convict falsely informed them that Berry’s body could be found there.

But Naymik makes another great point that I haven’t seen cited elsewhere. “At the moment, the hum of criticism on Seymour Avenue is about the subtle signs, such as the lowered shades or odd behavior of Castro and how he never entertained guests,” he writes. “These are the kinds of signs that police officers who patrol a specific beat over time might notice or hear about from neighbors. But that kind of patrol disappeared when community policing ended.”

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That kind of patrol disappeared when community policing ended—that’s the line you should remember if you’re looking to criticize the cops here. Intuition is one of a police officer’s foremost assets. But missing persons and odd behavior become suspicious only when you are intimately familiar with a neighborhood, with what normalcy means and when normalcy is breached.

In Cleveland and elsewhere, that sort of hyperlocal knowledge is on the wane. Despite a high crime rate, the city, facing budget shortfalls, has laid off police officers and downsized the department over the past decade. As the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association wrote in a letter to the Plain Dealer in 2010, “The Cleveland Police Department has never recovered from the 2004 downsizing of 252 police officers. We have been working with no Auto Theft, Community Policing or Gang units.”

All of the criticisms over police behavior in this case are actually criticisms of the do-more-with-less modern policing mentality—of the disappearance of the beat cop in favor of specialized units that are ostensibly more effective and efficient. And they might be more effective and efficient when it comes to dropping a city’s crime rate over the short term. But the fact that Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus spent years in a house in a dense Cleveland neighborhood is one indication of the long-term problems with this approach.

In the end, the Cleveland police and its critics are both right. The cops likely did all they could to sniff out where the missing women were being held. But in this age of departmental budget cuts, all they could do wasn’t nearly enough.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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