But at one corner of the bar, a different celebration is underway. It has the same basic elements: a cluster of plainclothed officers and the occasional appearance of shots on the bar, lined up like 80-proof dominoes. Yet eyes are fixed on a TV. The news is on. Grainy images of a young black boy fill the screen, followed by the round, ruddy face of a burly policeman.
Earlier today, a grand jury cleared two of their own -- Detectives Phil Habeeb and John Kraynik -- in the killing of teenaged robber Brandon McCloud. In some places, the shooting sparked cries of racism and calls for justice. McCloud was in his bedroom during the small hours of September 1, 2005, when the detectives came calling. He didn't have a gun, but he wound up with 10 rounds buried in his bony frame. To much of Cleveland, it was yet another example of a police department in chaos.
It's hard to blame people for their skepticism. For years, corrupt and inept mayors have paraded a series of chiefs, safety directors, and commanders through the department's upper reaches, then trashed them as soon as their political born-on dates expired. The present chief, Mike McGrath, is the eighth in just 12 years.
Violent crime rates are rising. Response times are too. Political corruption is conducted with impunity. Nearly every bust of complexity is done by the feds, not Cleveland Police.
In the poorest city in America, this is a department that doesn't even have a gang unit.
Meanwhile, officers have been accused of racial profiling, stealing overtime, routinely ignoring or botching rape cases, and unleashing their frustration on young black men like Brandon McCloud.
But down here, in the Zone Car Lounge -- the bar owned and enjoyed by the Cleveland Patrolmen's Association -- McCloud's death was a tragedy of a different brand. The boy had been wanted in the robbery of a pizza delivery guy, one of 10 knife-wielding heists he's believed to have pulled off. When Habeeb and Kraynik tried to arrest him that morning, they say, McCloud lunged at them with a knife.
Down in this bar, the tragedy isn't that an armed robber died; it's that two detectives were off the job for nine months, vilified as racist murderers.
It's a delicate argument to make, that the killing of Brandon McCloud was "justified."
Now the man charged with making that argument -- the round, ruddy face that fills up the evening news when chaos besieges cops -- sits at the corner of the bar, watching himself on TV. He can't hear his words over the bar's escalating chorus, but it's probably a watered-down version of something he said earlier in the week.
"Thankfully, I've never killed anybody," Steve Loomis, the union's 42-year-old president, said at the time. "If it's a choice between you or I, or between you and my partner, or between you and a little old lady, I wouldn't hesitate for a micro-second to take someone's life."
It's not a pretty case to make, but that's his job. It was a little over a year ago when he replaced longtime union president Bob Beck, a stone-faced Officer of the Year, whose legend among cops had grown larger than a dead rock idol's. Thus far it's been a rocky road. Loomis' election divided the union between veterans and newer cops. His happy-go-lucky personality has led to some embarrassing missteps -- even sparked calls for his resignation. But for the moment, with his face on the TV, friends at his side, and somewhere, two detectives breathing much deeper, the president is ready to celebrate.
He's been slugging down Diet Pepsi for much of the night -- trying out a new rule that forbids him from drinking at the Zone Car -- but now a round of celebratory shots has appeared magically on the bar.
Down they go, with sighs of relief all around.
Loomis' office sits a short flight of stairs up from the bar. It's a monument to his passions: an Indians team-autographed bat and a clutter of memorabilia picked up at police auctions, including an Ocean's 11 poster autographed by the cast. It cost him $475. "I waited until my fiancée was in the bathroom," he says.
Loomis doesn't patrol these days. The presidency is full-time. So today he's doing one of his very favorite things: talking. An hour turns into three without his once checking his watch -- or himself. His mouth and mind jog happily astride one another.
He describes his divorce as "a blessing," his daughters beginning to menstruate "a fun time." He launches into a 20-minute play-by-play of the first time he bought them tampons -- "I ended up dropping 50 bucks at Rite Aid" -- and the joys of teaching his fiancée's son "how to pee outside!"
It's a mix of power and playfulness that led him from a Navy tour in the first Gulf War to becoming a cop. When he returned from the Gulf in 1992, he heard Cleveland was offering a test. He drove in to take it. "I had no clue there was a residency requirement," he says. "I had no clue what the pay was." He just wanted a uniform.
Loomis started in the Fourth District, patrolling the southeast side, and later joined the Strike Force, which handles violent and high-profile crimes. Over the years, he developed an approach tailored to his strengths. "Steve screws with everybody," says Patrolman Carl Perkins.
He liked to put rookies in the back of his car, lock the windows open, then drive through a car wash. He'd play video games with kids after responding to disturbance calls, basketball with boys on the street. "What, you think a fat guy can't shoot hoops?" he would say, hoisting jumpers.
"I'd just sit back on the hood and laugh," recalls Detective Larry Russell, who worked in the Fourth. "He loved that look on their face. Is this really happening?"
But there was a strategy at work. Once, Perkins watched Loomis tell a driver to turn his music down. When the guy accused Loomis of picking on him because he was black, Loomis replied, "I love black guys!" He pointed to Perkins, who's black. "This is my boyfriend. We spoon every night!"
"The guy just shut up," Perkins recalls, laughing. "We didn't have to argue with this guy. He just looked at [Loomis] like 'This motherfucker's crazy.'"
Loomis' demeanor paid dividends as a sleuth. He was "the designated 'talk guy' of Strike Force," recalls Russell. "He could sit on the phone with victims for 45 minutes and just have a conversation." Those victims sometimes turned into Loomis' best sources. "These people had his cell-phone number," Russell says. "None of us gave out our cell-phone numbers. They all had it."
But over the years, Loomis discovered some were unworthy of his patience and playfulness. The longer he worked, the more he believed bosses were watching out for themselves and not their officers. He found himself picking up the radio when a dispatcher would send too few officers on a call, or scrawling angry letters when the mayor talked of layoffs.
"He was doing what he does now when he was in uniform on the road," Russell says. "He was taking care of policemen."
Others see it differently: "He was always a malcontent," says one cop, who's afraid of running afoul of union leadership. "He liked to pick fights with bosses, just to pick a fight."
The department's skewed politics were never more evident than in fall of 2003, Loomis says. After the much-hyped disappearance of 11-year-old Shakira Johnson, Loomis was assigned to investigate a related case. A convicted rapist who lived near Shakira had been dragged from his home by a group of men and interrogated. Police believed the vigilantes were from the Nation of Islam. They arrested several men who they thought were terrorizing the neighborhood in search of Shakira's abductor, including one who worked in the city's Public Safety Office. Even the neighborhood's resident thugs were running scared, Loomis says. "They had the dope boys so terrified."
Loomis feared Mayor Jane Campbell would give the men a pass as part of her ongoing quest to court black leaders and to avoid the embarrassment of having a staffer go to jail. He says McGrath, Fourth District commander at the time, assured support if Loomis could make a case. So he did. "We had 'em dead nuts," he says. "There was no wiggle room. There was no way out."
But the city prosecutor dropped the charges, ruling insufficient evidence.
"They knew we had them nailed, and it was a political embarrassment," Loomis huffs. "It was just complete political bullshit."
That same year, Cleveland's cops faced a decision that would test their storied brotherhood. Recession was pounding the city, and Campbell was trying to balance a shrinking budget. It was time, she believed, for police and firefighters to sacrifice.
They were given a choice: Face massive layoffs numbering in the hundreds of jobs, or take concessions so that some might be spared. The EMS union cut a deal to save 21 jobs. Firefighters followed, slashing $4 million from their budget to save 80 jobs.
But police were led by a no-nonsense cop with one gear -- full-blast -- and one goal: defending cops under any circumstances. As a patrolman, Bob Beck took a bullet and was named Officer of the Year. He was elected union president in 1990 and over the years became famous for public jousts with City Hall. Former Mayor Mike White's picture adorned a punching bag in his office.
"Bob Beck was sitting at the right hand of Jesus," Detective Russell says. "In 10 years, I don't remember one person speaking against Bob Beck."
"He's the gold standard of what police union presidents should be," adds Pat D'Angelo, the union's attorney. "He's a cop's cop."
But Beck rejected compromise like a body rejects bad kidneys. As the other unions surrendered to save members' jobs, Beck urged his local to reject the deal -- though it would have saved 90 officers from unemployment -- and vowed to fight in court. Members listened.
Two hundred and fifty officers were laid off four days later.
When diabetes and grandkids pulled Beck into retirement, many veteran cops thought one of Beck's underlings would assume the throne. Loomis didn't see it that way. "I wasn't comfortable that the other guys who were running were going to be able to deal with it."
When it comes to overtime, promotions, discipline, and shooting investigations, he knew that City Hall kept its gloves laced tight. And in a politically expedient place like Cleveland, cops always make convenient fall guys.
"The mayor runs the police department," says Loomis. "He says he doesn't. Bullshit."
Loomis had far fewer years on the force than his opponent, Detective Bill Van Verth, whom Beck supported. And Loomis was virtually unknown outside the Fourth District. So he shotgunned e-mails and visited precincts, offering himself as a bright-eyed alternative to the status quo. "It's like a marriage," says Detective Amy Duke, one of Loomis' running mates. "You start to get stagnant and tired. It's just not the same as it used to be."
The layoffs also worked to Loomis' advantage. The laid-off cops were still union members, and some still smarted from being sold out by the veterans. "He aggressively campaigned with the officers" who lost their jobs, says one cop. "He kind of broke the union in half that way."
The bitter election ended with a department divided between veterans and newer cops -- and a jolly 42-year-old charged with reuniting them.
"I have huge shoes to fill," Loomis says. "Bob Beck's the only president I've ever known. Hopefully, at the end of the day, guys will realize I fight just as hard for the old-timers -- and I say that with all the love and respect I can muster -- as we do for the young guys. That's how you try to win those guys over."
If Steve Loomis' emotions are on endless tap, there are days when he -- and some in the rank-and-file -- wish he could somehow untap the keg.
One came on a rainy Sunday in November. Loomis and some friends had just watched the Browns dump a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh. He and a friend stopped by the restroom, then rode the wave of drunks before being stopped by a security guard.
Loomis' friend, the guard said, had threatened someone in the bathroom. It was time to go home.
The guard was mistaken, Loomis says. "I was standing next to him the whole time," he says. "He didn't threaten anyone."
They obliged nonetheless and joined the pack near the exit, walking past Lieutenant Deborah Washington on their way, Loomis says. They should have kept walking. Loomis may be the patriarch of the Zone Car Lounge, but he's still a detective.
Washington was talking with the security guard.
"We're leaving," Loomis recalls saying. "But for the record, he didn't threaten anybody."
Washington repeated the guard's allegation, swearing that Loomis' friend had got into it with someone in the restroom. Loomis unwisely resisted.
"You're going to take the word of the civilian over a policeman?" he recalls saying heatedly.
"I don't answer to you, Mr. President," Washington fired back.
They went back and forth until Loomis and his friend left. Washington complained that Loomis was drunk and breaking rank. (He denies he was hammered, but defends his right to get hammered.)
Loomis was suspended for 15 days. The story quickly hit the paper and gave his critics something to seize. "The union body has no faith in his leadership and cannot abide by his foolishness any longer," Detective Charlie McNeeley wrote to The PD. "He should do the honorable thing and resign."
Says another cop: "You make all of us look bad. I expect you to be above reproach, and if you cannot be above reproach, I have a problem with that."
"I was disrespectful," Loomis says now.
He's heard that Scene has requested the investigation file on the incident. "You're not going to slam me, are you?" he asks. So he recommends picking up another file -- the "Art McKoy file." That one got him suspended too. But it might be his proudest moment as president.
Loomis was at home when the call came, sometime around midnight. A dispatcher was screaming into his phone. He could only make out one word: "Metro."
He rushed from his Old Brooklyn home to MetroHealth's emergency room. The parking lot was dotted with police cruisers. "I knew I had a shot cop," he says. "But I didn't know how bad it was."
Inside, he learned that Detective A.J. Schroeder was dead. That night, Schroeder had arrived on the steps of a rape suspect's house. Just before he barreled through the door, two bullets ripped toward him. The accused rapist, Wilson Santiago, had decided to go down shooting.
The first bullet whizzed past. But the next slipped through a tiny crease in Schroeder's Kevlar vest and into his chest. It left his wife husbandless, his infant child fatherless.
The next few weeks wrecked Loomis. The union cut a check to Schroeder's wife and helped keep the media out of the neighborhood. Loomis and other officers cruised the crowds at Browns Stadium with trash cans, collecting thousands for Schroeder's family. Later, when the Schroeders' water heater broke, Loomis and other cops found themselves in his basement, shuffling around weight-lifting equipment to clean up the mess.
During that time, Loomis' fiancée saw him so little -- and could pull so few words from him when she did -- that she depended on the news to know he was OK. The people who actually saw him knew that he wasn't.
"I saw him cry for the first time," Russell says. "When you see a tear rolling down his face, as big and burly as he is, that was the first time I saw weakness in him."
A few days after the shooting, Loomis attended a public vigil at a West Side church. Near the end, he spotted Art McKoy. Loomis' temperature rose.
McKoy, an East Side activist, is a devoted basher of the police. He cries racism when young black men are hurt by cops. He rallies outside precincts, accusing cops of ignoring black victims. He rails about police apathy on his weekly radio show.
Loomis had seen McKoy at a vigil for a fallen cop before. That time, Loomis says, he watched McKoy make a scene, hollering his trademark "No Justice, No Peace." The thought of it happening again left Loomis a shaking, red-faced mess.
"Steve got himself all lathered up, saying, 'Not on my watch,'" says D'Angelo. "He was very emotional. It got the best of him."
"I was not going to let that man dishonor A.J.," Loomis says. "I was not going to let him put my guys in a bad position when they're vulnerable."
As McKoy approached, Loomis cut him off, putting his massive chest to McKoy's and hollering, "Get the hell out of here." Chief McGrath separated the two and pulled McKoy to the side.
Loomis says he had asked McGrath to reach out to McKoy beforehand to keep him away. But City Hall had done the opposite: Some council members had invited McKoy, oblivious to how it would incite police. Loomis found himself yelling at the chief too.
"Whatever happens is on you," he told McGrath. "It's on you."
Later, Loomis made his way back into McKoy's face and even ripped down a sign put up by McKoy's organization, Black on Black Crime. "He can do what he wants," Loomis says. "He just can't do it on the memorial site of a slain officer."
McKoy filed a complaint, telling the department that Loomis was "acting like a madman."
"I was invited to that community vigil by people in the neighborhood," McKoy says. "For anyone to even imply that I shouldn't have been there is absolutely ridiculous."
Ruth Standiford, who helped organize the vigil, told investigators that Loomis "was totally out of control . . . He was almost shaking, he was so mad. He was absolutely in tears at one point . . . I've never seen a grown man shaking and upset as he was."
The incident earned Loomis five days off work. He calls it "one of his finer moments."
"I absolutely considered it my responsibility. I would do it again tomorrow."
It was a day for proud press conferences and lauding editorials. On January 10, a task force of area police and federal agents swept into a gang-ridden neighborhood between East 70th and East 79th streets. They arrested 44 people, mostly members of the 7 Alls gang, who police say were major crack dealers. Their battle for market share had left at least two dead, and many of the city's most violent crimes could be traced to their St. Clair-Superior turf.
But as Loomis read about the bust the next morning, he wasn't so optimistic. Sure, the 18-month investigation razed a bumper crop of crack and locked up some of Hough's worst criminals. Even now, there remains more grant money for encore performances.
But it also spoke to a nagging truth about Cleveland's ability to clean up its gang problem. The city's gang unit was killed in the layoffs. When the grant money runs dry, no one will be dedicated to snuffing out drug turf wars.
"You know how the gangs got that big?" Loomis asks. "There's no goddamn cops on the street to put the squash on them."
It's a predictable chorus for a union boss to sing: We need more guys! And Loomis, like his predecessor, tends to forget that Cleveland's economic forecast isn't Dubai's.
But whether City Hall can afford to listen or not, his chorus rings true: Cleveland's thin blue line is much thinner than it once was. There were 1,867 cops on the street before Campbell's layoffs. Now there are 1,573. The department has no fugitive unit, leaving other law enforcement to look for thousands of criminals with outstanding warrants. Loomis' old Strike Force unit, which investigated major crimes, is also gone. The police helicopter is basically grounded.
"It's open season," Loomis says. "If I was a gangbanger, Cleveland is the place I would set up my shop. I wouldn't live there, but that's where I would do my business."
Years of squabbling destroyed the relationship between the mayor's office and Beck, who was prone to walking brusquely out of meetings, and even barred city officials from the union's offices. "Bob was by and large inflexible," says city negotiator Jon Dileno.
Loomis hopes that a simple willingness to talk and listen might win his troops some favor. But he's starting to understand why Beck was always storming out of places.
In Loomis' first week, the department slyly enacted a new policy affecting how much time injured officers can spend off the job. And the union learned of the city's plan to close the Third District a few hours before the press conference announcing the move.
"When we came in we thought, 'We can talk to people, and they'll listen,'" says union Vice President Don Meel. "It took us a month to figure out that that was bullshit."
And there remain the ever-present politics burdening all. When Loomis proposed the recruitment of experienced officers from other cities, the safety office turned him down, arguing it would somehow dampen minority recruiting.
"People do not care what color the cop is," says Loomis. "I don't care what color you are, as long as you can pull my fat ass out of a burning police car. I want qualified police officers."
Both McGrath and Safety Director Martin Flask declined Scene's interview requests. But Flask did shed some light on his relationship with the union. "What I'd like to say and what I can say may be two different things."
In a dark bar down the street from his office, Loomis is perched on a stool on a Friday afternoon. It's lunchtime. An untouched chicken sandwich taunts him from a plate, and a mouthful of soup hangs on his spoon. The bartender keeps dropping by, wondering if she should heat up his food. No, he says. He wants to eat. He likes to eat. But he can't stop talking.
"This guy is smoke and mirrors," he is saying, over and over. He's talking about Mayor Frank Jackson, and he's getting worked up. The mayor says he's working to keep the city safe, Loomis says, but never outlines who exactly is going to do it and how. "Smoke and mirrors," Loomis repeats.
Loomis may be jolly and patient and always down to hang out, but the more he does his job, the more he sounds like Bob Beck. It's only a matter of time, it seems, until he tapes Jackson's picture to a punching bag.
"He hasn't lied," he says, still stuck on the mayor, still ignoring his lunch. "He just hasn't told the truth."