It's hard to put any stock in the words of a man whose job is to hold halos over every single one of the 1,500 or so men and women currently employed as Cleveland police officers. Fifteen hundred is a big number. And while we'll echo the sentiment expressed elsewhere — that by and large, the folks behind the badges are good people doing good jobs — it's foolish to believe that there aren't bad cops out there. But that's exactly what Jeff Follmer has to do as president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. The stock and trade of a police union president's job is to defend his officers, and to defend all is to defend one, which is how the job works with the rare exceptions of cops acting in ways that no one, not even their fellow officers, can defend. Otherwise, the job entails showing up when officers become the subject of stories, explaining to the public, from a cop's point of view, how it happens that 137 bullets are fired at an unarmed couple surrounded by police
, for instance.
Executing that advocacy — which, we'll reiterate, is a much needed role those 1,500 men and women depend on — takes all forms, from massaging the relationship between City Hall and Mayor Jackson with the rank and file to staunchly defending officers in the media, from representing those who are the subject of internal grievances to building bonds with community leaders and the citizens the cops are paid to protect.
Follmer will exit the presidency at the end of the year after being ousted in a vote against former CPPA president Steve Loomis — Follmer lost by 300 votes. Back in October, in a lead-up to the election, Loomis went after shortfalls in Follmer's tenure, notably what he called broken relationships between the police, the community and elected officials. After his victory, as Mark Naymik reported
, Loomis struck the same chord.
"There was a communication breakdown between the CPPA and community groups, other unions, politicians and the mayor's office," Loomis said. "It's in everyone's best interest that we reestablish those lines of communication. We have been in the dark for a while."
Follmer, with just weeks to go before he hands the keys back to Loomis, communicated with the world yesterday after the Browns game. But it was the brand of inflammatory and tone-deaf message that does little to mend fences between neighbors who don't trust each other, an unsolicited gouge at a fresh wound that badly needs healing, a myopic declaration as troubling as they come, especially in the wake of the blistering Department of Justice investigation
that revealed evidence of systemic abuse within the department and an order for independent oversight.
Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins emerged from the tunnel at First Energy Stadium yesterday wearing a shirt that read "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III" on the front and "The Real Battle of Ohio," a play on the rivalry between the Browns and Bengals, on the back.
Follmer, without apparently being asked by anyone what his thoughts were on the display, and ignoring the cascade of embarrassment heaped on the St. Louis Police Officers Association after the organization demanded an apology from the Rams and discipline for the five players who came out for a game in November in a "hands up, don't shoot" display
, issued a statement yesterday afternoon.
“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law," he said. "They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”
Let that sink in.
Hawkins wasn't doing anything that the people of Cleveland haven't done since the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and he wasn't saying anything that they haven't said. The only difference here is that Hawkins is a professional athlete and his status affords him a bigger microphone. (The Browns, to their great credit, quickly issued a statement defending Hawkins' right to expression, saying, "We have a great respect for the Cleveland Police Department and the work that they do to protect and serve our city. We also respect our players' rights to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.")
What Follmer says speaks volumes to the rift between the police in Cleveland and the people of Cleveland, and it also speaks volumes to what the Department of Justice found in its years-long investigation. Follmer is saying if you're an athlete, and in this case, a black athlete, you're not smart enough to have an opinion about real life. Follmer is saying generally, and quite plainly, that if you're not a cop, you have no right to question a cop. Follmer is saying leave the big boy stuff to the big boys. Follmer was talking about Hawkins when he called him "pathetic" but talking to every citizen of Cleveland.
Hawkins' message wasn't "fuck the police" or "indict Tim Loehmann." His message was a call for justice, for transparency, for equality under the law, for something more honest than a halo for every badge, for the right of people to question the law when it's displayed itself to be questionable.
That's beyond Jeff Follmer, though, which is the only pathetic part of the whole thing.
(We've reached out to Steve Loomis for his comments and will let you know if he responds.)