Mistrust of Police Reaches Shaker

After SHPD officer gestures at BLM protesters, students doubt whether police are unbiased


David Vahey

A Shaker police officer was fired for making an obscene gesture to BLM protesters last fall.

Concern about encounters with police, nationally and locally, raises the question of whether students can trust the SHPD.

Following the murder of George Floyd by the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Black Lives Matter protests mounted across the country along with mistrust of police.

Controversy about police behavior reached Shaker Heights when a police officer made an obscene gesture to BLM protesters prior to the Sept. 29, 2020 presidential debate. An image of the officer extending his middle finger toward protesters while ridinging in an SHPD vehicle was published online. 

On Oct. 15, Mayor David Weiss announced the officer had been fired and insisted that the SHPD supported the rights of demonstrators to peacefully protest. “I know I speak for City Council, Police Chief DeMuth and the many dedicated Shaker Heights police officers when I say that we condemn, in the strongest way possible, any action by a police officer that interferes with or disrespects the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully,” Weiss stated in an email to the community.

Kimora Langford, a freshman, was disappointed to hear about the incident, especially given Shaker’s focus on resolving inequity. “I feel like Shaker was trying their best to make everything equal. Equity has been such a big topic,” Langford said.

Freshman Shawn Sanders was troubled by the officer’s actions. She wants to be able to trust that the police officers will do their jobs without bias. “When you are working, you do not bring personal views/vendettas into what you are doing. Free speech is a part of the Constitution and if they can not handle a couple of rude comments [from protesters], they are not eligible for that career,” she wrote.

Freshman Linea Koops said that Shaker residents may feel disconnected from the current tension about policing because of the diversity of the area. “It’s easy to think that events like this that we hear about on the news are somewhat separated from us in Shaker,” said Koops, “until something like this occurs in our vicinity, and we’re forced to confront it.”

Senior James Kennedy was not shocked by the officer’s gesture. He said the fact that Shaker is a diverse community does not guarantee that its citizens are safe from biased police actions.  “It’s not like the Shaker Heights Police Department is any different or better than other police departments, and it is no surprise that there are racial injustices happening in our community as well,” Kennedy wrote in an email.

Senior Sara Dina said that the incident disappointed her but, she said, it could have been worse. “Of course it is a step back, but it’s also something that pales in comparison to some of the violence that ensued at the hands of the police at many other BLM protests, so at this point it is sad that something as disgusting as this feels tame within the context of what is now normal,” Dina said.

SHPD Chief Jeffery DeMuth declined to comment. Wrote Sanders, “Behavior like this is unprofessional, immature, embarrassing and quite frankly terrifying. I do not want to be a part of a community where I cannot trust my own officers.”

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