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.

Ariel Castro appears in court with public defender Kathleen DeMetz in Cleveland on Thursday.
Ariel Castro appears in court with public defender Kathleen DeMetz in Cleveland on Thursday.

Photo by John Gress/Reuters

Now that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight have escaped their captor, some Clevelanders are blaming the police for failing to rescue the women sooner. “The Cleveland police should be ashamed of themselves,” one woman told the New York Times. “They didn’t take it seriously,” a neighbor of alleged kidnapper Ariel Castro told the New York Daily News, saying the cops missed a bunch of warning signs that people were being held against their will. The Cleveland Police Department, for its part, has been vocal in asserting that it did everything it could to find and rescue the missing women. Whom should we believe?

The most relevant criticism of the department that I’ve seen concerns its failure to show much interest in the disappearance of Michelle Knight in 2002. As I wrote on Tuesday, authorities assumed that the 20-year-old Knight had run away of her own volition. While Knight’s mother says she always suspected something had happened to her daughter, the police disagreed. Knight does not appear to have been listed in Ohio’s missing persons database, or in the national NamUs missing persons database. Why didn’t the Cleveland cops pay more attention to Knight’s disappearance?

Perhaps because ignoring adult missing persons reports seems to have been a de facto departmental policy for many years. The lax investigation into Knight’s disappearance doesn’t appear to have been an isolated incident. In 2009, Cleveland resident Anthony Sowell was arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping, and murdering 11 women from 2007 to 2009. (Sowell disposed of the bodies in and around his east side home, blaming the ensuing stench on his aging stepmother and also on a nearby sausage shop.) Afterward, victims’ relatives claimed that the Cleveland Police Department was slow to investigate or connect the disappearances, which allowed Sowell to continue his predation. Sometimes, the police counseled family members not to bother filing missing persons’ reports at all, saying that “there is no use in filing a report if the missing person is an adult,” as the Plain Dealer reported in 2009.

Mayor Frank Jackson addressed the criticisms by appointing a panel to review police procedures in missing persons cases. The ensuing report issued 26 recommendations for how the department could improve, such as creating a dedicated missing persons unit, developing a missing-persons website, and training officers on how to handle these types of investigations. As of April 2012, according to the Plain Dealer, 22 of the 26 recommendations had been implemented.

If these policies had been in place when Michelle Knight went missing, would they have helped the police solve the case or rescue the missing women any sooner? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, a more conscientious investigation into Knight’s disappearance might have led the police to connect it with the subsequent disappearances of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus from the exact same neighborhood. The fact that Knight seems to have been quickly dismissed as just another troubled woman who ran away from home counts as a definite demerit against the Cleveland PD.

Another criticism centers on the department’s apparent disinterest in the tips that allegedly came in over the years about the strange goings-on at Ariel Castro’s Seymour Avenue house. Various neighbors have reported alerting the police to seeing leashed, naked women in Castro’s backyard, hearing pounding coming from indoors, and noticing plastic bags over the house’s windows. The police either ignored the tips or failed to adequately investigate them, the neighbors claim. On one occasion, said neighbor Israel Lugo, the police came to Castro’s house and knocked on the front door; upon receiving no response, they left. (The clear lesson here for criminals: If cops come to bang on your door, don’t answer!)

If the neighbors are telling the truth, then the police deserve to be criticized. But it’s not clear how much credence we should give the neighbors and their claims of uninvestigated tips. The Cleveland Police Department insists that it has no record of receiving such calls. Yesterday, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte wrote about the phenomenon of false memories, and the very real possibility that Castro’s neighbors are unconsciously misremembering or exaggerating what happened.

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.”

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.

Read more in Slate about the Cleveland kidnapping cases.