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Clevelanders address policing as the city prepares for a more powerful Community Police Commission

Cornelius Shepherd
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Cornelius Shepherd was shot by a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority police officer in 1999. He says Cleveland needs to look more closely at the background of people they hire for law enforcement.

Cornelius Shepherd sits in his wheelchair in the courtyard at Lakeview Terrace. He's recounting the early morning of May 28, 1999, when a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority officer shot him twice, once in the arm and once in the back. It's not easy for Shepherd to be here again.

He says it started when he encountered a CMHA officer at this public housing complex between Ohio City and the Flats.

He says the officer knew him well.

“He saw me out here all the time. We used to play basketball for the center. We played football, baseball.”

But on that night, when Shepherd saw the officer in his patrol car, Shepherd ran.

“And I was just running and I wouldn’t stop, he chased me through the whole projects, and I ran right here at 2705,” said Shepherd, as he pointed to a door into one of the apartment blocks.

Shepherd, who was 21 at the time, knocked on a friend’s door inside the building. No one answered. By that time the CMHA officer was inside the hallway with him. There was a brief struggle, Shepherd broke free and ran back outside, out the door into the courtyard where Shepherd was telling the story 23 years later.

Cornelius Shepherd in his wheelchair
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Cornelius Shepherd has been paralyzed since 1999 when a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority officer shot him in the back.

“But when I broke up out the hallway, I knew I had got shot, like in my arm,” Shepherd said.

He fell to the ground in the courtyard. Shepherd was unarmed.

According to the one newspaper article on the shooting available in the Plain Dealer archive, the officer, whose name was not released at the time, fired after a struggle. Police would not tell the paper whether or not a firearm was found.

Police oversight

Later this summer, Mayor Justin Bibb will nominate new members to the Cleveland Community Police Commission. Once approved by city council, the new commission will have broad powers over department policies and officer discipline.

The CPC and federal consent decree, which has been in place since 2015, would not have had direct authority over the CMHA officer who shot Shepherd. But Cleveland police handled the investigation back in 1999 and continue to handle investigations into CMHA police shootings.

It’s possible the CPC could scrutinize how Cleveland police handle future investigations into CMHA police.

CMHA and the city have agreements, approved by city council, allowing housing authority police to operate in the city. The CPC could add more rules and restrictions to those agreements.

“Just stop shooting us. That’s all they doing is killing us. They been doing this for years and years and years.”
Cornelius Shepherd

Shepherd said after the first bullet hit him, he could barely get off the ground.

“My arm was so heavy. I really couldn’t get it up. And so, when I was getting it up half way, that’s when he shot me in my back,” Shepherd said.

The officer then got on top of him, handcuffed him and pressed his knee into Shepherd’s back. A friend of Shepherd’s, who lived in an apartment on the third floor, came out to watch what was going on.

“And I just kept telling my friend, ‘Dooty, don’t leave me,’” Shepherd recalled. “And he didn’t leave me. The cop was pointing the gun at him. Telling him to get back. ‘Move. Move.’ And my friend didn’t leave me. I think I would have lost my life that night. And the answer for me, for any race, don’t run. Because they don’t care.”

Shepherd has been paralyzed and in a wheelchair ever since. Every couple of minutes, like clockwork, Shepherd stops to shake what he says feels like a charley horse out of his right leg.

“I go through this every day. Not one day I’m pain free. I live with this for 22 years,” he said.

Shepherd is 44 now. He began filing a lawsuit 20 years ago but went to prison six months after he was shot for an assaulting a police officer charge that was filed following the incident.

When asked how policing in Cleveland could change under a new Community Police Commission, Shepherd said the city needs to take a closer look at who they’re hiring.

“Because, they don't really know their background, history or nothing,” Shepherd said. “They need to counsel them more and more, and see where their heads is at. Like, cause a lot of them don't care.”

Cornelius Shepherd hand under leg
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Shepherd shakes his right leg every few minutes. “Not one day I’m pain free. I live with this for 22 years,” he said.

Recent reports from the federal monitor overseeing the consent decree have uncovered deficiencies with the city’s background checks.

He also thinks one of the biggest problems is officers who aren’t from Cleveland, who don’t know the neighborhoods they police.

When Shepherd was shot, he wasn’t surprised that an officer who worked at Lakeview Terrace would hurt him.

“’Cause every time they came down here, they had their noses turned up," Shepherd said. "It was just like we was disgusting to them, and like they just really didn't like us. Like, and that's sad to say about somebody that's supposed to protect and serve.”

Shepherd wants compensation for what happened to him. He says what they did was wrong, and he wants them to acknowledge that.

After talking for about an hour, Shepherd returned to his van where his family helped him from his wheelchair into the driver’s seat. Before driving off, he stayed a while on the street, where just about every resident was a family member or a friend, before driving off.

This is the first of three stories with the voices of Clevelanders on policing in the city.

Matthew Richmond is a general assignment reporter at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.