Addressing Racism in Portage and Police Funding: A Conversation with Commissioner Clyde

Clyde

This is the third article in our series of conversations with Portage County leaders about racism and policing. Previously we interviewed Kent Police Chief Nicholas Shearer and Portage County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett.

In our interview with County Commissioner Kathleen Clyde, conducted June 12, we discussed the county’s funding of the sheriff’s office, what she and the other commissioners are doing to address racism in the county and her thoughts on the movement to ‘defund police.’

Below is our conversation, edited for brevity, clarity and to remove outdated information (we’ve reached out to Clyde for further comment, and we’ll update this article if we hear from her).

You mentioned your efforts here in Portage County to address racism and discrimination, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk a bit more about that.

Sure. Well, last night I held a community conversation on my Facebook page about efforts underway in other communities — and actually statewide in Ohio and now federally — to declare racism as a public health crisis. And you know, racism is crippling our society. We have racial disparities that are pervasive with health outcomes and with life expectancy of Black Americans versus white. And we certainly have confronted racial inequalities and police violence.

And one of the first steps I think to address these systemic inequalities is to diagnose the problem and to work together as a community to come up with action steps that we can take to address these problems, address these inequalities and make our community stronger.

I was joined by Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, who I think may have been the first county leader in the country to propose this. And it’s now being replicated across the country. And even right here in Portage County, the Portage County Mental Health and Recovery Board passed a similar resolution, as well as the city of Cleveland, the city of Columbus and a number of other entities as well.

And so that declaration, does that come with any additional county funding to address the issue?

I think it depends on the entity that’s doing it. I know that with declaring health emergencies, that can trigger some funding at the county commission level. That would be something that we could work cross agency to try to develop and seek out funding. It’s also something that we could consider prioritizing with existing funding opportunities that are at the county [level].

I think that we should consider action steps like Franklin County did and other entities that makes sense for Portage County. And that’s something that I’m currently working to develop, working with the Portage County NAACP and talking to these other leaders who have forged this path, to figure out what makes the most sense here and get it done.

On the subject of funding, there’s a lot of talk about ‘defund the police.’ I’m wondering where you stand on that.

I think that that’s a slogan — with all due respect to the question — that causes people to back into corners and is divisive. And while I understand the sentiment behind that and the frustration that people have about policing and racism that is pervasive in our society, including with policing, I think that it’s something we need to approach carefully and consider what’s behind that slogan and get at the systemic problems and come together to try to fix them rather than divide and not be able to come to a solution.

So is it fair to say that you would not be in favor of any measure to defund law enforcement offices in Portage County?

No, it’s not fair to say that. I think it’s not a fair question. No, I just I think it’s a slogan. It’s something that is very divisive right now.

What I would like to do is work on coming up with a solution to the racism that we face and work on eliminating disparities in health care and policing and wherever we find them. And I think that, yeah, behind the discussion about funding for police there are sentiments that priorities are misplaced. I think we need to look into those. I think we need to have those conversations and that we need to make sure we’re making the right decisions about funding, whether it be critical social services that are needed, whether it be for public safety whether it be for education, housing programs — we need to have our priorities in the right place. And that’s an important discussion that we need to have. And it’s not something that breaks down to, “Do you stand by this slogan?”

What are some solutions that you think, given the conversations you’ve been having with folks, that you think would be good to look into and move forward on?

I think we need to look into what the data says about health disparities in the county and that we need to find as much equality as we can with healthcare outcomes and strive to achieve that equality. I’d like to see data on how our residents are treated by our law enforcement officials in the county. And if we have inequalities and problems there, then we need to come together and address that. We need to look at training opportunities. We need to make sure that there’s transparency and that it’s an open conversation that we are able to identify the problem and address it. And we need to make sure too that we are looking at different services that we provide and that we’re doing that in a way that it doesn’t discriminate and that helps everyone in our community to improve their lives and to make our county stronger.

So there are a lot of things that we can do. We need to root out any racism that exists and dedicate ourselves to it. And that’s what I hope to be a part of with something like a declaration that racism is a public health crisis with action steps that we can all work on together.

Gotcha. I mean, that just makes sense. Especially with the look at health and health care, there’s been a lot coming out in the wake of these movements about the disparity in health care for folks of color compared to white folks. I think that’d be really interesting to see the data on that, especially in the county.

Yeah, I agree. And especially with the Covid-19 pandemic, we know that there are racial disparities. It’s something that I know everyone in the community is serious about and worries about. And, you know, we need to make sure that we’re not leaving some people behind or not treating everyone in our community equally, whether it is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic or any of the healthcare outcomes that we want to improve and make better.

You mentioned looking into trainings and things of that sort for law enforcement officers and officers within the county. So I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a bit about that as well.

A county commissioner plays a role, but there are also city leaders, police chiefs, the sheriff, these are all individual entities. So what will be needed for me to make an impact will be to work together with those other key leaders to see what’s working, see what isn’t and try to address any problems that we have and encourage as many folks to do that as possible. I, for example, don’t oversee a police department as a county commissioner. But you know, hopefully I can use the leadership role I have to work together with our law enforcement community to adopt the best practices that we need. And that makes sense for the county.

Yeah, I think you bring up a good point there. I was talking with Sheriff Doak a couple of days ago about trainings and whatnot. And one issue that came up was the sheriff’s department budget and how that relates to trainings. And I’m a little in the dark on this, on how funding and budgets work within the county. The Sheriff’s Office budget, would they go to the County Commissioners or a board for funding approval for new trainings and things of that sort? Or how does that work?

Yes, they have funding in their department for training currently, but each year they submit a budget to the Board of Commissioners for us to review and approve. So it’s during that process that some of those discussions could take place.

Sheriff Doak mentioned that they deal with a lot of budget issues, essentially funding, different things like overcrowding in jails, trainings, things of that sort. But then he also mentioned that the sheriff’s department budget is about a third of the county’s budget in total. And so was wondering how that could be? I guess that might be a better question for him, but I want to talk with you as a county official as well about that.

The sheriff is the largest piece of the county budget for his overall operations, including the jail, including the officers that he has on patrol. And then the court has security, and his administration.

That was just something that struck me as odd … they have a good amount of funding, but it’s not enough funding.

He has gotten this significant increase [in funding]. He received the largest increase in the budget last budget year because of the new addition on the jail, and they received funding for additional staff. He then requested much more funding, and that was not budgeted for in our final, passed budget. The county could not afford his additional requests.

Well, I want to turn the floor to you for a second and see if there’s anything that you think folks should know about what the commissioners are working on or regarding these larger issues of race and racism in Portage County.

I want the people of Portage County to know that this is something that I take very seriously. I am working on this declaration of racism as a public health crisis. I am working with the Portage County NAACP and Black leaders in the county. I am seeing residents showing up and protesting and also contacting me via a social media or even just directly to the office. I hear you. I see you. And this is important to me as well, and I’ll continue working on it and hope to be able to, you know, have something concrete very soon. So thanks for the opportunity to talk a little bit about it. Thanks for your questions and stay tuned.