To Protect and Serve
Spring 2021 | By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17
While some people say that there are bad apples in every profession, Charmin Leon ’04 says that in law enforcement there are often bad bushels — despite the belief that those who carry a gun and a badge should be held to a higher standard.
Leon says she never thought she’d become a police officer, but after working in public service as an advocate for male domestic violence survivors, her perception changed — leading her to join the force in 2008.
“I worked closely with a lot of wonderful officers, and that is what changed my mind to understand how much of a help policing can be,” says Leon, who majored in interdisciplinary studies and minored in legal studies. “When you think about the firepower that [criminals] … have, we have to have something in place to counter that.”
For five years, she served as a patrol officer for the Cleveland Division of Police before moving up to investigate allegations of misconduct for its Office of Professional Standards. Last year, she joined the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), as an implementation specialist for its COMPSTAT for Justice initiative. The Yale-based nonprofit has partnered with more than 45 police departments across the nation to leverage data in addressing racial disparities, and Leon is charged with helping agencies make their findings public while partnering with communities to create a true public safety plan — a first-of-its-kind initiative.
“I guess I always have been interested in justice — real justice for folks,” Leon says. “Just in the process of getting onto the police force, I was already aware of a lot of the issues as to why it’s so hard to transform and reform the police. But owning our mistakes and doing the hard work is necessary. Our margin of error should be as close to zero as we can get it.”
“Owning our mistakes and doing the hard work is necessary. Our margin of error should be as close to zero as we can get it.”Charmin Leon ’04
Defund the Police?
When it comes to call to actions, like the phrase “defund the police” — which advocates restructuring how funding for police departments is allocated — Leon says that’s exactly what departments need to implement real change.
“When you realize you’re not getting through to administrators in police departments and city government personnel, then you hit them in the pockets and with legislation,” Leon says. “I believe in reallocation — less than 10% of polices’ time is spent on violent crimes, so why are police departments so large? It’s because they’re supplementing social service entities that they shouldn’t be — so social ills end up being criminalized. Why not redistribute some of police departments’ budgets to other community services and departments?”
CPE recently developed guidelines to help police determine how departments can modify their procedures in the best interest of their communities and to decrease negative impacts on Black and minority members. The process includes determining how departments can reduce their presence in communities, what resources might replace their services and where they are most needed, measuring the response to these changes, and how to respond to violence with a lighter law enforcement footprint.
“We are susceptible to causing great harm if we do not adequately hold ourselves to account and respond to the communities who say [police actions] are harming them, believe them, work with them to identify those [issues] and address them,” she says.
Change Hiring and Recruitment Practices
Part of the problem in terms of over policing and police brutality may relate to the types of personalities that are attracted to what they perceive to be a high-action profession.
“When you highlight SWAT and chasing after the bad guys in your recruitment videos and then people get on the job and realize the majority of what you do is conflict resolution, there can be a tendency to make situations what you want them to be — with a lot higher adrenaline drive and engagement,” Leon says.
Advocating for Officers
Just treatment for Black and minority individuals is not only an external issue for police departments but an internal one as well. To help address this inequality, Leon is a member of The Black Shield Police Association, a group formed in 1946 to advocate for the fair and equal treatment of Black police officers that now serves the Greater Cleveland area. It is the third-oldest Black police officer organization in the U.S. She also serves as a representative for this group on the Cleveland Community Police Commission as of this year.
“I want people to know that you have some really amazing men and women in law enforcement, and they are being asked to work in a toxic environment that is not fair to them,” Leon says. “I hope those who love the community and want to serve honorably and nobly get the real honor, accolades and appreciation they deserve.”
Making All Public Agencies Exceptional
Before joining CPE, Leon created and led the public safety recruitment team for Cleveland’s police, fire and emergency medical services divisions. This experience and her career in public service inspires her vision for all public service agencies to reform necessary practices to prioritize hiring and retain only the most upstanding people to serve in the lines of duty.
“I want agencies to [attract] the best and brightest,” Leon says. “I want it to get to the point that when you see someone in a uniform, you don’t even need to question it. You know they are an exceptional individual.”