People from the Cleveland neighborhood in which three kidnapped women were recovered on Monday said that they'd been calling the cops on the suspected abductor for years, only to have police ignore them. It seemed hard to believe. The Cleveland Police Department itself disputes the claims, saying its records indicate officers had only visited the Seymour Avenue residence twice before this week: Once to respond to a street fight that Ariel Castro, the lead kidnapping suspect, had called in himself, and once to investigate allegations that Castro had briefly abducted a little boy while working as a bus driver in 2004 (when police went to the house to investigate, nobody looked to be home, so they left).
At least one neighbor maintained in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday that the police are wrong. Israel Lugo says he called police about the Castro home in 2011 when his sister saw a woman with a baby banging on one of the house's windows as if she were trying to escape.
Memories and police records can both be spotty. But the prospect of cops overlooking alarming stories for so long is not unusual one. How could it happen? The people who live around Ariel Castro's house, like Castro himself, are poor. And the police don't patrol poor neighborhoods the way they do wealthier ones.
The Cleveland zip code in which the kidnapped women were found—44113—has a median income of about $23,000, nearly $18,000 less than the Ohio average. Almost 37 percent of the residents in 44113 live below the poverty line, and more than a quarter of its households bring in less than $10,000 in income annually.
Ariel Castro purchased the Seymour Avenue home in which the women were held for a scant $12,000 in 1992. Today the house is worth $36,000, but Castro owes $2,500 in back taxes on it. News reports say the home was in bad shape and had plastic bags covering the windows, but that wasn't cause for concern on a street blighted by abandoned homes.
Though a lot of Castro's neighbors were shocked to discover they were living next door to an alleged violent criminal, a rap sheet is not a rarity in 44113. The Smoking Gun yesterday reported that Charles Ramsey, the good Samaritan neighbor who helped free the kidnapped women before becoming a meme, has a history of domestic violence convictions. And a look at Ohio's sex-offender registries turns up more than one offender on Seymour Avenue, one of whom lives just a few doors down from the Castro house.
In destitute neighborhoods, things get overlooked. One can find no clearer example of this than another recent criminal case in Cleveland, when police simply ignored several pleas from women who'd been attacked by Anthony Sowell, a man who would in 2011 be convicted of murdering 11 women over the course of years in his rundown Cleveland neighborhood. The Daily Beast offers a thorough examination of the Cleveland PD's outrageous missteps in that grisly case:
At least some of those murders and rapes could have been prevented if the police had not reacted so indifferently when a distraught woman called them in September 2008, after being repeatedly raped, beaten, and choked by Sowell. She had at one point sought refuge in a bathroom, where she saw a headless body wrapped in plastic and positioned in a sitting position in the bathtub.
After managing to get away, the woman had stumbled as far as a bus stop before she could go no further. She would later testify: "I couldn’t walk no more. I was tore up. My body was tore up … My face, my female parts, my butt."
She called the police.
"They told me I had to come in and make a report," she would testify.
She further testified that she asked the dispatcher, "How do I get there?" The dispatcher told her: "Come in and make a report. We can’t take a report over the phone."
She told the court that after the call, “I felt less than human. I didn’t know who to turn to.”
...On December 8, 2008, another woman contacted the police, reporting that Sowell had accosted her outside his house and dragged her around to the back, where he beat, choked, and attempted to rape her. A simple check would have told the police that Sowell was a registered sex offender who had done 15 years for raping, beating, and choking a pregnant woman. Nothing happened.
Sowell was eventually caught after a yet another woman reported to the police on September 22, 2009 that Sowell had beaten and raped her. It took the Cleveland cops more than a month to obtain a search warrant for Sowell's house relating to that attack—by that time he'd attacked another woman, who ended up leaping from a third story window and breaking numerous bones—and on October 29 they entered his residence and found women's corpses rotting inside.
Cleveland isn't the only city that's suffered with a police force that responds lackadaisically to the tribulations of poor neighborhoods. A 1996 police analysis in Washington, D.C., revealed that residents of the city's most low-income pockets would wait up to eight hours for police responses to non-life-threatening calls about things like missing persons and burglaries. By contrast, people living in tony white neighborhoods like Georgetown would generally wait a half hour or less for responses to similar reports.
In 2003, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, a 21-year-old black girl named Romona Moore disappeared on the way to Burger King. When Moore's mother called police after the girl had been missing for 24 hours, a cop told her: "Lady, why are you calling here? Your daughter is 21." The next day the complaint was marked "closed." In actuality, Moore was in a basement just a few blocks from her home, where her captors would rape her, torture her by sawing at her limbs and burning her, and, ultimately, beat her to death over the course of four days.
Moore's case was made all the uglier by the fact that only two months prior, a white doctor's wife who'd gone missing on the Upper East Side had precipitated a massive NYPD-led search, complete with bloodhound trackers and two dozen full-time detectives. Unfortunately, all the effort was for naught, as the woman's body was soon discovered floating in the East River with no indication as to how she ended up in the water. Enraged by the disparate support between that case and her daughter's, Moore's mother would later file a lawsuit claiming bias in how the NYPD investigates missing persons.
Chicago faced a similar lawsuit under liberal Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. In 2011 a Chicago woman named Seretha Reid called police more than once about a loud beating taking place outside her window. Cops didn't show up for three hours, long after the altercation had ended. Reid's was one of numerous incidents that prompted the ACLU to bring a civil suit against the city claiming that police response times to black and Latino neighborhoods were abysmal compared to those in white enclaves. Naturally, the Chicago police stonewalled requests for data about its deployments, claiming it had a "security concern." Late last year, a judge dismissed the suit, saying police deployment is "the stuff of law enforcement theory and political policy-making, not (legal) adjudication."
Elsewhere, in the struggling former auto empire of Detroit, journalist Charlie LeDuff last year waited for police for four hours with a woman whose home had been broken into. To better make the point that it takes a long time for police to be dispatched in Detroit, LeDuff went and got some lunch and took a shower before any cops showed.
Exacerbating all of this is that governmental cutbacks are eroding police services throughout the country, making it even less likely that cop budgets are going to be deployed fairly and effectively in America's harshest neighborhoods. Just last year, Camden, New Jersey, which has long struggled with poverty and crime, outright lost its police force, which was folded into a special section of the Camden County Police. The Chicago Police Department, citing diminishing resources, said in February that it would stop responding right away to things like property damage, burglaries, or other mid- to low-level crime scenes at which the suspect was not present. Of course Cleveland is not immune to our national scourge of municipal budget cuts, and it, too, has been laying off police officers in various scrapes in recent years.
Maybe Castro's neighbors are wrong when they say they'd warned police for years, and the Cleveland Police Department actually had been doing everything in its power to rescue the three women Castro had tormented for so long. Yet in the end what saved those women was not police work but Amanda Berry's quick thinking at a moment of opportunity and Charles Ramsey's willingness to assist a stranger. For 10 years the cops had been ineffective, and so the residents of Seymour Avenue were fending for themselves.
[Photo via AP/Image by Jim Cooke]