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Black Drivers Still Paying ‘Bratenahl Tax’ in Affluent Cleveland Suburb

Bratenahl police are taking more anti-bias training as new data show two-thirds of tickets are handed to Black drivers.

An illustration shows the silhouette of a police officer walking from his car toward another car, with trees, birds and large houses in the background.

A new analysis shows Bratenahl’s pattern of disproportionately ticketing Black drivers continued in the aftermath of a 2022 Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 investigation.

The recent review of Bratenahl Police Department ticketing from February 2023 through the end of the year shows officers cited Black drivers in 69% of their stops.

The news outlets’ initial review of tickets issued between 2020 and 2022 estimated Black drivers received 60% or more of all Bratenahl police citations.

This article was published in partnership with News 5 Cleveland.

Village leaders said they are concerned by the new findings. They hope mandating additional training on bias-free policing and requiring officers to log more data during traffic stops will reduce the ticketing trends and identify its root causes.

Bratenahl Police Chief Charles LoBello said the data collected after the policy change affirms the need for including race on traffic stop data.

“The other way of doing it was not the right way,” LoBello said. “I was surprised at the discrepancy.”

LoBello, the village’s top cop since September 2021, ordered officers to start logging the race of all drivers in traffic stops beginning in February 2023 in response to The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5 investigation.

The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5 found that Bratenahl police pulled over Black people in 69% of all stops in 2023.

Many Black Clevelanders say they bypass Bratenahl — even if it means driving more miles — to avoid village officers and the potential fines and court costs that come from being pulled over.

Traffic stops involving Black drivers are so prevalent, some have nicknamed it the “Bratenahl tax.”

Vince Robinson, a 66-year-old Black Cleveland resident, has lived on the Bratenahl border for over 32 years. He said he has been pulled over three times and cited twice by village police.

He sees ticketed Black people line up every two weeks to get into Bratenahl's Mayor’s Court, he said.

“When you drive through Bratenahl, you have to be careful,” Robinson said. “You learn where they set up their traps.

“It’s a state of operation. It comes back to the culture in Bratenahl. Things from the top flow down.”

The latest departmental changes in response to the news outlets’ investigation don’t end with ticketing practices.

Mayor Keith Benjamin said he now plans to require that all 17 officers take additional bias-free policing training to address the suburb’s reputation of disproportionate ticketing.

The mayor is also calling for outside experts to explore how the village can better analyze data to assess potential patterns of bias and identify reasons that may explain disproportionate ticketing.

He said he doesn’t believe officers racially profile drivers, but he concedes the disparate numbers raise concerns.

“We have an obligation to proactively address these issues to gain public trust and ensure that everyone is treated equitably, fairly and justly,” Benjamin said.

The high cost of collecting ticket revenue from poor Black Cleveland residents has kept hundreds, if not several thousand, trapped in Ohio’s license-suspension cycle as they struggle to maintain payment plans and meet other requirements before they can apply for reinstatement.

Benjamin took office in July. He had spent the previous 15 years working on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the public sector.

“It is my responsibility to ensure that we are committed to constitutional policing,” Benjamin said.

While Benjamin and Lobello don’t yet have a comprehensive plan for ticketing, both said the goal is to determine why so many Black Cleveland residents are stopped and cited by village police.

Benjamin also pledged to engage Cleveland residents in discussions to hear concerns, seek solutions and dispel rumors about village policing.

Additionally, he wants to examine how technology might be useful in removing questions of bias from policing.

He also plans to introduce legislation to the village council that would prohibit using race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation/identity, among others, as the basis for a traffic stop.

Councilman Kevin Conwell, who represents Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, said Bratenahl leaders need to make sure officers are not targeting the city’s Black residents.

He’s been sounding alarms about the traffic stops for years, he said.

“This is so concerning,” Conwell said about the latest findings. “This has to stop. When is it going to end?”

LoBello pledged to look even deeper into the ticketing practices now that he has one year of traffic stop data to evaluate.

After reviewing the outlets’ analysis, LoBello added more information fields for officers to collect during traffic stops: whether the stops are on Interstate 90 or village streets, and which shift made the stops.

“We don't have our game plan set in stone as of yet,” LoBello said about finding improvements.

“But we do realize that it needs to be looked at. If any irregularities are found and discovered, we will address them. It dawned on us that maybe we should delve a little deeper.”

Ohio does not have uniform guidelines requiring officers to report race on traffic citations.

Following the 2022 investigation, state Rep. Juanita Brent, a Democrat from Cleveland, vowed to introduce proposed legislation in January 2023 requiring police agencies to record race data when conducting traffic stops.

But Brent has not finalized the proposal. She told a reporter in July 2023 that she was working on a bill.

This month, Brent said she is still seeking a bipartisan member to co-sponsor the proposal while she finalizes the language.

Brent said she is leaning toward a proposal that would allow the public to review the traffic-stop data on the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s website. She is seeking a way to pay a state employee to create and maintain the database.

“We need to find money to ensure there is justice for the people,” Brent said.

Benjamin said he supports Brent’s quest for a statewide mandate to record race data in all traffic stops.

“I do believe that every community, every police department should be required to collect the same information across the board so it can be analyzed and compared effectively,” he said.

LoBello believes it is crucial to build better community relations with Cleveland residents to help change the negative perception of the village’s police force.

The additional implicit bias training, LoBello said, is something he wanted to do years ago. At the time, he wasn’t the chief and Benjamin was not the mayor.

“We are going to do this to build on top of what the state mandates,” he said.

When reporters visited Bratenahl’s Mayor's Court in late 2022, the hearing room was largely packed with Black, Cleveland residents.

Fines, forfeitures and court costs from traffic tickets brought the village $251,000 in 2020; $315,000 in 2021; and $140,000 through August 2022, records show. Bratenahl collected nearly $114,000 in revenue in 2023.

A Black woman walks out of a waiting room past three other Black women. Two White men in uniform stand at the front of the room by an open door.

People are called for their traffic cases to be heard from a waiting area packed mostly with Black Cleveland residents in the Village of Bratenahl’s Mayor’s Court in October 2022.

Benjamin said it is concerning when the court hearings are filled with people of color from Cleveland.

“We need to find out the reasons why,” he said.

Mark Puente Twitter Email is a staff writer leading investigative reporting efforts for The Marshall Project - Cleveland. Puente, a former truck driver, has nearly 20 years in journalism and a proven track record in accountability reporting. He has worked for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, the Tampa Bay Times and the Los Angeles Times. Puente is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Anna Flagg Twitter Email is The Marshall Project's senior data reporter, covering criminal justice topics including immigration, crime, race, policing and incarceration. Her work has been recognized by the Global Editors Network’s Data Journalism Awards, the Society of News Design and the Information is Beautiful Awards, and she was a finalist for a 2019 Deadline Club Award.