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Cleveland chief a steadying presence during GOP convention

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, right, receives encouraging

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, right, receives encouraging words from convention goers as he patrols Public Square in Cleveland during day three of the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / Arnold Miller

CLEVELAND — As Police Chief Calvin Williams walked the streets of Cleveland during the Republican National Convention this week, people heaped praises on him.

“Hey, Chief, God bless you,” said a man whose sister went to high school with Williams.

Another man asked for directions to a steak house, then lauded Williams’ department.

“I tell them to compliment the other officers here because they’re actually doing the work,” the 30-year-veteran Cleveland officer said in an interview. “I’m just out here supporting.”

For the past four days, Williams who took the police test on a dare with his best friend while in college, has been the calm face of a force protecting the city during the convention – which brought rival protesters and some people carrying weapons allowed under the state’s open carry-law. In all, police said 22 people were arrested over the four days.

Williams, 52, a former SWAT unit supervisor, was named chief in February 2014, overseeing the city he grew up in.

For almost two decades, he’s been active in the Fatima Family Center for his neighborhood, where he often mentors young people and attends community meetings, said center director LaJean Ray.

“He’s always been available, and he’s always been an example of a man committed to our neighborhood,” she said.

Williams said his time as chief has been “challenging but rewarding. From this to probably about a dozen other things that have happened in this city over the last two years, and around the country.”

Nine months after he became chief, a white Cleveland officer shot a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with a pellet gun outside a recreation center in November 2014.

The shooting outraged many, including activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

In February 2015, Williams suffered his own tragedy. His 34-year-old brother was fatally shot, according to his wife, Loretta, a retired veteran Cleveland officer.

The death still affects him but he knows he has to put his feelings aside to focus on his job, his wife said.

“It kind of gives him a little heart for the victim out there who loses a child or loses a relative or a friend to violence because he’s experienced violence,” she said.

The department is in the midst of reform after agreeing last year to sweeping changes from policies to police behavior and use of force training in a consent decree with the Justice Department stemming in part from a 2012 shooting that left an unarmed black couple dead in a car after a chase.

For some time, much of its focus has been in preparing for the convention.

Hundreds of Cleveland officers have patrolled the city on bicycles, which they’ve used to separate protesters during tense moments, creating barriers. Hundreds of officers from other states also have helped when needed.

Some, though, have criticized the police presence. “The police presence has been extremely suppressive,” said activist Carl Dix, co-founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which has been involved in protests during the convention.

Other visitors to the city, though, have praised Williams’ approach. Tom Ciula, 61, of Lakewood, Ohio, on Tuesday praised officers after they handled an altercation in public square.

“You had the potential for some real danger here. I didn’t see anyone arrested,” he said. “I didn’t see anyone hurt. I’d call that a good day.”

On Saturday, after Williams has had some time to decompress, he will be somewhere else he loves — on the fairway to play golf.

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