Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, when the murder rate was frighteningly high, there were times when a young Cleveland Spruill was scared to go outside.
“I know first-hand what it feels like to be afraid to go outside and play because you got a gang banger in every park and a drug dealer on every corner and people walking around in the street with guns and stuff,” Spruill said in an interview with the News-Post.
He learned the impact police could have on a community and hopes to make a positive mark on the city of Frederick. Currently police chief in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, Spruill is also one of two finalists in Frederick’s search for a new chief.
Spruill has about 33 years of law enforcement experience over three police departments. He spent the bulk of that time — nearly 27 years — with the Alexandria, Virginia, police before moving to Huntersville, North Carolina, for an opportunity to serve as a police chief.
The youngest of four siblings from Queens, New York, Spruill watched his single mother move the family to Virginia in the hope of keeping them away from crime. Unfortunately, Spruill said, his mother found Richmond was no haven.
By 17, he was ready to get out. His mother gave him permission to join the U.S. Army, where he served for four years. Spruill wanted to start a new career as an attorney, but thought he would work as a police officer for a short time, maybe two or three years with Alexandria police. Nearly 27 years later, he retired as second-in-command of the department.
In discussing his experience, Spruill largely focused on his commitment to community policing.
In one area of Alexandria, police reached out to undocumented immigrants to help understand why so many of them were being robbed Friday and Saturday nights. Spruill said police learned they’d been carrying cash on them because they were afraid to leave it at home and couldn’t put it in a bank without Social Security numbers. Police worked with a smaller, local bank to help some of these community members set up accounts, according to Spruill. They also educated immigrants about the U Visa program, which incentivizes a victim or witness to a crime to report it to police without fear of immediate deportation for coming forward, he said.
Spruill said he is not supportive of the federal 287(g) program that helps local law enforcement screen people for immigration violations. He believes that’s not a local police responsibility and is contrary to effective community policing. Spruill spoke against the program on Capitol Hill around 2008.
When Alexandria police noticed certain victims of crimes weren’t showing up to court or getting the resources they needed, Spruill said they helped set up a satellite office with Spanish-speaking representatives.
In North Carolina, Spruill said he sat on a racial and ethnic disparity committee that helped secure a $2 million grant to address the disproportionate incarceration of people of color and work to decrease the prison population.
In Athens-Clarke County, Spruill said officers have been instructed to use policies that respect the sanctity of human life, like banning chokeholds unless there is a potentially deadly situation.
“Criminal justice reform is not something new for us,” he said. “It didn’t start after George Floyd was killed in May.”
Though Spruill became police chief in Georgia less than two years ago, he said the pandemic has found him wanting to live closer to his family. Normally, he’d hop on a plane to see his fiancé and grandchildren, but COVID-19 has made that option less desirable.
If he were to become chief in Frederick, Spruill said he would focus on decreasing crime, maintaining quality of life for residents and building trust within the community.
Background checks for the police chief candidates are underway, with the mayor expected to announce his pick in early February, which would then be voted on by the Board of Aldermen.