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May 9th, 2013
07:20 PM ET

Neighbors: Cleveland police missed early clues

Police and neighbors are telling two very different stories about whether anyone ever noticed something fishy going on at the Cleveland home where Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were held for more than nine years.

While the Cleveland Police Department has denied getting reports of suspicious activity, neighbors tell CNN they called 911 on as many as three occasions because of concerns about what was going on at the home where three women were held captive for a decade, but nothing came of it. The department is now facing some serious questions about whether it missed clues in this case, and it is not the first time the department has been under fire.

Police said they never had reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary was happening behind the boarded windows at the house on Seymour Street.

"I have been a part of this for quite a long time and know the investigators and agents and everybody that worked on it and we've asked ourselves that question numerous times over the last ten years. Are we missing anything? Is there something, is there a sign?" said Cleveland Police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba.

Neighbors say yes. Israel Lugo told CNN he called the cops in 2011 when he heard yelling from the Castro house.

"Cops come a half hour later, they knock on the door for about five, ten minutes, about 20 good times. No one answered, they look around, they can't see through the windows. So what they do usually, they get back in the squad car and they leave," said Lugo.

Another neighbor said she called police after a shocking sight.

"I seen a woman crawling around on all fours like a, like a dog," said neighbor Elsie Cintron. But when Cintron alerted authorities to the shocking scene, she says her call wasn't taken seriously.

In a press conference Wednesday, police refuted those claims, saying "Our review indicated there were no other calls except one call for service in 2000, and we were able to identify the Cleveland police were at the home once in 2004 for an incident that involved Mr. Castro as part of his employment as a school bus driver here in the city of Cleveland."

The department has been criticized in the past for its slow response to residents' concerns in low-income communities.

Back in 2009, police discovered the bodies of 11 women inside the home of Anthony Sowell, in a run down section of a neighborhood called Mount Pleasant.

Back then, neighbors said they complained to police and the city council about a foul smell coming from the home.

"We received a phone call from a resident that said, 'Councilman, there's a foul order that's coming from across the street, and it smells like a dead body,'" said Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed.

But police said then they had no record of such complaints.

The victims, all African American women, many of whom had lived nearby, were found after police went to the house to investigate a sexual assault complaint.

Family members of some of the victims say they believe demographics played a role in how police handled the investigation. Sowell was arrested, convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.

Multiple lawsuits were filed against the city and law enforcement officials, and the mayor of Cleveland ordered a special commission to investigate the police department and its sex crimes unit.

As a result of that review, a panel made dozens of recommendations to improve how the department responds to sexual assault and missing person cases.

Among those recommendations, a training program for all personnel that emphasizes the importance of responding quickly and professionally to all requests for assistance, and training for officers and 911 dispatchers on unique issues facing marginalized populations.

"We respond to the calls when they call us," Cleveland police detective Jeff Follmer told CNN Thursday. "We come right away, it doesn't matter what area of the city we're in."

Another recommendation borne from the special commission was better collaboration between police and community members to find missing people. It was based in part on a suggestion from the family of Georgina DeJesus.

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