Friday, December 19, 2014

10 unanswered questions about excessive police force and the Justice Dept. report

Two weeks after the Justice Department released its scathing report on the Cleveland police, the city’s debate about excessive force is stuck in low gear.

Mayor Frank Jackson says he disagrees with parts of the Justice report, but he won’t say which. Embattled safety director Michael McGrath calls the report unfair. City council has embarked on a “listening tour,” but hasn’t promised concrete action.

Here are 10 questions that city council, the press and the public ought to demand of the Jackson Administration. An assertive city council should bring up these questions in hearings. If it doesn’t act, it may be up to the public, the press and a few maverick councilpeople to investigate and get answers.


1. The Justice Department report says: “In most of the instances of excessive force we identified, supervisors all the way up the chain of command approved the use of force as appropriate.” Does that mean that McGrath, who was police chief during the federal investigation, signed off on those uses of force as justified?


2. The report gives 16 detailed examples of excessive force. It gives pseudonyms to 15 of the injured citizens, but one man, Edward Henderson, is named, and Cleveland.com has identified three others: Germaine Ware, Gregory Love and Randell Scott, Jr.

In how many of those 16 cases were any officers disciplined? If no one was disciplined, did McGrath, as chief, personally sign off on that decision? Does McGrath defend those uses of force? If so, how?


3. Mayor Jackson told reporters Dec. 11, “If you look at the use of force over time, you will see that it has decreased. You will see that there has been accountability.”

But U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge wrote in her Aug. 25 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that “nothing” happened after Justice’s first investigation of the Cleveland police in 2004. “The recommendations were ignored and the abuse of many citizens continued,” Fudge wrote. “A lack of meaningful accountability remained within the Cleveland police department.”

How does Mayor Jackson respond to Fudge’s letter?

Jackson added, “I have confidence” in his past and present chiefs and safety directors “in terms of their attempt to correct behavior that needs to be corrected.”

Does Rep. Fudge agree or disagree with Mayor Jackson?


4. Council president Kevin Kelley, asked at a press conference about protestors’ calls for McGrath to resign, responded, “What would that solve? Where would that get us?”

What is Kelley’s plan to ensure that existing police and safety leaders hold officers to a higher standard on use of force cases than they have in the past?


5. In the New Year’s Eve 2010 death of Rodney Brown after a traffic stop, what does the safety leadership say about why no officers were disciplined?

Why was the officer who said, “So? I don’t give a F—” when Brown said, “I can’t breathe not disciplined?


6. The next day, New Year’s Day 2011, several police kicked Edward Henderson while he was on the ground by a highway. Henderson went to the hospital with a broken bone near his eye. A police helicopter’s infrared camera caught the incident, but the video does not reveal the officers’ identities. Federal prosecutors launched a grand jury probe that has lasted years but produced no indictments.

The Justice Department says four officers spent time on administrative leave without pay, but were not formally disciplined. None of the 10 or so officers on the scene filled out a use of force report. “To date, no officers have identified any of the officers who used force in this incident, and no officers have been disciplined for failing to report this incident,” the report says.

Does that mean the federal grand jury probe has reached a standstill? Did the officers also stay silent when Cleveland’s internal affairs investigators interviewed them about the incident? If the criminal probe is over, will the officers now be disciplined for covering up others’ excessive force?


7. The Justice Department found that the police Use Of Deadly Force Investigation team and its Internal Affairs Unit both conduct inadequate investigations. Use-of-force investigators even admitted they slanted their reports to favor officers.

What will Mayor Jackson, Safety Director McGrath, and chief Calvin Williams do to reform the two units? Is it possible to effectively reform them if their leadership and personnel stay the same?


8. The city charter promises that a civilian Police Review Board will review citizen complaints about police after an investigation by the Office of Professional Standards. But the 2004 and 2014 Justice reports both found that the Office of Professional Standards is understaffed, moves slowly and does not investigate all the complaints it should. The new report also says the Police Review Board’s reviews are inadequate and lack transparency, and that neither the board or the OPS are reviewing deadly force incidents, as the charter gives them the power to do.

What will the mayor and council do to make the Police Review Board and Office of Professional Standards live up to the charter’s promise? Will it take a new charter amendment?


9. In Tamir Rice’s death, was the dispatcher’s failure to radio that Rice was “a juvenile” and his gun was “probably fake” an isolated mistake, or part of a pattern? How often do dispatchers relay alarming information to patrol officers but leave out important details that might lead them to de-escalate a situation?


10. Will the Cleveland police receive more training on use of force policies? Deescalating confrontations? Recognizing crossfire situations? Scenario-based training, including simulated pursuits? Controlling subjects appropriately? Dealing with the mentally ill?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Jackson’s support on police issues crumbles; Call + Post, Jeff Johnson want McGrath and Flask out


For years, as concerns about Cleveland’s police department have grown, the city’s black political establishment has stood behind Mayor Frank Jackson and his safety department leadership. As alarm mounted in the black community, Jackson faced no challenge from the left on police issues.

That’s not true anymore.

The Justice Department’s damning report on the Cleveland police’s use of excessive, unnecessary force has changed that. So has Jackson’s tepid, conflicted response to the report’s release on Thursday and his renewed endorsement of his safety director, Michael McGrath.

Jeff Johnson, city council’s most outspoken critic on Cleveland police use of force issues, stood by Jackson and McGrath in the aftermath of the now-famous Nov. 2012 chase and shooting. Not anymore.

"Marty Flask and Michael McGrath have to step down,” Johnson tells cleveland.com’s Leila Atassi in today’s Plain Dealer. “Immediately. Like, today."

Highlights of Atassi’s story:

Johnson said Friday that the culture of policing in Cleveland cannot change until the mayor overcomes his irrational loyalty to McGrath and Flask. …

"If the police officer doesn't believe he will be disciplined, he will continue to do what he does. That is on McGrath."

…"I don't want anybody resting," Johnson said. "I don't want the protests to stop. They need to light a fire under city officials and turn the heat up on City Hall."

Johnson is not part of council’s pro-Jackson majority. So maybe the mayor could soldier on defending McGrath without Johnson’s support.

But an NAACP official,* several black ministers and the Call and Post will soon join the calls for McGrath and Flask to be fired, Tom Beres of WKYC reports:

Michael Nelson, co-chair of the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee, said, "We cannot have the same people in charge who have been presiding over the Police Department the last 10, 15 or 20 years. The culture doesn't change."

The Justice Department’s findings are pushing Cleveland beyond the clich├ęd, stagnant debate we’ve had for two years, about whether the Nov. 2012 chase and shooting represented a “systemic failure” in the police department, as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine famously said in his Feb. 2013 press conference.

Jackson resisted that conclusion because he saw the chase and shooting as a mass insubordination, in which officers and supervisors ignored existing rules that severely limit high-speed chases. Jackson says DeWine told him in a phone call that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t charge any officers with crimes in that shooting. Jackson saw McGrath, who has disciplined more than 70 officers and supervisors so far over the chase, as the one person bringing a “semblance of justice” in the matter.

But the Justice Department report addresses that old argument and goes far past it. Some choice quotes from it (emphasis mine):

Any effort to force a decision between systemic problems and individual accountability is nothing more than an effort to set up a false choice between two important aspects of the same broader issues that exist at CDP. …

[DeWine’s office] issued a report that raised serious questions about CDP’s policies, training, supervision, communication, and technology. … Many of the concerns regarding policies, training, supervision, accountability, and equipment that were implicated by that incident were confirmed during our investigation. ...

In most of the instances of excessive force we identified, supervisors all the way up the chain of command approved the use of force as appropriate. …

The current pattern or practice of constitutional violations is even more troubling because we identified many of these structural deficiencies more than ten years ago during our previous investigation of CDP’s use of force. … Many of the policy and practice reforms that were initiated in response to our 2004 memorandum agreement were either not fully implemented or, if implemented, were not maintained over time.

McGrath was police chief from 2005 to 2014. Flask was safety director from 2006 through 2014. How are they not responsible for the state of the police department?

And the question goes beyond McGrath and Flask, to the mayor. It's not at all clear that Jackson accepts the Justice Department report, or that he will move fast to address it.

"There are problems in the Division of Police, and this review has demonstrated some of them," Jackson said at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's Thursday press conference. "We will enter into discussions with the DOJ as to how we address those that really are problems."

When Mary Anne Sharkey, a city council communications consultant, defended Jackson on Facebook yesterday, Terry Gilbert, a lawyer who often sues the police over claims of excessive force, argued back:
Sorry Mary Anne I don't agree. After meeting last night with DOJ officials [it] was clear that getting Jackson to agree to a consent [decree] was a struggle as he continues to defend the management of the department. Only after they threatened to file suit did he back down.
That's why Jeff Johnson, the NAACP*, and the Call and Post aren't deferring to the mayor anymore.

*Update, 12/9: Looks like Michael Nelson of the Cleveland NAACP was speaking for himself when he talked to Beres. Hilton Smith and Sheila Wright, the local NAACP's president and executive director, tell cleveland.com that the organization hasn't decided whether to call for any resignations.  (I've changed this post and its headline to reflect that.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Police give 'special attention' to bookstore forum on police violence

R.A. Washington, in a 2012 photo.
The Guide to Kulchur bookstore on West 65th Street hosted a public forum about police violence last night, and as people headed into the store, they noticed Cleveland police officers sitting in a patrol car, watching them.

"The police did not interrupt the forum," R.A. Washington, the bookstore's owner, wrote on Facebook today. "They simply sat in their cars with all eyes on our tiny storefront."

Washington tells me a police car sat outside the bookstore from about 6:20 p.m. (before the 7 p.m. forum) until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Seven or eight other police cars stopped by in rotation, checked in with the standing car and drove off -- an abnormal police presence for the Gordon Square area, Washington says.

Some forum attendees said they felt intimidated, Washington says. He didn't, but he says he was concerned.

The watchful eye, which came mere hours after the Justice Department released a sweeping report on a pattern of excessive use of force among the Cleveland police, raises questions about whether surveillance of public meetings about policing might chill free speech.

"Police had information regarding a planned protest at that address," Cleveland police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia wrote to me in an email. "Zone cars were sent to give special attention to the area."

That's normal for a street protest, like the one going on downtown right now. But a discussion at a bookstore?

“I don’t see how a community forum could ever be construed as a protest,” Washington replied when I told him the police's explanation.

Washington, also a local activist, protested for police reforms at Monday's city council meeting and was quoted in cleveland.com's story and video on the protest. He was a guest on WCPN's Sound of Ideas yesterday.

He announced the bookstore's meeting on Facebook last week as part of its Dialogues series. The invitation asked police not to attend. "The police have generated a lot of fear in this community, and we need the space to discuss this question without the fear of retribution," the invitation read.

By coincidence, the event fell on the day of the Justice Department's announcement. Washington says about 150 people crammed into the store's basement theater space for the talk, which was standing-room only for four hours.

Washington, who posted on Facebook to refute online rumors that police had interfered with the event, told me he’s making no assumptions about why the police stopped by. He says he doesn't want people to feel discouraged from speaking out about police reform.

"The good cops -- and there are good cops -- they intersect with the community," he says. "I just think there’s become a disconnect. There are more systemic problems than just police brutality. [We need a] citywide plan and a frank and honest, uncomfortable talk."

Update, 5:15 p.m.: Councilman Matt Zone, who represents the neighborhood and chairs council's public safety committee, says he spoke with police second district commander Thomas Stacho about the police presence last night. Zone says Stacho heard about the bookstore forum from the city's emergency operations center, which monitors public video cameras and online traffic.

"He had detailed a car to make sure people who were assembling were safe," Zone says. "It wasn't about preventing people from gathering."

Zone's answer suggests that police were watching the city carefully last night to see whether news of the Justice Department's findings led to unrest.

I asked Zone if the city has any rules restricting surveillance of political meetings. He says he's not aware of any.

"I believe sincerely that police were there to make sure there was peace and order," he says.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

After an easy win, will Armond Budish keep his promise?

Today, at Armond Budish’s first press conference after his victory in the Cuyahoga County executive race, I asked him to name the most difficult moment in his campaign.

He had to think.

“Waking up this morning at 5 a.m. to do a television interview,” Budish said finally, “after [being up] last night and being at the polls all day yesterday.”

Before Election Day, I doubt the guy lost much sleep. Budish was the race’s front-runner from start to finish, ever since Ed FitzGerald and other key Democrats anointed him as FitzGerald’s successor in May 2013.

Jack Schron, Budish’s Republican opponent, was well-qualified and ran a visible, pretty assertive race. That won Schron 41 percent of the vote -- the best performance in 10 years by a Republican sacrificial lamb in a countywide election.

Now Budish and Schron will have to co-exist. Schron ran for executive from a safe seat on the county council, and he chairs its economic development committee. Today, Budish suggested Schron could help with a goal both men share: matching county job training programs with available local jobs.

“[Schron] talked a lot about a business he created to train workers for the jobs that exist,” Budish said. “That’s certainly an area we need to focus on. I look forward to working with him.”

Continuity, not change, was the mood of the day. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” I heard a guy, probably a county employee, say just before the press conference.

Budish’s agenda sounds similar to FitzGerald’s. Today he announced he’s forming his transition team, with three panels to take on his major goals.

An economic growth team will work on attracting new businesses to the region, supporting small businesses, aligning jobs and training, and creating “pathways out of poverty for people who want to work hard.” A regional team will explore ways to make college more affordable, advance clean energy, and deal with foreclosed homes, infant mortality and the health of Lake Erie. A third team will aim to make the government more cost-effective and responsive.

Budish said it’s too early to talk about his cabinet. But it doesn’t sound like he’ll clean house.

“We’ll look at everybody. We'll look at people who are here. We'll look at others,” Budish said. “There’s no plan at this point for making changes. We’ll make changes as needed.”

On hiring, Budish faces a test. He’s a loyal, partisan Democrat with a lot of connections.

He’s taking over five years after voters’ revulsion at patronage and cronyism convinced them to create a new county government. Now, many voters have moved on to new concerns. It’d be easier today to stack a cabinet with party loyalists.

This spring, I asked Budish if he’d root out patronage as aggressively as FitzGerald.

“Absolutely,” he said.

I asked how he’d deal with job requests from political allies.

“Nobody has been promised anything, nor will anyone be promised anything, during this campaign,” Budish said. “Anybody who is hired for any job will only be hired if they are the most qualified person for that job.”

Many people who worked hard to break up the Democratic patronage machine five years ago are nervous about Budish's election. Now that he’s hiring, it’s time for the public and press to hold him to his promise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

FitzGerald loses even his home county in epic defeat

He could’ve run the town for as long as he wanted.

Ed FitzGerald had a job with no term limits. He could’ve run for reelection this year as the guy who restored confidence in Cuyahoga County government after the Jimmy Dimora era.

Instead, FitzGerald let hubris guide him. He thought he could pull off a leap as daring as his jump from Lakewood mayor to Cuyahoga County executive. So he ran for governor, taking the long odds any Democrat faced this year, despite the scandal he should’ve known awaited.

So FitzGerald lost, by an embarrassing, almost two-to-one margin, to Gov. John Kasich. Voters’ repudiation of him is complete: He even lost here, in the county where he’s executive.

Four years ago, as executive-elect, FitzGerald was talking about how the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign reminded him to advocate for the poor. His ambition was obvious to everyone.

Now, if FitzGerald is remembered outside Cleveland, it’ll be as a minor character in the story of Kasich’s likely imminent presidential campaign. He’ll be sort-of known as the other guy in the infamously missing video, the one who asked Kasich about rape crisis centers and got snubbed.

I think FitzGerald could’ve saved his career, not just by spending a Saturday at the BMV getting a license, or calling a cab for the lovely Irish trade delegate, but by knowing he’d pressed his luck. When the cops handed him back his years-old learner’s permit that early morning in 2012 and told him he was free to go, wasn’t that a sign to start playing it safe?

If FitzGerald had run for executive again, he might’ve dodged his car trouble. Perhaps the Republicans’ opposition research wouldn’t have dug that deep. Or, if a local opponent had used it against him, I think he would’ve survived it, thanks to Democrats’ 20-year winning streak in countywide races and his record as executive.

Though it’s deeply unfashionable to mention this right now, FitzGerald has a compiled a pretty long list of accomplishments: a smaller payroll, an under-budget convention center project, progress on regional cooperation, a $100 million economic development fund and a $50 million blight demolition fund – and, last but not least, his signature anti-corruption idea, an inspector general so independent that she was even free to scold him for his car trouble a week before the election.

But recklessly plunging into the governor’s race? Taking the Democratic ticket down with him? That, the voters who elected him four years ago couldn’t forgive.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Cleveland voters shut down traffic cameras?

It’s the election’s sleeper issue: Cleveland’s traffic cameras. For nine years they’ve watched over major intersections and avenues, snapping photos of drivers’ license plates when they detect a speeder or a red-light-runner.

Tomorrow, Cleveland residents will decide whether to shut them off.

To supporters of Issue 35, which would effectively end the city’s traffic camera program, Election Day is the citizen’s chance to fight back against an unfair system and a government trying to raise cash. An anti-camera Facebook page has posted a picture of Mayor Frank Jackson, altered to show glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Jackson has warned that he’ll have to cut $6 million from the city budget if the cameras are shut down.

“If the mayor and council was concerned about safety rather than revenue, they probably would have looked at safety data sometime in last nine years while the cameras have been up,” argues petition drive organizer Jason Sonenshein. “They haven’t compiled that data.”

Issue 35’s backers spent four years gathering petition signatures for their proposed charter amendment. A yes vote would ban photo traffic enforcement in Cleveland unless a police officer is on the scene and personally issues the ticket. (That would reduce the cameras to expensive alternatives to radar guns.) A no vote on Issue 35 would preserve the camera program.

“I’m mostly concerned about the lack of due process with camera tickets,” says Sonenshein. “They ticket the owner, not necessarily the driver. If you weren’t driving, it’s up to you to prove your innocence, rather than up to the government to prove you’re guilty.”

Camera tickets can be appealed, and Cleveland Magazine recently found that about half of appeals result in a dismissal or reduced fine. But Sonenshein says only four percent of ticketed motorists appeal. "A lot of people can’t afford to take off work," he says. Hearing officers aren’t neutral, he complains, because they’re employed by the city, not a court.

The mayor and various city councilpeople, including council president Kevin Kelley, oppose Issue 35. Councilman Brian Cummins has posted arguments for keeping the cameras on his website. He and others argue that the cameras deter residents from speeding, that most of them are deployed in high-crash areas, and that they free police officers to combat violent crime. Bike Cleveland, the cycling advocacy group, also opposes Issue 35, arguing that the cameras help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe by slowing down car traffic.

I asked Sonenshein to answer the safety arguments, including the point on Cummins' website that pedestrians are likely to survive a collision with a car driving 20 mph, but likely to die if hit by a car going 40.

“There are lots of ways to improve the safety of the streets without raising the risk of punishing innocent people,” Sonenshein says, suggesting narrower traffic lanes and longer yellow lights. He also says the city hasn’t done a thorough study of the camera’s effects, and that a national study that claims traffic cameras reduce fatal crashes by 24 percent is flawed.

The camera debate cuts across the usual political divides. Sonenshein and several other petition organizers have a libertarian bent.  (Sonenshein's anti-camera PAC is called Liberate Ohio. He says it's spent about $1,300.) Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, usually allies, are on opposite sides of this issue. Johnson has defended the cameras, saying neighborhood groups often request them. Reed says he's become convinced the camera program is really about revenue, not safety. Most of council has long supported the cameras, but Joe Cimperman has voted against them, arguing they lead to rear-end collisions.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

$50m demolition fund passes Cuyahoga County Council unanimously

Cuyahoga County will soon give cities tens of millions of dollars to tear down blighted buildings. A $50 million bond issue for demolition, debated all year, passed the county council unanimously last night.

The aggressive action addresses one of Cleveland’s most urgent and overwhelming problems. Many city neighborhoods are still scarred by abandoned homes from the recession and foreclosure crisis.

“No one has done anything as ambitious in this nation as $50 million,” said councilman Pernel Jones, a strong supporter of the legislation.

The vote, seven days before Election Day, gave county executive Ed FitzGerald a new accomplishment in the last days of his run for governor. It also affected the race to replace FitzGerald. Jack Schron, the county councilman who’s the Republican candidate for county executive, voted for the demolition plan, even though his attempts to amend it failed.

The council’s Republicans and Democrats ironed out their differences about the demolition program by approving 11th-hour amendments.

The council adopted Republican Dave Greenspan’s idea of letting cities apply for a grant or a loan. The idea is to stretch out the $50 million bond issue, which isn’t nearly enough to demolish the area’s estimated 20,000 abandoned homes. If cities go for a loan, they’ll get a grant of half the loaned money when they pay it back. Cities are expected to apply for grants at first, then loans as the fund dwindles.

Schron's amendment lost 9-2. He wanted to make the grants competitive and establish an independent review committee to make the awards.

“If we don’t change this, that means the county executive, whoever that’ll be, will be making the determination of how the money will be utilized,” Schron said. But council went instead for Pernel Jones’ amendment, which says council intends to create a committee to oversee the program.

Schron dropped his earlier idea of favoring demolition applications for land with high development interest. The county’s bond counsel advised that restrictions on the use of sales tax bonds prevented it.

Schron’s vote for the final legislation prevents his opponent in the executive race, Democrat Armond Budish, from making demolition a defining issue a week before the election. Budish has said he “strongly supports” the program.

FitzGerald adopted the $50 million demolition proposal in his February State of the County address. (Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis had promoted it for years before.) At the meeting’s end, Democratic councilwoman Sunny Simon praised FitzGerald’s leadership on the issue. Her remarks contrasted with complaints two weeks ago from Greenspan and council president Ellen Connally, who said FitzGerald had offered a vague proposal and left the details to council.

The county will borrow the $50 million and pay it back over several years -- despite concerns that county is already borrowing heavily to finance projects such as the convention center hotel.

The county council went forward despite complaints from Cleveland city councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson that favoring demolition over rehabilitation might hurt the historic character of their neighborhoods. County councilwoman Yvonne Conwell argued two weeks ago that some of the money should go to rehabbing houses, but she also dropped her idea on the advice of the bond counsel.

The Cuyahoga Land Bank will get $9 million to demolish properties it owns. Cities will be able to apply for up to $1 million in the first round of funding and possibly $2 million in later rounds. Every city that shows a need will get an award. Once a city uses 80 percent of the award, it can come back for more.

Under that system, most suburbs will get the money to demolish all their eligible blighted buildings in the first round. The cities with the greatest need -- Cleveland and East Cleveland, and perhaps a couple more inner-ring suburbs – will come back for many later rounds.

Here's the full text of the final ordinance.