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’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 clichéd, 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 that the organization hasn't decided whether to call for any resignations.  (I've changed this post and its headline to reflect that.)

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