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 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’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 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'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.