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Forum On Police Use Of Force Turns Into Conversation On Race And Police

Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams defended his department against allegations that officers continue to mistreat people of color in Cleveland. [United Way of Greater Cleveland / Zoom]
Photo of Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams

A forum on use of force policies enacted under the consent decree between the city of Cleveland and the U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday quickly turned into a discussion about the relationship between Black residents and the police.

Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams said the department is changing, evidenced by a reduction in annual use of force incidents, from more than 350 before the consent decree was signed to a little more than 200 since. He also cited increased accountability for officers' actions.

“We have a lot of folks involved in staying the course and making sure there’s real reform here in the city of Cleveland, not checking the boxes and saying we got it done,” Williams said.

The forum was the second of a 10-part series on the consent decree hosted by the United Way of Greater Cleveland and the Cleveland branch of the NAACP. Other members of the panel, including Ward 7 Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones and Cleveland State University Urban Affairs Professor Ronnie Dunn, questioned the progress being made by the city.

“My community is still expressing the fact that they’re being roughed up a lot more than they need to be,” said Jones, who represents a predominantly Black neighborhood. “We have to change the idea that, when it comes to Black and brown communities, what does it mean to police? What does it even mean?”

Jones said the department needs to hire more officers of color who understand Cleveland better than the ones policing his ward. About 60 percent of patrol officers in the Cleveland Division of Police are white males.

“Being from Cleveland is a very important thing,” Jones said. “Understanding the people that you are dealing with. Understanding the people that you are there to serve.”

Cleveland signed on to the federal consent decree in May 2015. The city and its police department agreed to enact sweeping reforms to use of force policies, systems for holding officers accountable and strategies for addressing biased policing.

Williams defended his department against claims that real progress has been slowed by racist policing tactics.

“The history of policing in this country is the history of our country itself. We all know it was bad as it relates to Black and brown folks,” Williams said. “Nobody’s arguing that. What I’m saying is that [from] when we instituted this settlement agreement in 2015 to date, in 2020, that we have made progress.”

The initial agreement was for five years, with two one-year extension options if the city hadn’t met all the requirements within the original timeline. It’s now about halfway through the first extension.

The department adopted new use of force policies and training early on in the consent decree compliance process. It changed the procedures for disciplining officers and it sought to recruit a more diverse pool of police officers.

Williams also said the police cadet classes recruited over the last three years were the most diverse the city has seen in the last 20 years.

“Systemically, we’re seeing a drop in the use of force, we’re seeing a drop in officer injuries and subject injuries, both,” said Brian Maxey, deputy monitor of the team overseeing the city’s progress on the consent decree.

But they’ve just begun testing to make sure reforms are taking hold in the department, he added, and a new force review board has been established to evaluate every use of force incident by a Cleveland officer and to decide whether disciplinary action is needed. The board met for the first time this week.

“That entity, the force review board, really has the power to drive change at an organization,” Maxey said.

CSU's Dunn said he believes it will be a long time before the consent decree can be termed a success.

“For me, some indicators will be when we see that residents of the African American community, all communities of color, are treated equally and feel that they are being treated fairly and justly,” Dunn said.

The monitoring team is planning to submit its latest report to the federal judge overseeing the consent decree sometime this month. They also will submit a report on the way Cleveland Police handled the May 30 protests in Downtown Cleveland.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.