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Lawsuit argues Ohio's police officers aren't meeting state training requirements

Mariah Crenshaw with the advocacy group Chasing Justice discusses their lawsuit filed in Ohio Supreme Court. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
Mariah Crenshaw

Mariah Crenshaw has spent years building a case that officers around Ohio are violating state law simply by continuing to serve as officers.

It started in 2014. Crenshaw runs the advocacy group Chasing Justice, and she wanted to know how the Cleveland Division of Police collects training documentation for officers who are hired from other cities.

In 2017, she started following one East Cleveland officer, Larry McDonald, who went from that small suburban police department to Cleveland then, after a short time, back to East Cleveland.

She sought McDonald’s training records and found he wasn’t up to date with the state’s required annual training when he was hired in Cleveland.

“It just kind of exploded from there,” Crenshaw said.

In 2018, she filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas arguing East Cleveland should remove officers from duty who did not fulfill the state’s required training.

That case remains open. Her investigation has since spread to departments statewide.

In early 2021, as a sergeant in the East Cleveland Police Department, McDonald shot and killed 19-year-old Vincent Belmonte. Crenshaw insists McDonald was illegally serving on the force at the time of the shooting.

East Cleveland Chief of Police Scott Gardner requested confirmation of McDonald's compliance with state training requirements from the Ohio Attorney General's office on Jan. 5, 2021, the day Belmonte was killed and received confirmation on Jan. 14.

Under state law, police officers in Ohio are required to complete up to 24 hours of training a year. The legislature budgets money for the annual training, and the Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission (OPOTC), which is part of the Ohio Attorney General’s office, determines what kind of training is required each year.

According to Crenshaw’s court filing, in 2016 for example, officers were required to complete eleven hours of training: two hours on use of force, two hours on de-escalation with a focus on mental illness, four hours on community police relations, one hour on human trafficking and two hours on general law enforcement.

“We found, out of 300 departments we audited, only five were in compliance with the state’s requirements,” Crenshaw said. “The records speak for themselves. They’re not taking the training.”

On Nov. 22, Crenshaw filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court and named Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, state Auditor Keith Faber, OPOTC Executive Director Dwight Holcomb and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley.

The lawsuit calls on the state of Ohio to conduct regular audits to ensure that police departments are requiring training and that officers who don’t complete it are removed from duty. It also calls for the removal and prosecution of officers who remained in service after falling out of compliance between 2015 and 2022.

Another issue, according to Crenshaw, is that police departments currently only have to self-report their training each year.

“We have poured through thousands and thousands and thousands of records throughout the state of Ohio and found a disturbing pattern,” Crenshaw said. “No one is watching law enforcement.”

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor O’Malley and Attorney General Yost declined to comment for this story.

Scott Gardner, who took over East Cleveland's police department after Crenshaw’s 2018 lawsuit against the city, said officers in his department are completing the required training. But, he said, it sometimes will happen shortly after the state deadline, and it takes some time for records to be updated.

“I don’t actually know what she feels the remedy is to get back in compliance because, according to her, you’re still out of compliance regardless of what you do to get back in compliance,” Gardner said.

Since Gardner took over two years ago, the department has conducted its own monthly audits of officer training, he said, and they checked with the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission to be sure they’re in compliance with annual requirements.

He said officers who fall behind on training can still perform other duties in the department.

“Once you fall out of compliance, you do not have arrest powers,” Gardner said. “There’s still jail duties. There’s still reports that can be taken from the officer. There’s still administrative tasks the officer can perform.”

Crenshaw disputes Gardner’s description of East Cleveland policy.

“They ain’t taking nobody off the street,” Crenshaw said.

Part of the problem, which Crenshaw and Gardner agree on, is the lack of oversight from the state.

“I would welcome it. It would alleviate a lot of issues,” Gardner said. “Right now, I should be able to log in to the OPOTC site and see the status of all my officers.”

Jeffrey Scott, the former head of the OPOTC, which also oversees the state police officer training academy, raised alarm bells about the state’s lax monitoring of officer training during his five months in charge of the commission.

In a meeting with Crenshaw, he said she showed them convincing evidence that some departments were receiving taxpayer funds from the state for officer training, but they weren’t completing the proper courses.

“We were just overwhelmed by her findings,” Scott said. “The state really needs to come in and do a comprehensive forensic audit of these records.”

Police departments are required to submit a signed attestation document saying training was conducted as well as spreadsheets showing how many hours and what kind of classes officers completed.

In Crenshaw’s filing in Ohio Supreme Court, spreadsheets submitted to the state by East Cleveland between 2015 and 2017 showed classes like “Responding to Sexual Assault Module 3” and “Awareness of Cultural Diversity” were completed online in seven minutes. Others appeared to take as little as three minutes.

State law requires local departments to submit a certificate documenting the completion of a required training course. According to Scott, OPOTC ended the requirement because there was no place to store them.

“We have an opportunity to fix this and do it right, but it’s unfortunate we have to go in front of the Supreme Court now to fix this,” Scott said.

At the same time, there are many departments that go beyond what the state requires, Scott said. And many acknowledge that the mandated training makes officers safer and better at their jobs.

In 2021, the state did not require training due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the legislature has budgeted $15 million for training next year. Scott said there is less oversight of how that money is spent than any other grants the state sends out to local governments.

“Nobody is watching the hen house and yet we’re sending out millions of taxpayer dollars with no auditing and no verification, other than an Excel spreadsheet and an attestation sheet,” Scott said. “We hold citizens accountable. Why don’t we have that same expectation of the leaders both at the state and our local level to do what’s right?”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.