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Cleveland agrees to change mental health response policy to comply with consent decree

Cleveland Division of Police have been under a federal consent decree since 2015, requiring federal oversight of police policies and procedures in certain areas including response to people in mental health crisis. [Annie Wu /  Ideastream Public Media]
A Cleveland police car in Public Square

Cleveland police fixed a policy on responding to people in a mental health crisis Tuesday afternoon, after leaving the wrong one online for more than four years. The department changed the policy after the federal judge overseeing the consent decree approved it in 2017.

Judge Solomon Oliver approved the city’s crisis intervention policies in 2017. But a different version, signed by former Police Chief Calvin Williams, went into effect and was posted online in 2018.

The corrected policy is the court filing from 2017, which includes a page at the top that says “Exhibit C” and describes it as a “Final Draft.” It does not include the chief’s signature or effective date, which are found at the top of all police policies published on the city’s website.

This version calls for police to offer a person in crisis the opportunity to ride to a hospital in an ambulance, if they don’t want to get in a police car. Mental health advocates say a police car can aggravate a person in distress.

In the version of Chapter 5 of the city’s General Police Orders (GPO), Section 11.03 that had been on the site until Tuesday, 17 words requiring officers to at least consider using an ambulance in those circumstances, were removed.

Ideastream Public Media reported on the altered policy last November.

Several other smaller differences between the court-approved and previously posted versions was circulated by a police official to members of a committee advising the police department, but none of those changes appeared to be as significant.

The city acknowledged the differences but waited months to put the corrected version online. On the day Ideastream published the story, Safety Director Karrie Howard joined a United Way panel on the consent decree. When asked about the change, Howard said it was the first he had heard about the issue.

“I will look into the claims of the article on Ideastream and get the correct GPO posted,” Howard said. “It seems if that’s the case, it was an error. I will get the correct one posted.”

During a city council committee meeting on Feb. 2, 2022, Howard told council the reason for the policy change was Cleveland EMS could not transport people to the county’s diversion center.

But the diversion center opened in 2021, years after the crisis intervention policy went into effect in 2018.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee — which includes members of the police monitoring team, Cleveland police, Department of Justice and the community — Deputy Chief of Police Joellen O’Neill described posting the revised policy as a mistake.

“There are so many drafts that go back and forth all the time,” O’Neill said. “It was four years ago. We have no idea what happened.”

O’Neill said the policy was written under a different crisis intervention training coordinator, Capt. James Purcell, who died in 2020. The current coordinator, Capt. James McPike, is retiring on Wednesday and the department is looking for his replacement.

On March 1, Monitor Hassan Aden sent a memo to Interim Chief of Police Wayne Drummond and Law Director Mark Griffin asking that the policy be changed to the court-approved version “as soon as possible.”

Aden also asked to add a discussion of the policy to a March 17 federal court hearing on the consent decree.

O’Neill said they’re moving forward and don’t want to dwell on the past. She said the court-approved version will be posted by Wednesday, the day before the hearing.

“Regardless of what policy’s up there, officers are doing what they’re supposed to do,” O’Neill said.

According to data collected by the police department, 26 percent of calls in 2021 classified as crisis intervention incidents ended with EMS transport to the hospital, for a total of about 1,316 trips.

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