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A recent change to Cleveland police discipline may have violated the consent decree

Cleveland police in armored gear stand in a line and keep watch during a rally for Black lives, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Cleveland police keep watch during a rally in Cleveland in 2020.

A change in the way Cleveland police handle certain types of discipline may violate the consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city, according to the monitor overseeing the agreement and lawyers from DOJ.

The city and the Justice Department disagreed in federal court Wednesday on whether the change in discipline policy is covered by the 2015 agreement.

Earlier this month, Mayor Justin Bibb announced up to a 14% pay raise for officers in exchange for a change in the union contracts to require 12-hour shifts.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb announced the pay raises and the change from 10-hour to 12-hour shifts during a press conference Friday at the First District police station.

As part of that negotiation, Bibb agreed to make a change in the contracts to the way that civilian-originated discipline is handled by the department.

The Office of Professional Standards investigates citizen complaints against officers. Under the city’s agreement with the unions, any officer who is not the subject of the original complaint but is found by OPS during its investigation to have committed a low-level infraction will not be disciplined.

That, the police monitor and DOJ lawyers argued in federal court Wednesday, violates the consent decree.

Police Monitor Karl Racine said during a hearing Wednesday that the monitor would have worked with the city on alternatives to what was ultimately voted on by the unions or proposed a change to the consent decree.

“What we don’t want to happen is, by inadvertence or worse, a chipping away of a key part of the consent decree — accountability and discipline,” Racine said.

Racine criticized the city for waiting until Oct. 10 to alert the monitoring team of the change. Bibb announced the agreement with the unions on Oct. 13.

Patrick Hoban, a labor attorney for the city, said it was a necessary concession to secure 12-hour shifts from the unions. He added that it was a late addition to the negotiations.

“The monitor was notified as quickly as possible,” Hoban said. “There is an ingrained perception among members of [the patrolmen’s union] and [the supervisors’ union] that they are often over-scrutinized for ticky-tacky infractions.”

Hoban also disagreed that the change is in violation of the consent decree.

The issue was outside of the authority of the consent decree because it was part of the collective bargaining agreements with the unions, the city said.

Michelle Heyer, an attorney for the Justice Department, pushed back against that defense, saying the consent decree requires consistent discipline. This change only applies to certain officers whose investigations were handled by OPS, not internal affairs investigations.

“What it essentially allows is for some officers to avoid discipline,” Heyer said.

Heyer added that the consent decree requires any changes to discipline policy to go through the monitoring team and Department of Justice before they are adopted.

“The time to meet with DOJ and the monitoring team was before the unions had agreed to this and voted on it,” Heyer said.

Judge Solomon Oliver said he would consider arguments on the issue and decide whether the discipline change is covered by the consent decree.

“I’m thinking I should probably be more involved,” Oliver said, as a way to speed up completion of the consent decree.

He did not decide on the disagreement over the change to discipline at Wednesday’s hearing. City council still has to vote on the pay raises and other changes to the union contracts.

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