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Cleveland Police sergeant may face suspension for arresting man openly and legally carrying guns

Antoine Tolbert with New Era Cleveland stands on the sidewalk along St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood.
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Antoine Tolbert was arrested May 23, 2022, by Cleveland police while carrying firearms, which is legal in Ohio.

Cleveland’s Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) recommended the strictest possible discipline for Sgt. Lance Henderson, the officer who arrested Antoine Tolbert last year while Tolbert was openly carrying firearms.

Members of the CPRB unanimously approved Group 3 discipline for the unlawful stop and unlawful arrest of Tolbert on May 23, 2022, in the city’s Glenville neighborhood.

Group 3 is the highest possible level, carrying a minimum suspension of 10 days and possible firing. CPRB recommended Group 3 discipline for Henderson for two separate charges.

After the meeting, Tolbert said he was satisfied with the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) investigation that led to CPRB’s recommendations. But he felt that anything less than firing Henderson would be a disappointment.

“I feel like, officers like him, they should absolutely make an example of him,” Tolbert said. “He’s a supervisor. He should be terminated.”

OPS investigator Art Bowker made a detailed, lengthy presentation to CPRB during their meeting Tuesday.

Much of the initial encounter between Tolbert and Cleveland police officers has already been made public through body camera and bystander footage. Tolbert was conducting an armed patrol by himself on St. Clair Avenue, carrying a long gun at his side and a handgun in a holster.

Initially, Cleveland patrol officers interacted with Tolbert and let him continue. But Sgt. Henderson heard about the incident over the radio and decided Tolbert would be arrested before arriving at the scene.

Once there, he confronted Tolbert, disarmed him and arrested him. Initially, in the discussions among officers at the scene captured on body cameras, it was unclear what the charges would be.

“Improper handling of a firearm. He can’t walk down the street with a firearm in his hand,” Henderson can be heard telling an officer. “Holster is one thing. But walking down the street with a firearm in his hand. Can’t do that.”

There is nothing in Ohio law that prohibits a person from openly carrying a firearm in their hand as opposed to in a holster, as long as the gun is not pointed at anyone and the person is not making threats.

The full name of the charge mentioned by Henderson is “improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle.” Tolbert was walking.

According to Bowker’s investigation, Henderson later told Ashley Santana, the officer who brought Tolbert to jail and one of the first officers to arrive on the scene, to charge him with inducing panic.

At the county jail, booking officers told Santana inducing panic is not a violent crime and would not be enough to have him booked in the jail.

“She subsequently makes a call to Sgt. Henderson,” said Bowker. “She then makes handwritten notations on the booking sheet under the charge section, adding CCW [carrying a concealed weapon].”

Santana told OPS that Henderson gave her the order to change the charge to CCW, even after she told Henderson that Tolbert was openly carrying the firearms the entire time, when inducing panic would not be enough to have Tolbert booked into the jail.

“Charging a person with an inappropriate statute in order to ensure that they get booked into the county jail is conduct that would reasonably tend to diminish the esteem of the Division of Police in the eyes of the public,” said Bowker.

Tolbert was booked into the jail overnight. Eventually all charges against him were dropped. Tolbert lost his job because of the confrontation with police and says he contracted COVID while staying at the jail.

Bowker’s investigation also brought to light attempts by Henderson to justify his stop of Tolbert afterwards, in response to learning of the OPS investigation.

“During Sgt. Henderson’s interview with OPS, he indicated his reason for stopping Mr. Tolbert was he believed he might be one of the shooters at a Family Dollar in the area of 1042 E. 152nd St,” said Bowker.

That shooting happened at around 3:30 the same afternoon. But Henderson never told any of the other officers about that belief before or after arresting Tolbert. He never questioned Tolbert about that shooting.

“We obtained WCS (Wearable Camera System) footage reflecting [Henderson] at the Family Dollar earlier that day,” said Bowker. “No one mentioned seeing anyone with dreadlocks, which was the description provided of Mr. Tolbert.”

Bowker also looked at the Family Dollar videos and found the description of those suspects did not match Tolbert’s description. No one is seen with a holster or backpack, unlike the description of Tolbert.

Additionally, Bowker said Henderson viewed larger, better quality Family Dollar videos four days after being notified that a citizen complaint had been filed about Tolbert’s arrest.

“Finally, the lack of a stop form reflecting Sgt. Henderson’s justification for a stop, coupled with him viewing the higher quality Family Dollar videos only four days after he received a notice of an OPS complaint concerning this stop, suggest he may have been searching for details that were unknown to him previously that would support him believing Mr. Tolbert may have been one of the E. 152nd St. shooters,” Bowker said.

CPRB also approved Group 1 discipline for Henderson’s failure to file the stop form after the encounter with Tolbert. Group 1 discipline can result in verbal reprimand or up to a 5-day suspension.

Henderson explained that as a “minor oversight” to OPS, which also found he should have filed a use of force report for pointing his firearm at Tolbert.

Both the stop report and use of force report for pointing a firearm at Tolbert are requirements under the federal consent decree.

CPRB members voted unanimously to recommend discipline for Henderson.

Board member Billy Sharp said he wished the board could do more.

“You just can’t have an officer willfully arresting somebody, that’s not legal, then going so far as to tow their car, then not filling out proper reports,” Sharp said.

Any recommended discipline over 10 days goes directly to Public Safety Director Karrie Howard for his decision.

The city’s new Community Police Commission can review Howard’s decision.

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