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Cleveland police sergeant suspended for improper arrest of man openly carrying firearm

Antoine Tolbert, in glasses and a headband, being arrested by a Cleveland police officer whose face is blurred.
Cleveland Division of Police
Antoine Tolbert was arrested May 23, 2022, after a tense encounter with Cleveland police.

The city of Cleveland has issued a 13-day suspension to a police sergeant related to the 2022 arrest of a man openly carrying firearms on Cleveland’s East Side.

In January, Public Safety Director Karrie Howard found Sgt. Lance Henderson guilty of improperly arresting community activist Antoine Tolbert, who goes by the name Chairman Fahiem.

Henderson also pleaded no contest to failing to file a use of force report and a stop form, and he was found not guilty of improperly having Tolbert's car towed and an improper stop, according to the disposition letter obtained by Ideastream.

On May 23, 2022, Tolbert was walking down St. Clair Avenue, late in the afternoon, carrying a shotgun, with a handgun in a holster on his leg.

Open carry is legal in Ohio.

In an interview with Ideastream Public Media after viewing the suspension letter, Tolbert described it as “not sufficient.”

“I'm not going to try to make logic of an illogical situation. I'm going to drive myself insane trying to make sense of it,” Tolbert said. “How can this officer conduct himself like this and not be severely reprimanded, not be demoted, not be terminated? It just makes no sense.”

The city declined to comment on Henderson's level of discipline.

"This is still an open matter that will have to go through arbitration and opining would compromise the integrity of the administrative disciplinary process," said city spokesperson Tyler Sinclair in an email.

Jim O'Malley, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, the union that represents Cleveland police supervisors, said he generally does not offer comment on disciplinary matters involving union members.

"I will add though, that police officers have a very difficult job to do, are often scrutinized more than any other profession and do the best that they can under tough conditions to protect the citizens of this great city," O'Malley wrote in an email. "Sgt. Henderson is a good supervisor and is no exception to this fact."

How was Tolbert arrested?

Tolbert and his community organization New Era Cleveland regularly conducted “armed patrols” in Cleveland neighborhoods and had been invited by the Cleveland Division of Police to speak to police trainees about the neighborhoods they’d be patrolling in.

In the police body cam videos from the encounter, one officer mentions having met Tolbert during one of those sessions.

Initially, officers approached Tolbert to ask him what he was doing and told him he was making people nervous.

One officer, identified as “Officer Santa” in police reports and as Ashley Santana in the Office of Professional Standards investigation, is heard on the footage warning that arresting Tolbert would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“I mean we have this in the 4th [District] all the time and my boss would eat us alive if we tried to detain that guy,” Santana said. “Personally, I don’t work out here. I don’t know how the bosses run out here. That’s a tough call.”

Henderson made the decision to arrest Tolbert, citing a law that only applies to transporting a weapon in a motor vehicle.

“Improper handling of a firearm — he can’t walk down the street with a firearm in his hand,” Henderson told an officer at the scene. “Holster is one thing. But walking down the street with a firearm in his hand — can’t do that.”

After a brief, tense standoff involving multiple officers and a K-9, Henderson was arrested and brought to jail. The charge initially was ‘inducing panic.’

When Santana reached the jail and was told they wouldn’t hold Tolbert on that charge, Henderson instructed her to add a “carrying a concealed weapon” charge even though the weapons were never concealed, according to the Office of Professional Standards investigation.

“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 OPS investigator Art Bowker.

Tolbert spent the night in jail. All charges were eventually dropped. A grand jury declined to indict Tolbert on the concealed weapon charge.

How does police discipline work?

The CPRB reviews discipline investigations by the Office of Professional Standards and makes recommendations about what the discipline should be to the city’s Public Safety Director, who makes the final decision.

Henderson was facing two charges that carry at least 10-day suspensions each — improper arrest and improper stop.

In February 2023, the board recommended the highest level of discipline for both charges, which could include termination.

“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,” said then-board member and current chair Billy Sharp.

In his January 15 suspension letter, Howard, the public safety director, upheld the improper arrest charge from the Civilian Police Review Board but cleared Henderson of the improper stop charge.

“Testimony presented during the hearing revealed that there were multiple shooting incidents that occurred during that time and in close proximity to the location that the ‘stop’ occurred,” Howard wrote in the suspension letter. “As it was your responsibility to investigate these incidents with due diligence, I find you ‘Not Guilty’” of the improper stop allegation.

That decision contradicts the findings of the OPS investigation, which addressed Henderson’s claim that he thought Tolbert may have been involved in a nearby incident.

According to Bowker, Henderson claimed in his OPS interview to have been investigating a shooting at a Family Dollar on East 152nd Street that occurred at around 3:30 that afternoon.

“We obtained [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.”

Henderson never told the other officers about his belief that Tolbert was connected to the shooting, and he never questioned Tolbert about that incident,
according to Bowker.

Henderson also went back to the Family Dollar four days after learning about the OPS investigation to view higher-quality videos of that shooting.

“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 East 152nd St. shooters,” Bowker said.

Henderson received a written reprimand for failing to file the stop form and a use of force report.

Tolbert settled a federal lawsuit against the city in April for $85,000.

Updated: January 24, 2024 at 8:29 PM EST
This story has been updated to include comment from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8 President Jim O'Malley.
Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.