© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cleveland's commission created to review police discipline has never reviewed a case. Here's why

Members of the Cleveland Community Police Commission discuss the establishment of a process for overseeing Cleveland police policymaking during its Dec. 19, 2023 meeting.
Cleveland Community Police Commission
Members of the Cleveland Community Police Commission discuss the establishment of a process for overseeing Cleveland police policymaking during its Dec. 19, 2023 meeting.

What could be Cleveland's Community Police Commission's first case started in 2022 when a Cleveland police sergeant decided to arrest a man for openly carrying firearms on the city’s East Side.

Open carry is legal in Ohio, and a grand jury eventually rejected a charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

The city investigated the decision to arrest Antoine Tolbert. And Cleveland's former Public Safety director suspended the officer, Sgt. Lance Henderson, for almost two weeks without pay.

But Tolbert, who spent a night in jail and lost a new job with the community development organization Burten, Bell, Carr, said that's not enough.

He wants Henderson, who he said abused his power, fired so he doesn't do this to someone else.

“All of the officers that were present at the scene, that okay-ed for that to happen, were wrong,” said Tolbert. “The officers that processed me into the county jail, knowing that these charges were false, all of them were wrong. How do we break this cycle?”

Tolbert has asked Cleveland's CPC, the civilian organization tasked with overseeing police discipline, to review the city's investigation and determine whether Henderson's discipline was appropriate.

That has thrown the two-year-old commission into disarray as members fight with each other over how and when to fulfill the commission's mandate. Since it was formed in 2021, it has not reviewed a single case.

Can the CPC fulfill its mandate?

In Cleveland, the agency responsible for investigating police misconduct alleged by civilians is the Office of Professional Standards.

OPS found that Henderson violated police policy when he arrested Tolbert for carrying his weapon.

OPS found that to book Tolbert, Henderson ordered a change to the charge Tolbert faced from inducing panic to carrying a concealed weapon because the sheriff's deputies at the jail said inducing panic wasn't a serious enough charge to lock him up, according tothe OPS investigation into the incident.

OPS recommended two Group III charges for Henderson for violations of police policy — the most serious level of discipline — which could have gotten Henderson fired.

But on Jan. 15, 2024, then-Public Safety Director Karrie Howard dismissed one of the Group III charges and handed down a 13-day suspension for improper arrest instead.

Tolbert was dissatisfied with that result. He said he wants Henderson off the force.

In February, Tolbert asked the CPC to review Howard's decision to suspend Henderson.

“This commission was created for these situations specifically,” he said.

If the commission acts, this would be the first time it overturns a decision by the Public Safety director.

But it’s unclear whether it will.

The CPC was created in 2021 to make sure police officers face appropriate discipline.

At six commission meetings since late February, Commissioner Teri Wang has tried to introduce a motion to notify the officer, city and police unions that the CPC was starting a review of the case.

It has never received a vote.

“Why not allow a public discussion of this motion?” Wang said in an interview. “And you can always vote it down. But there has always been a concerted effort to stop a public vote on this motion.”

Making the rules as it learns to operate

As a new body, the commission is being asked to review police discipline andcreate the rules for how it will operate.

Two weeks after Tolbert’s request, CPC Interim Executive Director Jason Goodrick made a records request with the Office of Professional Standards, asking for the full OPS record of the investigation into Tolbert’s case.

Commission co-chair John Adams said that request started the process, making Wang’s motion redundant.

“This idea that we have to pass this motion to open a case or to do any of the things that the motion says is completely misleading and inaccurate,” Adams said. “Everything in that motion has already been done.”

That's not true, Wang said. Not everything in Wang’s motion was in Goodrick’s original request. He didn’t ask for the disciplinary hearing transcript and did not include a process for alerting the officer or unions, she said.

In the charter, the CPC is granted authority for “requesting and timely receiving, without the need for making a formal public-records request,” of police and other city records.

Wang questions whether an emailed records request from the interim executive director is sufficient to invoke that authority.

“If something is repetitive and not harmful and actually could ... make sure that we're all 100% above board on this, why not let the motion go through?” Wang said.

The last time Wang sought a vote on the motion was at the commission’s meeting in April. It was introduced but did not receive a second and died without a discussion.

Adams acknowledged that a motion like Wang’s may be a best practice in future discipline cases. But the commission has several other questions to answer, including what a fair hearing to decide on discipline would look like, before moving ahead.

The city said it has not completely filled Goodrick's request for records. It told the commission and said in federal court it is working its way through voluminous requests from the CPC and needs time to make redactions.

The city has "provided numerous documents — totaling nearly 350 pages — related to both this specific officer as well as this case," a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

The city is "currently reviewing additional documentation and will continue to provide the CPC with all responsive records on a rolling-basis to ensure their requests are fulfilled in both a complete and timely manner," according to the spokesperson.

Access to records in Cleveland has also been an issue for other bodies tasked with police oversight. In April, the monitor overseeing Cleveland's consent decree said the city limited and then cut off access to data they needed to do their job last year. A federal judge later ordered it restored. Cleveland disputes that criticism.

A commission beset by infighting and bickering

The CPC also continues to be hampered by personal animosity among commissioners.

Adams places the blame for that issue squarely at Wang’s feet.

“We just need to be honest with the public and stop hiding things from the public now — she’s impossible to work with,” Adams said.

Adams said he is attacked frequently by Wang via email and text messages about commission work, and Wang has a tendency to take over work by herself.

Wang said she is aware of other commissioners’ issues with her.

It’d be hard not to be — on March 27, the commission voted to send a letter to Mayor Justin Bibb asking for her removal. That letter has not been sent.

The commission also created an internal discipline committee that met behind closed doors in April specifically to investigate Wang.

“I think it's a distraction,” Wang said. “Whether I'm difficult to work with or not does not change the fact that we have a duty to fulfill with the community.”

Commission co-chair Sharena Zayed never supported Wang’s motion and said discussing it before taking a vote would have wasted time.

“My question is: Why does Commissioner Wang keep placing this on the agenda if she knows other commissioners don’t support it?” said Zayed, implying Wang is seeking credit for launching the commission’s first discipline case.

Antoine Tolbert has been going to commission meetings for the past couple of months, making public requests for the body to review his case.

He’s seen the arguing and grown hopeless, he said.

“I’m not looking toward this commission to rectify the situation,” Tolbert said. “I’m not looking towards this commission to give me what I feel like is due justice, which is this officer being terminated.”

Tolbert said he has decided to turn his focus to city council, to see if members there can use their power to fix some of the commission’s problems.

Corrected: May 8, 2024 at 4:25 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the date CPC's executive director requested public records via email.
Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.