Cleveland City Council Pushes Back Against Operation Legend Criticism

Cleveland city council file photo
Councilmembers described a city with an unprecedented violence problem while approving grant money from the federal government to hire 30 officers, part of the controversial Operation Legend. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]

A campaign to stop Cleveland City Council from accepting federal funding for law enforcement was rejected by councilmembers during a Wednesday meeting.

As part of the U.S. Department of Justice-funded Operation Legend, Cleveland will receive about $8 million for 30 new Cleveland Division of Police officers, to replace 30 veteran officers detailed to work with federal law enforcement task forces.

Organizers from Black Lives Matter Cleveland, Showing up for Racial Justice, Cleveland Lead Advocates and other groups sought to block approval of the measure.

Kareem Henton from Black Lives Matter Cleveland said council could attach some conditions to the program before signing on, including that officers wear body cameras and follow the reforms in the police department’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

“That’s what a proactive city council would do be doing if they were truly operating in our best interests,” Henton said.

The coalition of groups has been approaching councilmembers for weeks, seeking to convince them to challenge the city’s participation in Operation Legend, which formerly went by the name Operation Relentless Pursuit.

One of the councilmembers Henton said was open to their concerns was Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin.

During Wednesday’s meeting he supported accepting the grant, but asked Chief of Police Calvin Williams if officers would be required to follow the use-of-force policies in the consent decree, which are stricter than federal guidelines.

“Our officers, whether they’re on task forces or other operations around the city, are governed by the City of Cleveland’s Division of Police use-of-force policy, not any federal policies on use-of-force,” Williams said.

Williams was not asked about the use of body cameras, which are mandated for officers in the Division of Police, or the department’s enhanced search and seizure policies that established higher standards for searching someone without a warrant.

Griffin addressed another concern of Operation Legend’s opponents – that increased manpower will result in a surge of street level arrests for small offenses. The city’s Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard said Operation Legend will target high-level, violent criminals.

“This is not going to be whack-a-mole,” Howard said. “This will not be a random process, this will be a very intelligent, methodical and deliberate process.”

Griffin, like several other councilmembers, said the city needs this federal assistance because of high levels of violent crime in parts of the city.

“Right now, we are in a crisis moment in our city,” Griffin said. “We recognize what we have to do.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there have been 66 people charged with federal crimes under Operation Legend in Cleveland, 63 of those defendants were either charged with “firearms-related offenses” or “narcotics-related offenses.”

The arrest of a suspect in the May killing of 17-year-old Eric Hakizimana and 31-year-old Curtis Legg was credited to Operation Legend.

Det. James Skernivitz, who was killed while working undercover Sept. 3, was among the veteran officers already detailed to the federal task force under Operation Legend.

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