Cleveland Police Consent Decree Takes 'Hard Work,' Chief Tells Black Prosecutors Association

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams addresses a meeting of the National Black Prosecutors Association.
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams addresses a meeting of the National Black Prosecutors Association. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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It’s been two years since Cleveland and the Justice Department agreed on a path for reforming the police department. A DOJ investigation found a pattern or practice of excessive use of force, and the reform efforts resulted in a consent decree, overseen by a federal judge. 

This morning the National Black Prosecutors Association met in downtown Cleveland to learn more about the decree. 

ideastream’s Tony Ganzer moderated a conversation with some of the key figures in the reform process, and talked with Nick Castele, who was listening for any news. 

Ganzer: “What stuck out for you from this conversation about the consent decree? Anything new?”

Castele: “One thing that stuck out to me was that Police Chief Calvin Williams said that the department needs to change its mindset if they want to fulfill the requirements of the consent decree. And what he meant was this. He said, for 20 years, police have been told they need to race from call to call. But that gets in the way of this community policing model, where officers are talking with people, they’re taking time to learn more about the neighborhood where they are. So what the chief said was that he’s not focusing as much on response times anymore, but he’s focusing on this bigger picture of how do you take the time. Another thing that was interesting that Calvin Williams said was that the involvement of schools and the social service agencies are really needed to deal with some of the underlying issues behind these distress calls, like drug addiction or mental illness. And we have a clip of that here.”

Police Chief Calvin Williams: “I know I did for the last 30 years, said, that’s a school problem, that’s a social service problem, that’s a mental health problem. Well, it’s all of our problems, because all of it gets dumped on our doorsteps.”

Ganzer: “Nick, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed some skepticism of consent decrees, you could say. So there has been this lingering question, which has been addressed a few times, but does a change of administration mean a change to the consent decree?”

Castele: “Well, Carole Rendon, who is the former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, she addressed this question today at the panel. And what she said was that because this is entered with a court, you have a federal judge and a team of monitors who work for him to oversee this decree and make sure it’s being followed, it seems like it is set in place. But Rendon also said it requires buy-in from the parties involved.”

Former U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon: “This decree will not be implemented as effectively and or as efficiently if the Department of Justice doesn’t remain fully engaged. Same goes true for the city of Cleveland. If the city of Cleveland suddenly was no longer fully engaged in this process, could we force them to do it? Yes. Would it happen effectively? Would it happen efficiently? Would the change stay? Would it become cemented in the DNA of the division of police in the city of Cleveland? No.”

Ganzer: “Where does the consent decree stand now, Nick? Where are we in this process?”

Castele: “The latest six-month report from the monitoring team, which came out a couple months ago, said that police are moving too slow in fixing the system the department has for reviewing complaints against officers. Another thing that’s happened in the past couple weeks is that the monitoring team filed some initial report from some focus groups that were done. And the basic findings said people felt police either were not present when they needed them, or they felt police were present but were doing the wrong things. And these focus groups also had people define what community policing meant to them. Officers engaged in the community, who know people who live there, who have an understanding of the neighborhood—some of the things that were talked about at this panel.”

Ganzer: “Sure. And I want to give the last work here to Police Chief Calvin Williams. I had posed the question, I said, what is his sales pitch, because some people in the community are skeptical of this process, some people in the police department are skeptical. And the chief said, well, it’s hard work.”

Williams: “We’ve got to get deep down and dirty. I like to tell people, you want to get in the fire, but you’re surprised that the fire is hot. It’s hard work. It’s hard work to get involved, to do these things, to try to make them better, because it’s hot in the fire, and people don’t like to be hot.”

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