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Court approves Cleveland consent decree changes, making way for new Community Police Commission

 The Cleveland Division of Police has been under a federal consent decree since 2015. [Nick Castele /  Ideastream Public Media]
The Cleveland Division of Police has been under a federal consent decree since 2015.

Cleveland now has court approval to move sweeping police oversight powers into the hands of the Community Police Commission.

The CPC was originally created by the 2015 consent decree, but in November voters approved a change to the city’s charter giving it authority over police discipline decisions, department policies, recruitment and training.

The federal judge overseeing the consent decree, Solomon Oliver, approved a proposed amendment to the consent decree to make room for Issue 24, now known as Section 115 of the city charter.

Oliver said Cleveland and the U.S. Department of Justice, which worked together on the proposed amendment, were correct to avoid adding all of the CPC’s new authority to the consent decree. Instead, the decree is edited such that situations where police officials had authority before Issue 24, that oversight is now with “the City.”

“The commission is part of the city charter now,” Oliver said. “It’s not the charter the decree is involved in, it’s the city.”

The hearing had the feeling of a changing of the guard.

Mayor Justin Bibb attended the first part of Thursday’s hearing and left after Oliver approved the proposed amendment. He sat next to his new law director, Mark Griffin, and spoke with him quietly before the hearing. Griffin was the only other new official at the city’s table.

Public Safety Director Karrie Howard, the city’s Chief Counsel Gary Singletary, Interim Chief of Police Wayne Drummond and Deputy Chief of Police Joellen O’Neill, all holdovers from Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration who have worked on the consent decree for years, also attended the hearing.

Griffin was the only one to speak on behalf of the city and stressed the city’s desire to start fresh.

“Today is a new day of cooperation,” he told Judge Oliver. “We hope to change the tone from an adversarial one.

“What we are bringing forward today will allow us to more quickly meet the requirements of the consent decree,” Griffin said.

For now, the Community Police Commission, with its community engagement focus, will remain in a purely advisory role.

Griffin said the mayor will begin nominating new commissioners soon. Once seven new commissioners are in place, the CPC will start filling its new role.

Hiring new officers

The hearing moved on to issues that came up in the last six months, including a review of the city’s lateral hiring process.

In a recent court filing, the police monitor criticized Cleveland Division of Police for the standards it used to hire three officers from other police departments in 2021, what are known as “lateral hires.”

According to Monitor Hassan Aden, full background checks on the three hires were performed, but the officers should not have been hired based on those checks.

“One thing we noticed was multiple departments had fired these prospective hires for some serious misconduct,” Aden said.

Ideastream Public Media requested the personnel files of those three officers a month ago and have not heard back from the city.

Griffin, speaking on behalf of the city, was apologetic about the hires.

“We’re not going to do lateral hiring anytime soon,” Griffin said.

He said the department was understaffed and having trouble hiring enough officers to meet their budget. They recruited from other police departments and received 60 applications. After reviewing those officers, only five were still eligible.

Griffin said they would be focusing on new recruits and training.

An attorney for the Department of Justice, Heather Heyer, said it went beyond the lateral hires.

“It’s not just who they’re hiring, it’s the process, and that would apply to new recruits as well,” Heyer said.

The department has a goal of bringing on hundreds more officers this year to reach their budgeted number of 1,640, and the city faces heightened pressure from city council to prove they can get to that number.

The Tamia Chappman investigation

The hearing also covered the department’s internal investigation into the 2019 police pursuit that ended in the death of 13-year-old East Cleveland resident Tamia Chappman.

Ultimately, the internal investigation found that two officers in a trailing car joined the pursuit without permission, against department policy.

The department did not take into account a law enforcement report that found both the suspect’s car and the police car pursuing it hit speeds of about 90 miles per hour on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland just before the suspect’s car struck and killed Chappman and injured her 11-year-old friend, who were walking from their nearby school to the library.

A scathing 2021 report by the police monitor found the department “conducted its investigation in a manner where the result was a foregone conclusion.”

“In virtually all respects, we find that the processes used by the Cleveland Division of Police were deficient, non-compliant with the Consent Decree, and insufficient to support reasonable and rational decision-making on the part of Department of Public Safety leadership,” the monitoring team wrote.

The team pointed to public comments by Safety Director Karrie Howard and former Chief of Police Calvin Williams.

Howard and Williams told the Plain Dealer’s editorial board in 2020 that the chase followed department policy. The monitor pointed out that those comments were made while an investigation by the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was still open.

“A reasonable observer would be led to question whether the Director’s ultimate findings were based on an objective evaluation of the evidence or were made to justify his prior public statements,” the monitor wrote.

That OPS investigation recommended discipline for nine officers, and the Civilian Police Review Board forwarded discipline recommendations for four of those officers, including against two supervising officers.

The city disputed the findings of the monitor, both at the time the report was filed last year and in court Thursday but said it is working on new pursuit investigation policies.

The Department of Justice recommended policy changes, including creating the new pursuit investigation policy and making changes to the policy covering when to pursue.

However, policies are already in place that prevent a supervisor involved in overseeing a pursuit from conducting the follow-up investigation, which happened in the Chappman case. In addition, there are policies in place that, according to OPS, should have halted the pursuit had they been followed.

“We are moving forward at this point,” said Jonas Geissler, a DOJ attorney.

Mental health intervention

Another recent issue was lightly covered during Thursday’s hearing.

The Division of Police changed a policy on crisis intervention approved by the court in 2017.

The changed policy remained in effect and posted on the city’s website until Tuesday.

“We did briefly post an incorrect policy that’s been taken down and corrected,” said Griffin. “We certainly regret posting the policy incorrectly.”

It’s unclear how long the incorrect policy was online. Police officials say the department has been trained on the court-approved version.

The monitor and court focused on the successes of the city’s crisis intervention policy, which has led to 25 percent of people in a mental health crisis being transported to a hospital in an ambulance, a rate that has led the monitor to call the crisis reforms a national model.

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