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Federal Judge: 'Disturbing' Report On Light Cleveland Police Discipline

Cleveland officials, Justice Department attorneys and the monitoring team briefed federal Judge Solomon Oliver on the city's consent decree by remote hearing Tuesday. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland officials, Justice Department attorneys and the monitoring team briefed federal Judge Solomon Oliver on the city's consent decree by remote hearing Tuesday.

The federal judge overseeing police reform in Cleveland said it was “deeply disturbing” that an audit found a pattern of lax discipline for officers who committed acts of serious misconduct.  

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver received an update on the city’s consent decree Tuesday from the team monitoring Cleveland’s compliance with the agreement. City officials and Justice Department attorneys also briefed the judge.

“We are trying to improve the department in many ways, and as I said before, things have improved,” Oliver said. “But accountability is critical.”

The audit found former Safety Director Michael McGrath often imposed suspensions on officers when their conduct could have merited firings, particularly those who deceived superiors, internal investigators or others. McGrath also provided little written justification for his decisions, according to the report released this week by the monitors.

Karrie Howard, who took over as city safety director in June, pledged much more thorough disciplinary decisions. He said he would explain his reasoning for his rulings in detail and better follow the police department’s disciplinary guidelines.

“I come from the background of being a prosecutor,” Howard said. “I believe in accountability. I believe that accountability is the foundation of public trust.”

In addition to the disciplinary audit, the monitoring team also released its eighth semiannual report this week.

Cleveland Police last year used force about 20 percent less often than in 2017, according to that report. Although uses of force went down in the longer term, the number of use-of-force incidents increased from 2018 to 2019.

The total number of officer injuries also increased, but the number of officer injuries from uses of force remained below 2017 levels. The monitoring team attributed the overall growth in injuries to a jump in car crashes and exposures to bodily fluids, such as blood.

“These metrics continue to suggest that officers are effectively implementing the new use of force policies on a daily basis, with no compromise with respect to crime or increased officer safety concerns,” the report said.


Cleveland police injuries and uses of force, 2017-2019

The report also outlined a strained relationship between the city and the Community Police Commission, the citizen body that gathers public input on the consent decree.

City and police officials have been reluctant to turn over information to the Community Police Commission, becoming “unduly confrontational” with commission members in meetings, according to the report.

“The Monitor will be especially clear here: De-legitimizing or dismissing the CPC is the same as de-legitimizing and dismissing the Cleveland community,” the report says.

Cleveland Chief Counsel Gary Singletary disputed that characterization at Tuesday’s hearing, saying the city and commission worked well together to draw up policies for using force and conducting searches.

City officials and the commission plan a retreat together next week, Singletary said.

The semiannual report also said Cleveland police had made strides in training officers on the new search and seizure policies. And the report positively cited the city’s work developing crisis intervention training.

The next semiannual report will examine how Cleveland police handled this spring’s demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, according to the monitoring team.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.