Former Cleveland Safety Director Went Too Easy On Officers, Monitor Finds

Former Cleveland Safety Director Michael McGrath's office issued lenient punishments without written justification, according to Monitor Hassan Aden.
Former Cleveland Safety Director Michael McGrath's office issued lenient punishments without written justification, according to consent decree monitor Hassan Aden. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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Updated: 9:15 p.m., Monday, July 13, 2020

Cleveland’s former safety director failed to follow the consent decree when disciplining police officers, handing down light punishments without sufficient rationale, the monitor of the federal police reform agreement said in a Monday court filing.

Monitor Hassan Aden and his team reviewed 39 disciplinary decisions by then-director Michael McGrath or an assistant over the last two years. In only 24 percent of those cases did the director impose punishments within the department’s disciplinary matrix and with enough written justification, Aden found.

“Without discipline decisions clearly explained and justified in writing, CDP officers will never be assured that they are getting a fair shake – and Cleveland community members can never have confidence that the City is impartially and comprehensively addressing instances of poor performance and officer misconduct,” Aden wrote in the court filing.

McGrath rarely fired officers who deceived superiors or internal investigators, Aden found.

The monitor highlighted one case in which an officer lied in a police report, falsely accusing a man of injuring his foot during an arrest in 2017. An assistant safety director reached a plea agreement with the officer and suspended him for 30 days, even though Police Chief Calvin Williams had recommended firing him, according to Aden’s report. McGrath signed off on the suspension.

“As a direct result of the officers’ misconduct, the arrestee was inappropriately held in custody for a period of 8 months on a felony charge of assault on a police officer – which he did not commit,” Aden wrote.

McGrath became Cleveland's director of public safety in 2014, after serving nine years as chief of police. He resigned last month and was replaced by Karrie Howard on June 19.

Aden and city officials will update U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver on Cleveland’s consent decree compliance Tuesday afternoon.

In a news release Monday evening, Mayor Frank Jackson’s office said it would review the monitor’s findings. The statement pointed to progress the city has made in clearing a years-old backlog of citizen complaints.

“There is work to be done in order to have a fair and balanced disciplinary system that all Clevelanders and the Division of Police can believe in,” the statement reads. “Still, significant progress has been made in the functioning of the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the Civilian Police Review Board and the Division’s office of Internal Affairs.”

Cleveland’s charter limits the police chief’s power to discipline officers. Only the safety director can fire officers or impose suspensions lasting longer than 10 days.

In 2019, members of the Civilian Police Review Board told city council Williams often overruled their disciplinary recommendations, softening punishments for officers accused of wrongdoing.

Police unions often appeal the discipline their members receive, frequently receiving rulings in their favor from arbitrators – sometimes for procedural errors, a situation called “deeply problematic” by the former federal litigator who oversaw the Justice Department’s investigation of Cleveland police.

A Scuffle And A Broken Toe

In March 2017, Cleveland police responded to a call about a man breaking the windows of his mother’s car and throwing things out of it, according to Aden’s report.

An officer used a Taser on the man, who then went into the house and hid in a hall closet, Aden wrote. He told officers he was armed, although a family member said that he wasn’t, according to the report.

Two officers dragged the man out by his legs and arrested him. One officer came away from the scuffle with an injured toe, writing in a police report that the man “lifted his leg up and slammed his left heel down on my right big toe.”

A grand jury indicted the man on six charges, including felonious assault on an officer. Law enforcement arrested him in May and booked him into jail, where he stayed for eight months.

But an investigation by Cleveland police internal affairs found that the man likely did not injure the officer’s toe. Instead, the officer was hurt either when he kicked a mirror or when another officer threw it out of the way, Aden wrote.

The officer acknowledged in text messages that the other officer was likely responsible for the toe injury, Aden wrote.

Police Chief Calvin Williams recommended firing the officer for lying to internal affairs, filing a false report, using inappropriate force and other violations. He suggested 30-day suspensions for two other officers involved in the incident and referred the cases to McGrath’s office.

After a conversation with police union representatives, Assistant Director of Public Safety Timothy Hennessy agreed to a disciplinary plea deal with the three officers, Aden wrote.

McGrath approved the deals, suspending the injured officer for 30 days and handing down 12-day and 8-day suspensions to the other two. In August 2018, Mayor Frank Jackson imposed limits on such plea deals after learning of the cases, the monitor wrote.

Aden, who did not name any officers in his report, wrote in Monday’s filing that McGrath should have fired two of the officers, imposed a longer suspension on the third and disciplined a fourth officer.

Low-Range Discipline

The monitor details a litany of police misconduct in the court filing.

In one case, an officer used a homeless woman’s debit card to withdraw more than $400 from her account. The officer, who worked a secondary job at a homeless shelter, befriended the woman and helped her with finances, Aden wrote.

But then he withdrew $403.50 from an ATM without her permission, according to Aden’s report. The officer was required to pay the money back and county prosecutors agreed not to charge him. He received a 15-day suspension, in the lower range of appropriate punishments, the monitor wrote. 

In another case, suburban police arrested an off-duty Cleveland police officer for domestic violence. The victim alleged the officer choked her, slammed her against his car and smashed her cell phone.

The officer denied the allegations but admitted that he lied to responding police when he said he and the victim were merely arguing.

At the time, the officer was serving a six-day suspension for running a computer search on the victim’s boyfriend. McGrath suspended him for another 14 days. Aden wrote that McGrath should have considered firing the officer.

Aden also questioned the discipline meted out after the death of Tanisha Anderson in 2014.

Two officers responded to a distress call from Anderson’s family that November. She died after police restrained her on the ground; the medical examiner later ruled the death a homicide.

A grand jury declined to charge the two officers, Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myers. But they were disciplined for taking too long to call EMS after Anderson became unresponsive. McGrath suspended Aldridge for 10 days and issued a written warning to Myers.

The suspension was also on the low end of the range of punishments recommended by the disciplinary matrix – and one in line with a first offense with no “aggravating factors,” according to Aden.

“It is entirely unclear how in this case, which involved an actual in-custody death, the woman’s death would not be considered to be an aggravating factor,” he wrote.

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