Resident complaints against University Circle Police reveal need for external review board
Donnie Durrah was planting grass seed at a home on Wade Park Avenue in Glenville, he said, when University Circle Police Officers Dave Rios and Kelly Gabriel pulled up and asked him to stand near his white truck. The officers eyed the lawn mower in the attached trailer.
“I just want to tell you somebody just stole a lawn mower around the corner, and it looks just like the one on the back of your truck,” Durrah recalled Rios saying.
Durrah had noticed the officers cruising up and down the street and he had wondered what was going on. But the implication that he stole a lawn mower, loaded it in a trailer, and traveled around the block to do yard work was “racism at its finest,” Durrah, who is Black, told Cleveland Documenters.
Durrah, 56, filed a complaint about the incident, which happened in September 2021. As a kid, he cut grass in the neighborhood. Today, he treats the lawns of more than two dozen customers in the area and said he is routinely outfitted in yellow safety shirts and khaki pants. The officers stopped him just a two-minute walk from the Wade Park Avenue home that his parents have owned since 1974. His point? How could the police not recognize him? And, along those lines, who are they supposed to protect and serve?
That question has caused tension as Cleveland City Council considers legislation to expand the jurisdiction of UCI Police to Little Italy and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Police further into Glenville, stretching north from Wade Park Avenue to Ashbury Avenue.
Cleveland safety officials as well as several council members have endorsed the expanded private police presence as a “force multiplier” for safety in the University Circle and Little Italy neighborhoods, which draw 50,000 visitors and workers each day and fuels a significant part of the city’s economy.
To Durrah, the answer is clear. He has noticed the influx of white students, noting that most, if not all, of his neighbors have been Black since he moved to Wade Park Avenue with his family 48 years ago. And along with the new neighbors has come increased investor interest in the area – and more police, he said.
“Now I see them protecting, you know, what is valuable to them,” Durrah said.
Still, Durrah supports the proposed expansions and hopes that they will lead to more diverse, local and better-trained police forces – potentially preventing what happened to him from happening to others. Ultimately, he expressed frustration with how newer residents and some police officers alike regard him, a long-term community member, as the outsider.
Who is handling UCI’s citizen complaints?
Durrah’s complaint about how the UCI officers treated him should have been reviewed by an independent board – not police supervisors – under an agreement the department has with Cleveland that allows them to patrol in the city.
In 2018, when UCI signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) it had 90 days to create the board and the process to review, investigate and issue findings related to civilian complaints. In addition it agreed to follow policies and training for officers on bias-free policing, use of force and crisis response that were implemented for Cleveland police as a result of the 2015 Consent Decree.
Despite what the written agreement says, the department had no complaint board in place to review Durrah’s complaint – or the others made in 2020 or 2021.
Cleveland’s Chief Public Safety Officer Karrie Howard said in an April 27 meeting that the city could choose to end an agreement if a party violates it.
Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, senior public information officer for the Department of Public Safety -- which signed the UCI agreement -- did not provide comment for this story.
UCI sergeants and captains handled investigations for all three citizen complaints filed in 2020 and 2021, records show. None went through the process outlined in the agreement with Cleveland, the same process UCPD Chief Jim Repicky shared with City Council members last month: an outside investigator reviews complaints and submits findings to a civilian review board, which then makes a judgment on the case.
UCI and its police department complied with the MOU, according to a written statement sent to Cleveland Documenters by Becky Voldrich, senior director of communications and events for UCI.
“Implementation of our new Citizen Review Board has proceeded steadily despite pandemic-related delays,” it said. The complaint board members had an introductory meeting on Sept. 29, 2021, and they are scheduled for training May 6. Voldrich did not comment directly on why the board wasn’t created between the signing of the agreement in 2018 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but she said UCI was confident people would understand “why such a complex and important process takes time to fully implement.”
UCI did not answer a request for the name of the investigator it hired, when they were hired, or if they have reviewed any complaints yet, though Repicky said in an April 13 Safety Committee meeting that the investigator is a former county prosecutor.
Why does it matter who reviews the complaints?
Civilian review boards, like the one outlined in UCI’s agreement, are meant to add a layer of external accountability to ensure that complaints against police officers or dispatchers are looked at by citizens who are not in the law enforcement chain of command.
In his complaint to UCI, Durrah said the officers’ conduct was uncivil, and he wrote that a public written apology and meet-and-greets with Wade Park Avenue residents were in order. However, Durrah said he ultimately requested face-to-face apologies from the officers. He said he has not received them.
Durrah, who said he felt his complaint wasn’t taken seriously, thinks a civilian review board could have made a difference.
“They won't be able to say, ‘Well, we didn't do anything wrong,’” he said. “When you have a board of six or 12 people saying, ‘Yeah, you're wrong,’ [then] you're wrong. You're all wrong.”
In the disposition letter, UCI Sergeant Adam Gilmore wrote that he apologized on the phone to Durrah and told him he wished the incident hadn’t happened.
East Cleveland resident Sharif Shabaz Ra El also told Cleveland Documenters a civilian review board would be beneficial, saying it could prevent those with clouded judgment from reviewing complaints.
Ra El filed a complaint against UCI Police in 2021 alleging that Officer Zachary Krebs -- who has since joined Garfield Heights Police Department -- and UCI Detective Alanna Smith pulled him over on Euclid Avenue near E. 115th St., yelled at him to exit his car, handcuffed him, and refused to let him retrieve his ID from the back of his vehicle while questioning his young daughter without his permission.
He had previously reported his vehicle as stolen but hadn’t cleared that report, Ra El said. Still, he said the officers wouldn’t let him identify himself as the owner, which led him to file a complaint at the department.
In a disposition letter to Chief Repicky, Sergeant Steven Brady, who reviewed the incident, wrote that an officer told Ra El during the stop that the conduct was in line with the department’s procedure for “high-risk felony traffic stops.” The department invited Ra El to the station to see documentation of the police protocol, but he didn’t go because he wasn’t satisfied with the overall complaint process.
“How can you get a fair review when you have someone who is part of the cookie jar?” he said.
The MOU hasn’t been followed; what happens now?
On April 27 the Safety Committee advanced the legislation that would expand the jurisdictions of UCI and CWRU Police, with a change to require quarterly reports from the director of public safety. Council’s Finance, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (FDEI) Committee passed the legislation Monday, May 9. It is expected to receive a final vote by the full council at its regular meeting later tonight.
Council Member Mike Polensek, who chairs the Safety Committee said it doesn’t give him a “warm and fuzzy feeling” to hear one thing at the committee table -- that citizens’ complaints are being dealt with properly and accordingly -- only to learn otherwise later. He said the responsibility lies with the administration to ensure compliance.
“It's going to be up to the administration to hold their feet to the fire, to make sure they implement what they committed to,” Polensek said.
Sarah Johnson, communications chief for Mayor Justin Bibb, said in an email that she was unable to reach the appropriate people to provide a comment for this story.
Council President Blaine Griffin, who chairs the FDEI committee, told Cleveland Documenters he is eager for the UCI complaint board to get up and running, but he would not comment on how UCI has handled complaints. Griffin reached out to confirm that Cleveland Documenters received information from UCI about the pandemic-related delays in creating the board and the training that is now scheduled.
Council Member Stephanie Howse, who serves on the Safety Committee, advocates for a more hands-on approach. The city must have a process for verifying whether there is compliance with the MOUs, and, in cases of non-compliance, the city must rectify the issues, she said.
“At the end of the day, community members, they want to make sure that people have their back as well,” said Howse, who represents Ward 7. “And when people aren't following guidelines, I think that creates the opportunity and really diminishes people's belief and trust, not only in our law enforcement partners, but really in the City of Cleveland.”