Police monitor faults Cleveland for internal review of chase that killed Tamia Chappman

A person in a blue hooded sweatshirt reading Cleveland Police on the back
Cleveland police have been under a federal consent decree meant to increase accountability for close to 7 years. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Updated: 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021

Cleveland's internal probe into the 2019 police pursuit that resulted in the death of 13-year-old Tamia Chappman in East Cleveland was riddled with mistakes, according to a new report from the city's police monitor.

Most notably, a police lieutenant who assisted in overseeing the pursuit also handled the follow-up investigation, the monitoring team wrote.

“[The Cleveland Division of Police] conducted its investigation in a manner where the result was a foregone conclusion,” the monitoring team wrote in an 11-page report filed in federal court Monday. “The Deputy Chief (Executive Officer) and the Chief of Police failed to ensure accountability by structuring the investigation in such a way that a truly objective evaluation of officer and supervisor conduct was impossible.”

Following the Dec. 20, 2019, pursuit, Deputy Chief Joellen O’Neil assigned the investigation to Lt. Gregory Farmer.

Based in part on Farmer’s findings, Cleveland Division of Police faulted the two officers in a trailing car during the pursuit, Dustin Miller and Felica Doss, for joining the pursuit without direct approval and failing to turn on their body cameras.

None of the other officers or supervisors involved faced any discipline based on Farmer’s investigation.

“The result of the pursuit, the death of an innocent child, would clearly weigh heavily on any and all of the involved officers,” the monitoring team wrote. “It is illogical to expect a police supervisor, personally involved in a fatal pursuit, to conduct an objective investigation and assessment of the incident.”

An Office of Professional Standards investigation prompted by a civilian complaint from Zondra Mason, the mother of an 11-year-old girl who was with Tamia Chappman at the time of the crash, resulted in several findings that contradicted the CDP.

That investigation, obtained by Ideastream Public Media, found that Farmer was with the supervisor in charge, Sgt. Michael Chapman, during the pursuit and issued some orders to participants in the pursuit.

Multiple officers told OPS investigators that Famer did not interview them during his follow-up review. Farmer also did not take into account a separate report on the pursuit conducted by East Side suburban police departments at the request of East Cleveland police, according to the monitoring team.

That report found the suspect vehicle and the lead pursuit car traveled at about 90 mph on Euclid Avenue on a Friday afternoon just before the crash. Cleveland’s review, based largely on self-reported speeds and retracing the route, estimated the top speed at 75 mph.

“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 city did not respond to a request for comment.

But in a response filed in court Tuesday, Cleveland’s law department disputed the monitor’s findings, saying the pursuit was justified because of the nature of the alleged crime leading up to it.

“An armed carjacking is a violent act that presents an immediate and continuing danger to the public,” the city wrote. “Fully recognizing the extreme tragedy and trauma associated with the death of Tamia Chapman and the injury of her younger companion caused when the driver of the carjacked, stolen vehicle lost control, the Cleveland Division of Police initiated an investigation pursuant to its Vehicle Pursuit Policy.” (The city misspelled Tamia Chappman's name.)

The city called the monitor’s criticism of the decision to have Farmer handle the follow up investigation as “unsupported opinion” but did not directly dispute that he was also involved in overseeing the pursuit.

In defending the department’s handling of the investigation, the city’s chief counsel, Gary Singletary, and law director, Barbara Langhenry, cite General Police Order 3.2.02, which governs pursuits and states:

All pursuits that result in accidents where property damage, injury, or death occurs shall be the subject of an investigation. The investigation shall be conducted by the superior officer of the controlling supervisor who monitored the pursuit. If that supervisor was also involved in the pursuit, it shall be investigated by the superior officer next in that chain of command. [emphasis added]

According to the monitor, Farmer should not have been involved in the investigation, based on the same policy cited by the city to defend the investigation. Farmer was the supervisor of the pursuit’s controlling supervisor, Sgt. Chapman.

The filing also defends the city’s omission of the higher speeds found in the EDGE report and an investigation prepared by the East Cleveland Police Department.

“CDP’s Accident Investigation Unit received the reports identified in the Monitor Review as the EDGE Accident Investigation Unit and the Traffic Crash Report (OH-1),” the city wrote. “While the EDGE report and the OH-1 were not directly referenced therein, the Accident Investigation Unit’s report contains more relevant pursuit detail than those reports.”

There is no explanation of why the higher speeds found in the EDGE report using surveillance footage from the route were disregarded in favor of the lower speeds reported by officers.

Chappman and Mason's 11-year-old daughter were walking from school to the library when they were hit by the suspect’s car. The 11-year-old survived after being taken to the hospital.

“I mean you’re driving 90 miles an hour, kids are walking down the street, officers are screaming, ‘Slow down,’ and then afterwards the officer who was in the incident opines, ‘I feel guilty…It was my fault,’” Stanley Jackson, the attorney for the Mason and Chappman families, told Ideastream. “I don’t know how much worse it can get.”

Jackson said his clients are looking for accountability for the officers and supervisors involved.

“They violated so many parts of their policy at every level that they knew this thing was going to be huge and they did everything they could to cover up how bad this chase was,” he said.

The investigation by OPS recommended discipline for nine officers. Ultimately the Civilian Police Review Board concurred with OPS on discipline for four. OPS found that the officers and supervisors should have given more weight to the time of day and the threat the pursuit posed to innocent bystanders.

Ultimately all of the OPS recommendations were dismissed by Chief Calvin Williams or Public Safety Director Karrie Howard.

The monitor’s report also raised several concerns about the process that lead up to Howard’s ultimate decisions on discipline. Among the issues raised was a Dec. 3, 2020, newspaper article, written after Williams and Howard sat for interviews with the Plain Dealer editorial board. They both said officers properly handled the pursuit that led to Chappman’s death.

OPS, which reports to the public safety director, had not yet completed its investigation when Howard made his comments.

“We would expect that, prior to speaking publicly about such a significant incident, the Director would have conferred with the OPS about the existence of an investigation and any issues that had been identified at that point in time,” the monitoring team. “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.”

Cleveland defended Howard’s comments, saying he was responding to specific questions from the media.

“The Director is the supervisory authority over the CDP and was answering fact-based media questions predicated on the CDP’s investigation,” the city said in its response.

Ultimately, the monitor highlighted seven problems with the city’s handling of the investigation, focused on the internal investigation and the city’s dismissal of the discipline recommendations forwarded by the Civilian Police Review Board.

The monitor described the episode as a clear violation of the consent decree and a failure on the city’s part to show that accountability measures put in place by the six-year-old agreement with the U.S. Justice Department have taken hold.

But in closing, the monitor struck a hopeful note about the transition to a new mayoral administration. Mayor-elect Justin Bibb will take over from ougoing Mayor Frank Jackson on Jan. 3.

“We do look forward to addressing our concerns with the new City leadership with the expectation that future police-involved critical incidents will be investigated and adjudicated in a responsible manner, with collaboration and cooperation between the CDP and the OPS,” the monitoring team wrote.

 

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