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Q & A: Cleveland police monitor seeks to reassure public on consent decree's potential

Hassan Aden, Cleveland police monitor, and Charles See, director of community engagement for the monitoring team, outside the Idea Center on Oct. 29, 2021. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
Cleveland police monitor Hassan Aden and Director of Community Engagement Charles See

On Nov. 1, the Cleveland Police monitor filed in federal court its 10th Semiannual Report on the city’s progress toward completing the consent decree. The Friday before that report was filed, Ideastream Public Media reporter Matt Richmond sat down with the monitor, Hassan Aden, and Charles See, who oversees the community engagement team in Cleveland.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It was recorded before the Nov. 2 mayoral election.

Now that the 10th Semiannual Report has been filed, how is the city of Cleveland progressing towards full compliance with the requirements of the consent decree?

HASSAN ADEN: In Cleveland, we've gotten to the point now where we're satisfied that training has been built, policies have been created and the processes are in place to give the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) and the city a chance at going under our assessments to tell them where they are in regard to compliance.

So that's the second phase, which we're just getting into now. The third phase is when the city accomplishes full and effective compliance with the consent decree, then we go into a sustainability phase, basically we turn over the critical self-assessment function to the city and we ensure that they have the capacity and the systems to critically self-assess themselves. And that's the stage with which then the court will have to consider whether the consent decree is ready to be dissolved.

We've got some distance between now and getting to that point. And over the next year, 18 months, we're going to be very aggressively auditing, conducting reviews and conducting compliance assessments in key areas.

To kind of clarify how that works a little bit. Take one of the requirements of the consent decree - use of force by Cleveland Division of Police. How do you assess whether these policies are working and, if they're not, what can the monitoring team do then?

ADEN: It’s interesting that you ask that because we're in the middle of an assessment now. It's not a final compliance assessment. It's really to test to see where they are now. But we review cases directly from the case files in IA Pro (Internal Affairs Pro software). We review video. And we compare that to all of the policies and practices and processes that we've built over the years for use of force. 

We could on any assessment do upwards of 500 cases. So, it's very time consuming but, at the end of the day, we get down to very specific items that are either in compliance, they're on the way to compliance, and some that aren't in compliance and we provide all of that feedback to the CDP and the city and the DOJ.

The DOJ, the U.S. Department of Justice, they also do their own assessment using the same instrument and the same methodology on a subset of cases so that, you know, the results should match. That's how we assess them.

It's really comprehensive and it takes a lot of time because, if folks haven't had the experience of reviewing body worn video, it is absolutely time consuming. On any given incident you might have three officers that respond and then a supervisor arrives on the scene and then crime scene investigations arrive. There might be 8, 9 videos to review, even on a low-level use of force.

I think this can seem a little academic. There are experts in an office comparing what's on a video and what was reported by the officer to what's in the policies and what the best practices are. If there are problems in the case that the monitoring team is reviewing, what happens? What comes of it?

ADEN: We are very transparent with our outcomes. And we filed several reports, several of which have been really critical around investigations. And this will be no different, we will file a report that basically puts the division on notice around issues that are not in compliance. We are very direct. And it's data supported. It's supported by our comprehensive reviews. And until such time as they fix those issues, and prove that they've fixed those issues, they will remain in noncompliance.

We've got various ways of ensuring that it stays on the city's radar as a priority and that they understand the quicker they resolve these issues, the quicker they get to a point where they may be deemed in full and effective compliance. I think it's going to mean a lot to the citizens when that point arrives because that will be the point when they can feel much more confident that they have a reformed and well-functioning, well-managed and constitutional police department.

I wanted to hear both of your thoughts on the difference between the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC), and the successes that have been had there creating an outside group that can provide meaningful and effective feedback to Cleveland Division of Police that actually affects the policies they put in place, and compare that to Community Police Commission, which has had less luck having that relationship with Cleveland Division of Police. Do you have thoughts on why there have been different outcomes between those two parts of the consent decree?

ADEN: I don't think there is anything structurally that ended up causing the two different outcomes and the success of those partnerships. What I would say, though, with regard to MHRAC and the work group, it's not without conflict. They just resolve conflict in a very healthy manner, they work through it and they learn from it. It's generally very, very positive.

The outcome really is what conflict should create, a better result and a deep understanding between folks that are maybe not aligned on certain issues. But it's almost always just a respectful outcome that furthers their collective mission.

There's a lot of toxic background between police and community here and the CPC should be the vehicle to help us carve that out and get rid of it and recreate the relationship between public safety and communities. 

It's not a structural problem because the structures are virtually the same. You have subject matter experts that are dealing with a thorny, difficult issue that then provide assistance to the police department on how to resolve that through policies, through training, and through ways that result in better treatment of people.

My personal opinion is that it's not structurally based. There are some personal things that go on in some of these meetings that spark arguments and it shuts down communications. And I'm specifically talking about CPC and city meetings that we sit on. And it doesn't have to be that way. In order for us to move forward in a compliant manner, that needs to be resolved.

CHARLES SEE: I think that's an excellent explanation of that. Structurally they're about the same. I think CPC may have had a tougher road to hoe, though, given that all of the things thought to need improvement within the police department, that was in CPC's bailiwick to address.

MHRAC dealt with the mental health aspect of it and was dealing with that. CPC had the entire gamut of problems that the public felt it was having with the police department and was expected to confront the police department in an aggressive way to try to get those things resolved. I think some of that also contributed to the friction and the tension with the department, because they weren't shrinking violets as they approached those kinds of problems on the behalf of the community.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was recorded, Cleveland voters approved Issue 24, which transforms the current Community Police Commission into a civilian oversight body with control over Cleveland police discipline, policies and training.

Mayor Frank Jackson's administration has said the earliest they could start looking at being completed with the consent decree would be sometime in 2022, sometime next year. From what I've gathered, they're not on pace to be prepared to leave the consent decree next year?

ADEN: No, I mean I can flat out answer that. 2022 is going to be the year where we conduct a lot of assessments. And then there's the sustainability phase, which can vary, but it's likely at least a year. Let's say that everything goes perfectly with the assessments, and things are on track, still the earliest would be pretty much late 2023.

I don't like to put timelines on it because a lot of it depends on the CDP and the city's performance. At this point, while I don't like to talk politics, I will say that next Tuesday [Editor’s Note: This interview was done the Friday before the mayoral election, where Justin Bibb was elected mayor] there's an election and there's going to be some changes, obviously.

We're hopeful that when that happens, and the transition happens, we don't have too long of a delay before people are put back in whatever seats and whatever positions they're going to serve in so we can keep this on track. The ultimate outcome here is to have a well-trained, a well-resourced, a competent, accountable, well-supervised, well-managed and well-led and constitutional police department.

That's lofty. That's a lot of stuff that we want. The citizens demand that. You don't have an option with regard to confidence and constitutionality. So that's where we're trying to get to. And a consent decree is a really good recipe to get people there, with the arm of the court.

There's one paragraph in the status report that mentions a review of two officer fatal use of force investigations by the Cleveland Division of Police, and I'll just read some of it:

"Overall, the Monitoring Team classified the two force investigation team administrative investigations as ‘poor’ and not in compliance with the consent decree. Specifically, the monitoring team found that in both cases problematic investigative techniques were used and documentation in support of the investigation appeared to be biased in favor of the subject officers."

Could you go into a bit of detail? What were those two cases that the report refers to?

ADEN: I'd rather not discuss the cases directly. What I would say is, one big issue across the board was timeliness. These have taken on an entirely unacceptable timeframe for the investigations to be completed.

Some of the qualitative things with these two investigations, but also with other investigations, what we observed were investigators providing leading questions and not going as deep as we think they should have gone when answers were given that afforded the opportunity to dig deeper with that answer.

We've communicated this with the CDP, and there's evidence that they are in process of conducting training to administer better interviews that are absent of leading questions. And, as far as the bias toward the police officers, I think that's also deeply rooted in the kinds of questions they were asking.

That's as far as I'll go with that. We're going to file a complete report on some of our investigative findings with regard to our ongoing use of force review, which does measure these things, and there's also one that's coming out very, very soon with regard to OPS, the civilian investigators. We've also just conducted an audit there. So, within the next month that will be made public.

But as far as these two cases go, there won't be further details about who they were and what happened during the investigation? 

ADEN: We're still working on some of that. And we're still working with the CDP so I'd rather not identify them. But I think they're very public cases so if people looked back at some of the latest shootings they can figure out what's what.  

I think that that paragraph plays to the worst fears that people have about the consent decree. That it is in some ways a largely academic exercise, that there is observation, there are reports read, there are reports filed, but in some of the most important cases, like when an officer takes someone's life, there isn't accountability because it's still basically an internal process, it's something that goes on outside of the public eye and there is really no accountability because, even when there are problems, nothing really happens. 

ADEN: The consent decree serves to change behaviors, and that's very, very broad, to change behaviors, to change how organizations operate. And we're doing that. The CDP investigates things quite differently, and I think these cases highlight our capacity to go in, assess and come out with very, very clear areas where they need to go back. And we will go back and reassess.

This isn't a one-and-done. There's going to be multiple assessments to get there, until they have it right. So, the process of accountability through the consent decree is present, it's effective, and at times it takes time. It takes time to do these assessments, pinpoint what's wrong, such as down to leading questions. That's a pretty deep find when you're looking at a whole bunch of information and you're reading interviews and you make that conclusion. That's pretty significant.

I'd say the accountability from the consent decree, yes, it's academic and it's a review, but it also serves to directly tell the organization what they need to change in order to come into compliance. We don't lead the police department. What we do have control of is how the court manages this consent decree and how we view, interpret and assess change and compliance. So, it's slow moving, it's not a fast fix. But with something that was so fundamentally wrong, a fast fix would never work.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.