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Two Widely Differing Views On Consent Decree's Progress Have Taken Hold

Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams took over the department in 2014, right before Cleveland signed onto the federal consent decree. [United Way of Greater Cleveland / Zoom]
photo of calvin williams

A Wednesday evening panel hosted by the United Way of Greater Cleveland and NAACP Cleveland showcased the widely differing answers to a burning question: Is the 2015 consent decree between the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) and the U.S. Department of Justice accomplishing what it was meant to?

On one side are representatives of Cleveland’s residents most deeply affected by the practices of the city’s police department. On the other are officials working directly on the reforms laid out in the agreement. Both sides have very different answers to that question.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams defended the progress made by his department in the last five years.

“Our uses of force are down. Our uses of deadly force are down. Our complaints are down. And our injuries to both officers and citizens are down,” Williams said.

CDP was averaging about 20 uses of deadly force per year between 2011 and 2014, Williams said. From 2015 to 2020, that number dropped to four per year. The department was averaging more than 350 use of force incidents a year before the consent decree, which dropped to the low 200s annually after the agreement was signed.

Cleveland signed onto the consent decree in May 2015, agreeing to enact sweeping reforms to CPD’s use of force policies, systems for holding officers accountable and strategies for addressing biased policing.

The initial agreement was for five years, with two one-year extensions if the city hadn’t met all the requirements in that time. It’s now about half way through the first of the two extensions.

The department adopted new use of force policies and training early on. It changed the procedures for disciplining officers. It sought to recruit a more diverse pool of police officers. The City of Cleveland strengthened the office that addresses citizen complaints against police officers.

But for those on Wednesday’s panel who work with community members, the department’s progress hasn’t reached residents.

“We, as a community, don’t see this as gone far enough,” said Danielle Sydnor, head of the Cleveland branch of the NAACP. “And I think that the complaints that we still receive into our office, the number of incidents that have taken place in the City of Cleveland since the decree took place, really demonstrates to us that while we are seeing incremental reform, we still as a community believe that we need to see more reform.”

During the summer’s protests in Cleveland and nationwide, demonstrators called for the reallocation of police funding toward social services. The call to defund the police reached Cleveland, but Mayor Frank Jackson and other elected officials quickly dispelled the idea, saying the consent decree is addressing the issues at the heart of the protests.

“People have to understand, we’re still in the process of reform for this city and this division,” Williams said during Wednesday’s discussion. “So, for the folks who say they haven’t seen enough – I haven’t seen enough either.”

CDP’s progress is overseen by U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. The consent decree monitor, Hassan Aden, and his staff file reports to Oliver on the steps CDP has taken and what parts of the agreement still need to be addressed.

Aden’s office is preparing to file its plan for what CDP has to accomplish in 2021. And in February, his office files its ninth semi-annual report, measuring progress in each of the hundreds of specific actions the city agreed to take in 2015.

“We’re in a mode now where we’re starting to really assess where the division stands and whether the consent decree mandates are in practice, meaning: Is that how they operate?” Aden said.

Jason Goodrick, executive director of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, is critical of CDP’s willingness to share data about use of force with the commission, arguing on Wednesday night that the city is missing a chance to engage with the people coming to the commission’s meetings.

Cleveland Community Police Commission is an independent agency set up by the consent decree that shares information on new policies and progress from the city with community members and collects their feedback to share with the city.

“A lot of people are still asking to have more conversations around how race affects policing in Cleveland,” Goodrick said. “And just saying, ‘Well, we did some bias free training,’ I don’t think the community is feeling the effects of that.”

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