Amid Justice Department Investigations, Protesters Call Out Cleveland Police Murders

“What age is a black boy, when he learns he’s scary?” – The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

“Black lives matter!” “Justice for Tamir!” “No justice, no peace! No crooked police!” These were some of the chants of protesters outside Cleveland City Hall for several weeks.

Last month, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, who was responding to a 911 dispatch in which the caller reported seeing someone with a gun in Cudell Recreation Center. The 911 caller twice told the dispatcher the gun seemed fake, but this information was not relayed to the responding officers.

The surveillance video of the shooting exposes some contradictions between the official account and what actually happened. Unlike what police reported, Tamir was not sitting with others in the pavilion; he was alone when officers pulled up. The official story also claims that Loehmann told Rice to put his hands up three times, but the video shows the officer shooting Rice within two seconds of his cruiser pulling up.

However, the fact that there is video evidence of what happened on November 22 does not make this a cut-and-dried case in the eyes of the law. Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams said Loehmann was not at fault: “The officer was doing his job in responding to a call for service and there were things that the officer didn’t know at the time . . . Taking all that into consideration . . . yes, I would say it’s not the fault of the officer at this time and it’s not the fault of Tamir.”

Cleveland city councilman Brian Cummins has called on Williams to step down, saying “If we don’t get someone new in those positions I think we’re going to limit and hold back a little bit the ability to really gain the trust of the community.” While Williams has not said he would resign, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson insisted that would not happen.

Tamir’s death was ruled a homicide by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner and Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, wants to see Loehmann convicted. The attorney for the family, Benjamin Crump, asserts Loehmann should be indicted without a grand jury hearing evidence. The Rice family has filed a federal wrongful death suit against the city.

Loehmann and the other officer at the scene, Frank Garmback, are currently on administrative leave.

All of this comes amid a rising wave of protest against the killing of black Americans by police – and in the recent wake of a damning investigation of the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) by the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

Department of Justice Reprimands the Cleveland Police Department

On December 4, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the DOJ had found a pattern of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force by the CPD. Furthermore, the report concludes that the CPD failed to appropriately address the numerous incidents of misconduct after they occurred. In a letter addressed to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, the DOJ states: “We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies and practices – including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community – contribute to the use of unreasonable force.” While the review did not specifically address racial profiling, it did acknowledge “many African-Americans reported that they believe CPD officers are verbally and physically aggressive toward them because of their race.”

In a press conference on December 11, Mayor Jackson said he did not agree with some of the DOJ’s findings, but he agreed there needed to be changes to the CPD, though he did not specify what those changes should be.

The DOJ and the City of Cleveland have agreed to begin negotiations for a consent decree – a set of reforms designed to prevent future abuses by law enforcement – and install an independent monitor to oversee reform efforts before the end of the year. But as journalist Ray Jablonski notes, the process can take weeks, months or years, possibly lasting well into the 2020s. If city officials and DOJ officials are unable to come to an agreement, however, the DOJ will file a civil lawsuit against Cleveland.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said to address concerns of racism in law enforcement, he’s agreed to “create a task force to look across the state at what we can do to be able to respond to people who are increasingly frustrated and feel shut out.” Don Bryant, president of the Greater Cleveland Immigrant Support Network, has been heavily involved in the organizing efforts surrounding the reform, but does not put much weight on the governor’s lip service. “We’ve seen a lot of task forces, but not a lot of action,” he said.

On December 8, the Cleveland City Council announced it would commence a “listening tour” to hear the concerns of residents in the aftermath of the DOJ report. Additionally, the council held a special meeting to review the DOJ report, and the mayor’s staff outlined the city’s plans to comply with the findings of the federal investigation.

But will this be enough? Some concerned citizens in Cleveland don’t think so. Joe Worthy is the Ohio director of youth leadership and organizing for the Children’s Defense Fund and the lead organizer for the New Abolitionists Association. “Justice isn’t coming in the form of policy; it’s coming in the form of words,” Worthy said. “We have to show them the people of Cleveland run the show, and it is about empowering them to affect this change.”

The Murders Behind the Activism

The DOJ investigation commenced in March 2013, spurred by several highly publicized incidents, notably the killing in November 2012 of two unarmed citizens, Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell. In what some local citizens have dubbed “The Cleveland Atrocity,” a 23-minute police chase ended at a middle school parking lot in East Cleveland, where 13 officers fired 137 bullets into Williams and Russell, killing them. Officers reported seeing a gun in the car, but no weapon was ever found. Of the 277 Cleveland officers on duty that night, 104 were involved at some point, said Cleveland public safety director Michael McGrath. Although five supervisors were charged with dereliction of duty for the incident, only one of the 13 officers who shot at Williams and Russell was charged with homicide: Officer Michael Brelo was handed two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Brelo fired 49 of the 137 shots that night. His trial has been delayed, and his defense argues that the investigation into his indictment was contaminated.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell will determine whether to suppress certain evidence or drop the case completely, as the County Prosecutor’s Office will have to prove it independently obtained information and did not rely on statements police officers gave as part of administrative hearings.

A less nationally publicized incident that was not a part of the DOJ investigation, but which prompted local activism on CPD reform, was the November 2014 death of 37-year-old mother, Tanisha Anderson. Anderson, who had schizophrenia, was involved in a scuffle with police when her family had called 911 for a crisis intervention. Anderson was anxious about being confined in the small space of the police car and when she struggled to get out of the backseat, officers slammed her down and kneed her in the back when she was on the pavement, according to family members. (Officers claim that Anderson struggled and kicked at police who were trying to put her in the back of a cruiser to take her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, then went limp inexplicably.) An unconscious Anderson was taken to the Cleveland Clinic and pronounced dead, but at the time of writing, the county medical examiner has not determined the cause of her death. Activists from the Oppressed Peoples’ Nation and the Greater Cleveland Immigrant Support Network are calling on the Cuyahoga County coroner to rule Anderson’s death a “homicide.”

Although Anderson’s death was not included in the DOJ investigation, the department’s findings state: “[CPD] officers use excessive force against individuals who are in mental health crisis or who may be unable to understand or comply with officers’ commands, including when the individual is not suspected of having committed any crime at all.”

Public Anger at a Lack of Accountability

At the Cleveland City Council meeting on December 8, protesters packed the meeting chamber. About an hour in, they began standing up, reading excerpts of the DOJ report and chanting, “McGrath must go,” calling for the resignation of Michael McGrath, the Cleveland public safety director. More than 40 protesters were escorted out of the meeting by police.

Council disruptionProtesters disrupt the council meeting, reading excerpts the DOJ report and chanting “McGrath must go.” (Photo: Britney Schultz)

According to Joe Worthy of the New Abolitionist Association, the protest was about not letting “business as usual” occur at the last City Council meeting of the year, and to introduce demands. “You forfeit your right to govern if there are 12-year-olds lying dead in the street,” he said. “If they want this to stop, they need to meet with us about these demands.”

Earlier this month, Cleveland city councilman Jeff Johnson had publicly called for McGrath and Martin Flask, special executive assistant to the mayor, to resign, but Mayor Frank Jackson has defended the two men against the recent criticism, and McGrath himself has been adamant that he will not resign. Following the protesters’ chanting, Johnson stood up and gave an impassioned speech, in which he again called for McGrath to go.

In response, Mayor Jackson’s entire administration walked out of the meeting. McGrath himself was the last to leave. “I don’t care who walks out on me,” Johnson shouted as officials left. “But this government cannot walk out on the people of Cleveland.”

Johnson told Truthout the reaction of public officials was disappointing but not surprising. “I was expressing outrage and anger that the DOJ report has exposed significant issues in our community,” he said. “The administration responsible for fixing these problems walked out. I was outraged at the administration for being small-minded and protecting their own – McGrath – and not focusing on fixing the Cleveland Police Department.”

Councilman Brian Cummins echoed this sentiment, saying the walkout “shows an arrogance and an inability to understand the gravity of what’s going on here.”

Negotiating a Consent Decree

On December 15, community members, US Attorney Steve Dettelbach and lawyers from the DOJ’s civil rights division attended a forum to open a dialogue about what should be in Cleveland’s consent decree. The meeting began with Dettelbach giving a summary of the main findings of the DOJ report. He identified the main causes of the CPD’s deficiencies as “insufficient levels of accountability,” which he said leads to members of the CPD not following the rules in the long run; a culture of “us vs. them” mistrust, which he said is not conducive to improving community policing efforts; and the CPD not being adequately trained or resourced. Dettelbach then opened up the forum for questions from the community.

Cleveland forumTimothy Mygatt, an attorney for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division (left) and US Attorney Steve Dettelbach (right) answer questions from community members about the DOJ report and subsequent consent decree, while Pastor Larry Harris of Mount Olive Baptist Church (center) moderates the forum, December 15, 2014. (Photo: Britney Schultz)

Some in attendance had questions about the consent decree process. Timothy Mygatt, an attorney for the DOJ’s civil rights division, said that the consent decree would be in effect even after it technically “expires,” because it would be a part of a city ordinance, and certain benchmarks would have to be met to achieve a “period of sustained compliance.” This means, Mygatt said, that even though a timeframe would be negotiated for the consent decree, firm deadlines are not a proper measurement of whether the city has accomplished the objectives set out in the document.

Dettelbach explained the purpose of the independent monitor within the city’s agreement. He said the monitor should be independent of any influence from the CPD, the DOJ or any federal court, and that the monitor did not have to be someone from Cleveland. The monitor, Dettelbach added, was responsible for overseeing and enforcing the negotiated consent decree.

One community member asked why the DOJ report did not address racial profiling in Cleveland. Dettelbach said that, while the report did not address the issue, “Race in policing needs to be part of the discussion going forward.”

Another resident asked what would be put into place to address the systemic issue of a lack of accountability, at every level in the chain of command. “That’s the $64,000 question,” Dettelbach said. He advocated implementing “structures of accountability” and “changing the culture” within the CPD. Dettelbach said the officers need to know there are consequences to their actions, and enforcing disciplinary action against such misconduct must be consistent to change the culture.

One resident asked how the consent decree would repair the damage inflicted upon the victims of police violence and their families. “It won’t,” Dettelbach said. But he maintained that the consent decree was a good starting point for moving forward in repairing the community.

Dettelbach agreed to host other such forums to hear input from the residents of Cleveland about what should be in the consent decree. “We have ideas about things, but we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom,” he said. “We want to hear from the community to make an effective consent decree for Cleveland.”

Demands of the Movement

Preceding the last City Council meeting of the year, the Cleveland Ministers and Residents for Change publicly issued seven demands:

1. Police accountability – The immediate abolishment of the current police review board, to be replaced with a “Citizen’s Complaint and Review Commission” (CCRC) elected by the citizens of Cleveland and composed entirely of civilian volunteers. The CCRC will have subpoena power and authority to recommend sanctions for officer misconduct.

2. Transparency – In the event of a police shooting, an electronic message should be immediately forwarded to the elected CCRC. Details about the officer involved and the citizen injured should be included. Additionally, should police be dispatched to a situation with a high potential for casualties, EMS should be notified and dispatched if necessary, as a first response in lieu of “police backup.” (It was reported that nearly four minutes had passed after Tamir Rice was shot before first aid was administered. A spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson said he was unsure of the policy regarding how and when officers are required to provide medical assistance).

3. An early warning system – A tracking system where police administration will track, investigate and discipline officers that have a history of lodged complaints from citizens, which would also be subject to review from the CCRC.

4. Mental health services and crisis prevention/intervention training – This includes the hiring of an onsite mental health assessment/training officer or agency to develop and implement mandatory training for police and dispatchers.

5. Improved community relations and recruitment – This includes the implementation of a diversity campaign called the “My Community, My Choice” program, as a way to address the disproportionate exclusion of people of color in the Cleveland police force.

6. Dispatcher communication and sensitivity training – An immediate intensified training and monitoring of all dispatch workers. Dispatchers should be held accountable if they do not repeat what is communicated to them verbatim.

7. Body cameras – On November 25, the city approved a one-year contract to outfit the Cleveland police force with body cameras. The cameras will make their debut on officers in January 2015, with all officers to be equipped with cameras by the end of June. In accordance, officers should be required to “wear a camera equipped with audio and visual capabilities on their person for the full duration of their shift without exception.”

Meeting With City Officials

Cleveland council and community meeting Members of Cleveland City Council meet with citizens to hear their demands, December 11, 2014. (Photo: Ron Wynne)Concerned citizens met with members of the Cleveland City Council on December 11. Joe Worthy of the New Abolitionists Association said the meeting was to be a negotiation meeting with firm commitments from the City Council, not a part of the city’s “listening tour.” One councilman, who Worthy said wanted to frame the meeting as a part of the listening tour, chairs the council’s Safety Committee and represents the ward where Tamir Rice was killed. But Worthy said the councilman was hesitant to commit to proposals from citizens at the meeting.

“All that will come out of the ‘listening tour’ is officials hearing from people, which is important, but with no real concrete policy changes,” Worthy said. He said it was condescending to think that just by listening to the community’s concerns, council members could draft effective policy changes on their own. “We need to be a part of that process.”

The meeting consisted of nine citizens and four City Council members. The citizens were a part of the #CleDemands campaign, and they came to the meeting with demands for legislative changes and issues for nonbinding resolution commitments.

The first demand was a call for an emergency ordinance for full implementation of police body cameras before or by January 25, 2015. This would speed up the process of equipping all CPD officers with cameras. According to Worthy, council members expressed concern about funding for the cameras, though it was again unclear whether it would require additional funding to speed implementation.

The second demand was the urgent replacement of the current Civilian Police Review Board with an independent, democratically elected citizen review board. There were 441 complaints against the CPD this year, ranging from physical abuse to harassment, yet the current board has only ruled on 36 of those complaints. Council members expressed support for this idea, with Councilman Jeff Johnson agreeing to introduce an ordinance on the matter written by constituents. In the event that such an ordinance does not pass with the necessary 11 votes of council members, Johnson also suggested gathering the 18,000 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot.

Four resolutions were presented for endorsement to council members by the #CleDemands campaign at the meeting:

1. The immediate indictment of officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback (the officers involved in Tamir Rice’s death) and the officers who killed Tanisha Anderson

2. All Cleveland police enter a complete retraining, including 40 hours of mental illness training per year and diversity training

3. The immediate freeze on the hiring campaign in the CDP

4. Any officer involved in the killing of a civilian be immediately and thoroughly investigated, and if warranted, prosecuted by a lawyer in no way affiliated with the Cleveland Division of Police

The council members present expressed general support for most of the resolutions, with Johnson, endorsing all four resolutions, stating he was “willing to be the sponsor [of such resolutions].”

The Future of Racial Justice

The United States has witnessed many miscarriages of justice in the past few months alone, the most recent of these being the failure to indict the officers that killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. If a citizen is the target of a US grand jury, there is a 99.993 percent chance of indictment, but that percentage drops to virtually zero if the subject is a police officer.

Addressing fellow community members at a Cleveland meeting focused on responding to police violence, racism and systemic injustice, Gerald Henley of the Carl Stokes Brigade social justice club said the grand jury process was in need of reform. He said third-party, non-local prosecutors should be assigned to incidents of police misconduct. “We need to make sure Cleveland is the first city in the US to indict a cop for murder,” Henley said.

With race at the forefront of the discussion about relations between police and civilians, another DOJ announcement earlier this month is worth examining. Attorney General Eric Holder expanded the rules which rein in racial profiling, but the decree is only required for federal law enforcement officers, and is considered guidance for state and local police departments.

A campaign to push a Local Civil Rights Restoration Act (LCRRA) has been proposed at a Cleveland community meeting, and a follow-up meeting is to be held December 20, to develop working groups. The LCRRA is a model piece of legislation that a local city council can adopt to protect the rights and liberties of citizens and limit local law enforcement agencies’ participation in surveillance, immigration enforcement, racial profiling, infiltration of activist groups and cooperation between the military and local police departments. While still in its infancy, the Cleveland push for the LCRRA offers hope. “We have a problem. Accountability is needed and the LCRRA will help achieve this,” said Don Bryant, one of the organizers who introduced the campaign to the city.

At the root of the issue, however, is race. While the DOJ review acknowledged that African-Americans in Cleveland felt discriminated against by police, the fact is one that many have to deal with every day. “I’ve had three cousins killed by gun violence, nephews in prison and juvie. My energy is toward changing the structure of society,” said Joe Worthy of the New Abolitionists Association. He is involved in young advocate leadership training and teaching youth of color nonviolent organizing techniques. “We have kids in our program coming face-to-face with the realization that they could die; they don’t even really get a chance to be kids. Every time you get pulled over, you wonder if this is the time that your life will be in danger.” But he doesn’t want this to be a discouraging story. “Real changes can come out of this. Power drives policy; policy creates culture,” he said. “Nonviolence, focus, planning and strategy . . . Cleveland could be a great example of people power.”