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Can the Troubled Cleveland Police Handle a Volatile Republican Convention?

Operating under federal oversight, officers will be scrutinized for how they use force.

When the Republican National Convention storms into Cleveland in July, the security challenges will be formidable, but not just because the GOP is in turmoil.

The Cleveland Division of Police — which will oversee the 1,500 cops on its roster and as many as 3,500 more borrowed from elsewhere — is confronting its own serious internal disorder. It will be the first police agency to take on a presidential nominating convention while operating under federal oversight.

Whether that fact turns out to be a historical footnote or something more troubling depends on a number of factors, from the temperament of the crowds to the volatility of the convention itself to the ability of Cleveland’s commanders to rein in a department that has been deemed seriously flawed for the way its officers use force.

A two-decade-old federal law gives the U.S. Justice Department authority to sue local law enforcement agencies that refuse to reform. Seventeen consent decrees — the strictest form of federal oversight — have been issued since 1997.

The Justice Department has twice probed Cleveland's problematic policing culture. Twelve years ago, Cleveland police agreed to a series of voluntary reforms to temper overly aggressive officers. But the complaints continued, and in 2013, Justice Department lawyers returned to the Ohio city and spent nearly two years building a new case against Cleveland cops.

Officers were cited for frequent and unnecessary use of their guns, for firing when no life-threatening circumstances existed, and getting into unnecessary altercations with suspects during arrests. In addition, police supervisors were noted for covering up reports of physical force by failing to fill out the proper paperwork. City and federal officials signed a 105-page consent decree in May.

The city and its police force will find itself squarely in the glare of gavel-to-gavel international media attention as an estimated 50,000 visitors — a mix of politicians and delegates, protesters and dignitaries — take over downtown Cleveland from July 18 to 21. The ascension of Donald Trump, who draws particularly turbulent crowds of both supporters and protesters, could make policing the event highly unpredictable.

Both Cleveland officials and the Secret Service, which has overall responsibility for law enforcement at the convention, have declined to discuss internal policies or specific tactics and strategy for the convention, citing security concerns. The lack of information has exasperated both civil rights advocates and members of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, a watchdog organization that was created by the oversight agreement, who have called on Police Chief Calvin Williams to address the public about this summer’s plans.

One worry is that Cleveland’s new rules on when its officers can shoot, or use Tasers and chemical spray won’t take effect until Jan. 1.

“There are concerns throughout the community, and throughout the department, about the level of readiness,” said Matthew Barge, Cleveland’s lead federal monitor who is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the consent decree. Barge says he has authority to report any allegations of police abuse to a federal judge and can also post any details about poor police behavior during the convention on the federal monitor’s website. “We are not going to be bashful about reviewing what happens at the RNC,” Barge said.

A review of standard procedure gives a sense of what the Cleveland police will be facing — and what they are generally trained to do — at a national convention, which is designated a “national special security event” by the Department of Homeland Security.

The streets surrounding the convention area are divided into three zones — inner, middle, and outer. Access passes are required to move through the two zones closest to the convention sites, while cars are generally prohibited. Roads in and around the security zones are restricted. Police are typically trained on how to handle large crowds with classes on First Amendment rights, bike-patrol strategies, weapons training and when to use force.

The Cuyahoga County Office of Emergency Management is coordinatingforthcoming training sessions with the U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Dan Williams, the spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson, said police officers, in response to the current federal intervention, have already started to undergo 40 hours of training to learn how to handle emergency situations that involve the mentally ill, the homeless and drug addicts.

But the police department still has a long way to go before its new use-of-force rules are drawn up and approved. The federal monitor has asked for final drafts by June, and then needs approval by a federal judge before Cleveland officers are trained. Forthcoming changes, outlined in the use of force section in the consent decree, include prohibiting the use of chemical spray on handcuffed suspects and banning officers from engaging in physical confrontations with people who have merely mouthed off.

Jonathan Smith, a former chief Justice Department lawyer who had supervised the agency’s Cleveland investigation, said that the problem with the Cleveland police was that officers and their supervisors were ignoring existing policies. The court-ordered reforms spell out new reporting requirements that require the police to file far more specific reports of violent encounters and establish an internal review board to monitor the credibility of use-of-force investigations.

"They will be facing one of the most complex incidents [the RNC] that they will ever face,” Smith said. “You would want a department that has systems that are in place where there is better accountability and better supervision." (Two weeks before Smith and his colleagues released the results of their inquiry, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who died holding a toy gun.)

While the civil rights arm of the Justice Department oversees Cleveland police reform process, Congress approved another branch of the agency — Office of Justice Programs — to give the city $50 million to hire outside police officers and buy new weapons for the convention. City records show that the police want to purchase riot control gear, bulletproof helmets and steel gates. The request has startled residents who have asked police officials to detail the equipment on the Cleveland police wish-list.

“It’s troubling. We need more answers. We need more dialogue,” said Rhonda Williams, co-chair of the Cleveland Community Police Commission. Cleveland is also asking other cities for help, and officials have specified that they do not want to hire officers who have been investigated in the last three year for First Amendment rights violations or excessive force.

The main convention venues will be the Quicken Loans Arena — home to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — as well as the Cleveland Convention Center and the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, according to the city’s security contract. The contract also refers to the volatile political climate, and warns potential policing partners that “event dates may be extended by the RNC...if it is required to complete the RNC nomination process.”

So far, Cleveland’s recruitment process for policing partners is slow moving. Although, police departments in Atlanta and a few other cities have agreed to send a handful officers, it's not clear where the vast majority of reinforcements will come from. The Seattle Police Department has shared advice on using bike cops to ride along-side the expected waves of demonstrators. “You want to start with a soft approach,” said Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who ran the Boston Police Department during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Cleveland has also asked police officers in Illinois to bring three BearCats, military-styled armored vehicles, and have requested that the cops who agree to police the RNC have undergone “mobile field force” training, jargon for policing specific points within a large scale event.

But Illinois officers are still mulling the request, said James Page, executive director of Illinois Law Enforcement System, an organization that coordinates anti-terrorism training and enforcement throughout the state. Page said that he is aware of Cleveland’s policing history and its consent decree and is not fazed by the federal oversight. However, he is still negotiating with Cleveland officials on how out-of-state officers will be financially protected if they are injured during the convention or sued for excessive force.

“We are not going to do something that we think is improper,” said Page, detailing his organization’s tough stance on abusive cops. “We won’t violate someone’s rights, or expose ourselves to liability just because someone told us to. It’s a new way of policing. This isn’t the 1970s anymore.”