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Filed 6:00 a.m.
09.12.2022

Federal Oversight of Police Has Cost Cleveland Millions. What’s Changed?

Consent decrees force cities to change abusive police tactics. But Cleveland still has work to do.

A Black man with short hair in a gray suit stands at a podium during a press conference.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb discusses steps the city has taken to improve policing in the city and toward ending federal oversight of the Cleveland Division of Police.

With no end date in sight to free Cleveland's police force from federal oversight, residents and elected leaders question whether the $60 million spent so far has improved the department's relationship with the public.

The disagreement comes as residents and leaders fear an uptick in more violent crime.

This article was published in partnership with The Land, Scene, Ideastream, The Real Deal Press, Cleveland Observer, WOVU.

The consent decree agreed upon between the Cleveland Division of Police and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 did not assign guilt or liability. Instead, it created a blueprint to repair community relationships and overhaul how officers frequently used excessive force on residents.

Cleveland has its share of national notoriety for police killings: Officers shot Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams 137 times during a car chase in 2012, and an officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played with a toy gun at a park in 2014.

The department paid more than $18 million in settlements and judgments in 2020, the most recent year available. Some lawsuits settled in recent years are for misconduct that happened decades ago. It will be years before the impact of the consent decree on future lawsuits becomes clear.

Consent decrees are the federal government’s most widely-used tool to force cities with histories of abusive policing to change their ways. Cleveland is required to enact dozens of changes in categories including use-of-force procedures, enhanced training, internal investigations and de-escalating situations involving mental health and substance abuse. The police department was noncompliant in many areas at the end of 2021, records show.

A consent decree’s oversight ends when a federal judge says it does, and it can take longer than the seven years Cleveland’s police force has been under a judge’s jurisdiction.

In 2013, a federal judge ended the oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department — 12 years after its consent decree started. It took the Detroit Police Department 13 years to be freed from oversight in 2016.

In May, a federal judge ruled that California’s Oakland Police Department could end 20 years of oversight after completing a one-year probationary period.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said consent decrees can be catalysts for lasting change that wouldn’t otherwise occur because of the lack of resources for personnel, training and technology.

The oversight requires departments to modernize how officers work, he said.

“Accountability to lasting change is the responsibility of everyone in the city,” Moore told The Marshall Project. “Once the consent decree is concluded, there must be the will of the elected officials, including newly elected, and department leadership to continue the earlier (reform) commitments.”

Mayor Justin Bibb said the city needs a target date to work toward for the federal oversight to end and to make sure reforms stay in place for years.

“We’re making progress,” Bibb told The Marshall Project. “It’s important that we’re not under this consent decree forever. I want to be fully compliant by the end of my first term.” Bibb’s term ends in 2025.

He cautioned that the police department still has room to improve, though it has made significant strides to decrease use-of-force incidents and to speed up investigations of troubled officers.

For years, the department faced numerous civil rights complaints and lawsuits over excessive force claims, but use-of-force incidents fell from 343 in 2019 to 194 in 2021, records show.

Cleveland’s oversight and improved training — according to monitoring reports and Chief of Police Wayne Drummond — have reduced high-profile, controversial shootings and other police use-of-force cases in the last seven years. Some residents and elected leaders are conflicted on whether the millions used for monitoring have been well spent.

Council member Mike Polensek, chair of the Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee, said one of the biggest mistakes under former Mayor Frank Jackson and former police Chief Calvin Williams was that the department took years to investigate complaints against officers.

“When you fail your oath of office, that is totally unacceptable,” Polensek told The Marshall Project. “As a result, we have paid substantially for it.”

Efforts to reach Jackson and Williams were not successful.

Since the consent decree went into effect in 2015, taxpayers have spent $6 million to $11 million each year to watch over police, according to the Cleveland Community Police Commission.

The Division of Police’s overall budget for 2022 is about $223 million.

An additional $6.3 million is budgeted for 2022, according to The Marshall Project’s review of city budget records.

Here’s how the spending breaks down:

Police Monitoring

Nearly one-third of the money spent so far is for monitors, the Community Police Commission and the city’s police inspector general team.

A Marshall Project review of federal court records and monitoring team reports from October 2015 through June 2022 shows that $6.2 million — about 10% of monitoring costs so far — went to pay monitoring team members.

The Cleveland Police Monitoring Team is headed by Hassan Aden’s Aden Group, LLC, a Virginia-based firm that specializes in public safety and criminal justice reforms that focus on community inclusion and empowerment.

In 2021 alone, taxpayers spent $767,236 on the monitoring team and minor expenses, court records show.

Aden’s personal work time isn’t cheap. At a rate of $250 an hour,he billed for a combined $28,000 in January and February, according to statements on the team’s website. He also reported donating 15.5 hours to taxpayers in those months.

The eight hours Aden billed on Feb. 1 included meeting with Bibb, then-Interim Police Chief Drummond and other members of the mayor’s cabinet and DOJ officials. He also met with other monitors to discuss upcoming assessments and meetings, the records show.

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Charles See, an associate consultant and a Cleveland resident on the team, billed the city 11.2 hours in February for $2,800 — also $250 an hour. In addition, he donated two hours to taxpayers. His work included community engagement, team meeting planning, sending emails, making phone calls and attending a community meeting.

The group has not published an updated progress report since October 2021. A new report is expected later this month.

Policy and Training

The consent decree in Cleveland has led to new policies to make policing less abusive and to training programs to teach officers how to respectfully treat residents.

Implemented training included bias-free policing to deliver “police services with the goal of ensuring that they are equitable, respectful and free of unlawful bias.”

New use-of-force policies ensure that when officers use force, it complies with the law and isn’t unreasonable, according to records. The department also created a dedicated team to quickly investigate and review cases when officers use force on residents.

Cleveland’s stated goal was to transform the police department’s culture through training.

A group of Cleveland police officers in uniform stand in a line outdoors in 2016.

The city of Cleveland has so far spent about $60 million since 2015 to reform its police force.

In May, the monitoring team told Senior U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr.— the federal judge in Cleveland who will decide when the consent decree will end — that it approved a new use-of-force curriculum. It “tackles complex concepts and issues essential to bias-free policing and delivers the material in a manner appropriate for adult-learners,” Aden wrote. He asked Oliver to make the training effective immediately.

Drummond said the biggest benefit from the consent decree was that officers received training to deescalate situations and to no longer use force as a first option.

Video recordings show officers being more patient when talking to people dealing with crises, Drummond told The Marshall Project.

In addition to the drop in use-of-force incidents between 2019 and 2021, the 45 incidents in the first quarter of 2022 marked the fewest in any quarter since 2019, according to records.

“For me, (the consent decree) is working,” Drummond said. “We are working hard to come into compliance.”

But in “Bias-Free Policing,” the department was in “non-compliance” with supervisor training and procedural justice issues covering specific areas.

“As we move forward, the (Cleveland Division of Police) needs to rise or fall on its own efforts and merits in these areas, without the direct guidance of the Monitoring Team,” Aden wrote in an October 2021 report. “We will also be looking for greater sophistication from the Division in their self reporting and transparency.”

Community Skepticism

The biggest drawback to the consent decree is that officers are not given enough credit from the community for adopting changes to do their job, Drummond said.

He cautioned that police work can be violent, and one high-profile incident should not be a reflection on the entire force. He said he believes the end of the consent decree is close, adding: “It’s important that it ends.”

Council President Blaine Griffin, the former Public Safety Committee chair, said the consent decree has brought reform and improved technology to the city.

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But Griffin said it has not made Cleveland safer — as officials hoped when they signed the agreement.

Both homicides and felonious assaults were up a little more than 70% between 2015 and 2021.

When federal and city officials agree to consent decrees, one goal is to reduce police killings and ensure officers end years of discriminatory practices against residents.

Griffin worked closely with Jackson, the former mayor, to reach the agreement and said the initial expectation was for monitors to stay for only five years.

The agreement, Griffin believes, has reduced proactive policing — when officers initiate crime control methods like stopping suspicious vehicles — because officers fear citizen complaints and scrutiny from department leaders — an argument that has also been made across the country.

“It has failed miserably in making our community safer,” Griffin told The Marshall Project. “The consent decree has not led to more confidence in the police department. The verdict is still out.”

One civil rights attorney warned that the police department would go back to its old ways without the consent decree or monitors.

“It’s working because you have someone at least checking to make sure the police don’t just go through the motions,” said attorney Stanley Jackson from The Cochran Firm Cleveland.

“What else do we have to get the police to be compliant? The penalty is the city and residents are still paying for it.”

Residents also disagree on whether the millions spent have made a difference.

Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter-Cleveland has mixed feelings about the consent decree’s progress but said it increased public support for police reform, and he does believe the police department is changing.

The consent decree has forced officers to “at least listen and play nice,” Henton said.

The city’s law director, Mark Griffin, went so far as to claim victory recently in a letter to Aden, the lead monitor, calling for the end of the consent decree.

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Some residents are not pleased with the changes and question why the city has paid so much for reforms.

More than 75 residents packed an East Side recreation center recently, where council members held a community forum to discuss safety, crime and police relations with the community.

The residents demanded answers from Public Safety Director Karrie Howard about homicides, especially those involving teenagers. The residents asked how Bibb’s administration planned to stop the killings.

A Black man wearing a gray suit stands while speaking in a gymnasium as a group of residents sits on the bleachers.

Cleveland resident Roland Muhammad grills the city’s safety director about homicides and crime on the East Side. Muhammad said the consent decree takes money away from programs that could help needy residents.

“What do you have in place to deal with it?” Anthony Body, a former member of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, asked Howard.

Howard grabbed a microphone, took several steps toward the crowd, and said the Bibb administration recently held a press conference on violence. Residents jeered him.

“The real solution to violence is community responsibility,” he replied.

Body countered: “What proactive solutions do you have?”

“This administration has been determined to find solutions,” Howard replied. “Cleveland didn’t get like this overnight. We’re not going to change it overnight.”

The Marshall Project asked 11 residents at the meeting whether they believe the consent decree has improved policing. Eight said they didn’t know about the consent decree.

Body said many residents are not engaged in the process or sold on the changes.

“We don’t have community buy-in,” he added. “You look at the money spent, and you look at the (crime) problems we have. There’s your answer.”

Roland Muhammad supports police reform, but said the consent decree unfairly takes away resources from the city’s neediest residents.

“We need a lot of problems solved. The consent decree only works one-sided — for the police,” he said. “We have all the money going to the police department, not the community.”

Brenda Bickerstaff, a community activist and member of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, said the money spent on the consent decree and monitors will improve policing in Cleveland.

“I don’t think it’s unfair,” said Bickerstaff, whose brother was killed by police more than 20 years ago. “[The monitors are] doing their job. They’re there to help us. They never shut us out.”

Mark Puente Twitter Email is a staff writer leading investigative reporting efforts for The Marshall Project – Cleveland. Puente, a former truck driver, has nearly 20 years in journalism and a proven track record in accountability reporting. He has worked for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, the Tampa Bay Times and the Los Angeles Times. Puente is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Cid Standifer Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project – Cleveland. She has more than a decade of newsroom experience, and has written for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Belt Magazine, Cleveland Scene, Eye on Ohio and The Washington Post. Prior to moving to Cleveland, she covered the military for Stars and Stripes, Military Times, Inside the Navy and USNI News. Standifer has a master's degree in African history from Emory University and a bachelor's degree in history and physics from Grinnell College.