As the Cleveland Division of Police nears its eighth year under federal oversight, “consent decree fatigue” is hampering the city’s efforts to keep residents interested in the required reforms.
Repairing relationships between police and Cleveland residents is a core component of the federal consent decree, but resident participation has been low in recent weeks as the city held public hearings to choose a new police monitoring team.
City officials said they want to stop the oversight by the end of 2025. Leigh Anderson, executive director of a new city team aimed at measuring the consent decree’s progress, said Cleveland needs a PR blitz to galvanize residents around the costly reforms.
“Consent decree fatigue is very real,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of work to do in educating the public about what consent decrees are and how useful their input is going to be in this process.”
The sentiment comes as city leaders and U.S. Department of Justice officials will appear before a federal judge Thursday to hear updates on the progress of reforms. The meeting will be the first update since monitors released a blistering report in September that stated the city hired officers who could not pass background checks for other departments, among other things.
Anderson, who has worked on consent decrees in Oakland, California, and Ferguson, Missouri, said she knows it will be a struggle to keep residents engaged.
“It happened almost eight years ago,” she said about the start of the consent decree. “They get tired of hearing the same things.”
Mayor Justin Bibb created Anderson’s Police Accountability Team in September to help speed up the reform process and to make sure police become compliant faster. Mayor’s office officials declined a request to be interviewed.
John Moore, 73, of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, said at a resident meeting recently the city has failed to communicate with residents about the consent decree.
“This bothers me,” Moore said. “We would like to see changes. It’s hard to monitor this.”
The consent decree agreed upon between the Cleveland Division of Police and the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2015 created a blueprint to repair community relationships and eliminate excessive force complaints, which have plagued the division.
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.
A consent decree’s oversight ends when a federal judge says it does.
Timothy Longo Sr., associate vice president for safety and security and the police chief for the University of Virginia, has worked on monitoring teams in Cleveland, Los Angeles County and Cincinnati.
He said he suspects Cleveland residents have lost hope and that the community is growing impatient.
“You got them excited about a process a couple of years ago,” Longo said, referring to the 2015 consent decree announcement. “You stood in front of a bunch of cameras in front of a stately building and said: ‘Change is on the way. You’re going to see something different, something new, something refreshing.’ And here we are.”
The consent decree monitor holds a vital position to make sure the Cleveland Division of Police incorporates changes. The monitor reports to Senior U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. — the federal judge in Cleveland who will decide when the consent decree ends.
A Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 review of federal court records and other reports since the start of the consent decree in 2015 through 2022 shows that more than $7 million in tax dollars went to monitoring costs. Last year alone, annual expenses increased to about $960,000 from over $760,000 in 2021, records show.
Several residents complained about monitoring costs and how long reforms have taken at recent public meetings, where they heard from two firms vying to be the third consent decree monitor after Hassan Aden of Aden Group, LLC resigned in October. They demanded to know how the competing firms will be different from those in the past.
“Each time there is a new group, each one wants to do a different tune,” a man told the firms.
“I want to see more people who look like me when you’re making decisions,” a Black man told a table of mostly White team members from one of the firms.
The consent decree requires the monitor to hold public meetings with different groups, including the Cleveland City Council, to explain updates about the agreement’s implementation process.
Those meetings have not occurred in years.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, the interim monitor, said the first monitor appeared at least twice before the City Council. Upon becoming the interim monitor, Bell Hardaway said she contacted City Council President Blaine Griffin to meet with the council’s Public Safety Committee, but she has not received an invitation.
Griffin said scheduling the meeting has been difficult with recent budget hearings, but he plans to have Bell Hardaway update the committee. The last two monitors “made a decision not to go to the committee table because they said the last council was not fair because they heavily scrutinized them,” Griffin said. “[Bell Hardaway] and I talk. It’s just a matter of timing.”
Police bosses are meeting with residents each month at events in the five police districts.
First District Commander Jarod Schlacht said he and officers have embraced the consent decree because it has provided a framework to make a better department. He also likes that it requires leaders to meet the public more.
“I come to events like this, and I tell the citizens, ‘Hold me accountable as your commander,’” he said during a meeting with residents at the end of January. “If I’m not living up to my end, please let me know. Because we hold [residents] accountable.”
Carlos Elliott, a program coordinator with Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, attended the meeting because he works closely with police outreach officers across the city.
He said it’s important for officers to engage residents because “everybody has a role in making sure the community is respected and served appropriately.”
Elliott said he spent 12 years behind bars for aggravated robbery with a gun before being released in 2017. Elliott said a “transparent police department is better all the way around. Everybody needs a restart. This is it.”
For years, the police department faced numerous civil rights complaints and lawsuits over excessive force claims and paid out millions to settle cases. The consent decree has led to new policies to make policing less abusive and training programs to teach officers how to respectfully treat residents.
An order Judge Oliver issued March 2 said he wants updates in Thursday’s hearing to focus on use-of-force, along with details on a new Police Inspector General and the new Community Police Commission, among others.
The department has revised multiple policies to meet requirements for use-of-force, crowd control and bias-free policing, federal court filings show.
The city was required to develop a policy to deal with “civil disobedience and disturbances” following the George Floyd killing in May 2020, records show.
The new policy distinguishes between “acts of civil disobedience and civil disturbances” making it clear that officers are required to protect the constitutional rights of protests and protesters.
The policy on “citizens who are recording police activity” bans officers from threatening, intimidating, using force against, stopping, detaining or citing community members solely because they are observing, recording or photographing such activity.”
The consent decree requires Cleveland to “prevent excessive force,” along with ensuring search and seizures are reasonable, and police services are free from bias.
Since then, the city has adopted new policies and training to address how officers interact with members of the public. Based on the police department’s 2021 Use of Force Report, the reported uses of force decreased by 42% from 2018 to 2021.
The numbers are misleading, said Jason Goodrick, the interim executive director of the Community Police Commission. Goodrick said arrests also decreased during those years. “Proportional to arrests, use of force really isn’t down at all,” he said.
Goodrick pointed to the monitoring team’s Ninth Semiannual Report, which was critical of how officers managed the George Floyd protests in May 2020. Cleveland officers are required to report instances when they use force at the end of their shifts. The report noted nearly half of officers’ use-of-force incidents were sometimes reported weeks late, and community feedback said officers were unorganized and aggressive.
Goodrick acknowledged Cleveland has done significant work to comply with the consent decree, but said the city has failed to measure whether new policies and training are effective. “Is it working on the streets?” he asked.
Goodrick said the city should spend less time marketing that they’ve complied with the consent decree and more time “proving that you did the work and that it’s successful.”
Police Chief Wayne Drummond said recently he has watched videos that show officers adhering to new policies when interacting with the public. But the department did not respond to a request to supply the videos.
Anderson, the leader of the accountability team, has met with Cleveland police leaders, attended police district events and spent numerous shifts with patrol officers for months.
The public’s fatigue is like other cities under federal oversight, she said. She reiterated that it's difficult to change cultures and rebuild police departments.
But she stressed it must be done in Cleveland.
“As my grandmother says, ‘It’s a long road to hoe,’” Anderson said. “And so, it takes a long time to sort of get to the prize. If we don’t get (this) right now, we’re going to be sorry much later.”
“It would be a disservice to the citizens of Cleveland not to get it right,” he said. “We’ve initiated this process to make a difference for the public good. For the good of that police department and the good of that community, don’t rush it.”