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Inside the Promise and Plight of Black Cops in Cleveland

A TMP reporter chronicles the rise and fall of a Black Shield leader seeking police reform.

This is The Marshall Project - Cleveland’s newsletter, a twice monthly digest of criminal justice news from around Ohio gathered by our staff of local journalists. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters.

Master of Arms Vincent Montague, a Black man, arranges a cornhole board set in an outdoor parking lot.

Vincent Montague, who was president of the Black Shield Police Association and who once called for police reform, is currently a petty officer in the military.

When he shot and wounded Greg Love in 2013, Vincent Montague was a patrolman with a stressful traffic assignment in the hectic heart of downtown Cleveland’s nightlife scene. After Love tried to turn down a closed-off street, Montague approached his car with a Glock in hand. A few moments later, Love’s fresh white T-shirt would be drenched in blood. Both men are Black.

Montague was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and only served a one-day suspension related to the incident. But the U.S. Department of Justice called the shooting an example of “poor tactics” and “unnecessary and unreasonable use of force” in a sweeping investigation that led to the federal consent decree still in place today.

In 2020, Montague’s name was back in the news — as an example of how Black officers could reform policing. In the years following the shooting, Montague had become president of the Black Shield, a storied Black police organization that sued the city in the 1970s over its discriminatory employment practices. The lawsuit led to a hiring consent decree that lasted until the mid-’90s and greatly increased the department's diversity.

For Wilbert L. Cooper, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, reading about Montague’s activism was surprising. Cooper grew up in Greater Cleveland and has “blood in blue.” His family members have served as police officers in Cleveland across three generations, and paid dues as members of the Black Shield. As he puts it,“There is a part of me that desperately wants to believe that Black cops like Montague could change law enforcement from within.”

Nearly four years ago, Cooper set out to truly understand how Black cops can change their police departments — and how their police departments change them. He immersed himself in Montague’s world, conducting countless interviews with him, Black Shield members and Montague’s newfound allies in Black Lives Matter Cleveland.

Then, in the midst of the reporting, Montague’s career and life started to unravel.

The story of Montague’s unceremonious downfall has been told in bits and pieces before. Some of the characters who weigh in will be familiar to Clevelanders who have followed the roller coaster of police reform in recent years. Cooper’s story for The Marshall Project weaves a narrative that adds historical insight and offers an expansive look at the promise and plight of Black cops in Cleveland — and whether their presence in law enforcement makes our city’s Black community any safer.

The urgent themes touched on in this story will be explored in more depth in “The Black Shield,” Cooper’s forthcoming book published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

‘We did our time, let us go’
A diverse group of people on a grassy area in downtown Cleveland support Building Freedom Ohio with signs. A child in a purple shirt sits with two signs that say, "Not the bullet, the Ballot!"

Jaidehn Shields, one of the younger members of the Cleveland chapter of Building Freedom Ohio, holds a sign in front of the Free Stamp in downtown Cleveland.

Hundreds gathered at the Huntington Convention Center in downtown Cleveland on May 19 for a half-day event to raise awareness about the barriers faced by Ohioans with criminal convictions. Speakers shared their struggles to find housing, run a business or even open a bank account because of a felony conviction.

Building Freedom Ohio hosted the function, which focused on building political power to remove those barriers through voter registration and mobilization. The group is also lobbying for legislation, including what’s been dubbed the GROW act — Getting Rehabilitated Ohioans Working. The bill, introduced in March by two Republican lawmakers, would make it easier for some people with felony convictions to have their records sealed after a crime-free period. The group plans to rally in support of the law at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on June 12.

Following the event, the group headed to the city’s symbolic Free Stamp and chanted, “We did our time, let us go. We did our time, let us go.”

—Rachel Dissell & Doug Livingston

Relief one step closer for drivers with suspended licenses

Last year, The Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 revealed that hundreds of thousands of Ohio drivers were blocked from getting a valid driver’s license because of suspensions for not having proof of insurance, failing to pay court fines or missing child support payments.

A proposed law that promised to ease pathways to restoring driving privileges passed the Ohio Senate unanimously last week.

Provisions of the bill that were removed or tweaked before the vote include that:

The timeline for the Ohio House to pass the bill is short, though the bill does have broad bipartisan support, Zack Eckles of the Ohio Poverty Law Center said.

“Hopefully they will move it quickly,” he said. “But I would not dare to predict anything.”

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