Bullies With Badges

Helicopters, handcuffs, and billy clubs stir a tempest in Tremont.

Annalisa Melari stepped outside to find a front yard coated in the red and blue lights of a dozen police cars. A helicopter buzzed overhead, its searchlight probing the backyard. The cops gripped scowls and batons as they marched up the porch. Her house party was under siege. No one seems to know why they arrived en masse, but everyone agrees they were pissed.

Odd, because Melari estimates there were no more than 60 people between her Fairfield Avenue house and her next-door neighbors' on the night of October 11. "To me, the party was extremely tame," says Danell Lewalk, a 22-year-old who says the music was so quiet, she hardly noticed it.

A cop found Melari on the porch, grabbed her shoulder, and led her to his car. "I said, 'Excuse me, I live here. Can we talk about this?'" Melari recalls.

"Put your hands on the car," a cop barked. Melari would spend the night in jail, but she received better treatment than most. Five friends were punched, shoved, or billy-clubbed before they were carted off to the slam. Several others were "manhandled," Melari says, but not locked up. Cops trashed audio equipment, swatted beer bottles, and cussed out any partier who dared to object.

The crime apparently committed: playing music too loud.

Cleveland Police spokeswoman Nancy Dominik refuses to discuss the department's handling of the party, saying that the matter remains an "ongoing criminal investigation." But partygoers -- who are already lining up as plaintiffs and witnesses in a forthcoming lawsuit against the city -- are talking plenty about what happened that night.

The first squad car arrived at 12:30 a.m. after receiving a noise complaint. The cops admitted they could barely hear the music, but Melari says she offered to turn it down anyway. The officers drove away happy.

On the balcony of one upstairs apartment, a DJ spun a down-tempo mix -- the type usually reserved for background at trendy restaurants. Next door, a small boom box played CDs. There was a pony keg of Sam Adams in the backyard, but many of the guests brought their own beer. It was a warm night, and the party concentrated on the front yards of the two houses. "People were getting along really well," says Melari. "Nobody was fighting, nobody was being obnoxious."

But on this densely populated corner, the windows of several neighbors were less than 50 feet from the DJ's speakers. Police continued to receive calls about the noise. At 1:30 a.m., the cruisers started rolling in.

When the first cop came up the porch steps, Shawn Flowers, a 24-year-old law student at Case Western Reserve, asked to see a warrant. The cop took Flowers by the arm and led him to a police car. He asked Flowers to put his hands on the car. "What am I being arrested for?" Flowers asked. "Then four cops tackled me and started slamming my head on the car." His talk of "constitutional rights" only earned him more lumps.

Jessica McGuinness witnessed the arrest. "What are you doing?" she asked the cops. "And all of a sudden, I had handcuffs on."

Several partygoers asked police what they wanted. "Shut the fuck up" was officers' frequent response.

"It wasn't a legal process," says Melari. "There was no 'Turn the music off, let me see IDs. Let me talk to the person who lives here.' None of that. They just came in and started busting heads."

One cop kicked every bottle and can he could find. Some partygoers on the front porch jeered police, but most knew silence was the safest play.

Tera Price learned the hard way. She saw police slam down a man who was arguing with them. A woman who protested was thrown over a hood. Then Price spoke up: "I said, 'You guys must be really fucking bored,' and that's what got me into trouble."

A female cop brandishing a nightstick walked toward Price. Price dared her to use it. When three cops jumped Price from behind, she thought they were friends and struggled. A cop rapped her skull with a billy club. Another cop sat on her. She was handcuffed with her face on the sidewalk.

The blossoming riot left Rachel Hammond in a panic. A tenant in the apartment upstairs, Hammond offered to help police disperse partygoers. They swore and vowed to handcuff her if she didn't shut up.

"I'm really not a threat," she says. "Especially when I'm crying and having an asthma attack."

Some people sprinted to the backyard and hurdled neighboring fences to escape police. The rest just stood where they were, dumbstruck. "My friend and I weren't sure what to do," says Lewalk. "We wanted to call 911, but what would they do? 911 was right in front of us."

Chris Myslenski, who lives in one of the homes, says cops seemed bent on inciting violence, not quelling it: "They were yelling, 'Come on, you got something to say? Do it. Make a move,'" recalls Myslenski. "They tried to get people more fired up, so they could beat them down."

Jason Byers, frontman for the band Disengage, may have taken the bait. In the lone police report on the incident, Byers is alleged to have hurled a can of Colt .45 at the cops, hitting Officer Richard Thevenin in the head. Witnesses say police first tackled the wrong person. When another partygoer -- a college professor, no less -- told police that the man was innocent, the cops swarmed the professor and put him in cuffs. Finally, they collared Byers.

Meanwhile, police who entered the house laid waste to alcohol and audio equipment. "I saw the cops kick the turntable off the shelf unit, and they bashed the speakers in with their batons," says Stanton Thatcher, who lives in one house. "Then they broke beer bottles on the porch. And after that, they took pictures of it all, like they found it that way."

With the music killed and the party's most vocal protesters cuffed, witnesses say, police aggression gave way to exhilaration.

"They were high-fiving each other, laughing, having a really good time," says Melari, who watched from the backseat of a cruiser. A cop who found out where Melari grew up offered a rude welcome. "He said, 'Oh, you're from Willoughby? Welcome to Tremont, little girl. Why don't you move back to the suburbs?'"

With the handcuffs carving welts into her wrists, McGuinness begged to know the reason for her arrest. "If you don't shut up, I'll shoot you," she remembers a cop saying. "Bitch" and "retard" were two other words they used to address her.

Price, who took a club to the head, was driven to the emergency room, where she refused treatment.

But the nightmare wasn't over for Shawn Flowers, the law student whose head had already been slammed on the patrol car. While being booked into jail, he says he endured a brutal pat-down. "It was like pat, pat -- punch," says Flowers, who took fists in the ribs and kidneys. The groin search hurt most. "The cop reached between my legs, he got all he could in his hands, and squeezed as hard as he could. I turned around and said, 'You're a bitch!' Then the other cops jumped me and just started pounding me."

No one knows whether Byers, busted for throwing the beer, received the same kind of special attention. But he would spend most of his week in jail and is being charged with felonious assault and resisting arrest, charges that carry a max of 10 years in prison. On the bright side, he has a bulldog attorney: Mark Stanton told a Scene reporter that, should Byers be quoted in this article, "I'll put your ass in a sling." In other words, Byers declined comment.

All told, six members of the party were brought to jail. Several more were cuffed or thrown into cruisers, only to be released. Byers was the only one charged with a felony. The others were cited for misdemeanors ranging from failure to disperse to disorderly conduct.

Cletis Maynard, a 66-year-old neighbor, was among those who called police. He estimates there were 150 people and, to his ear, the music was blaring.

"They were all outside and had the music on the porch wide open," says Maynard. "You could hear it in Public Square. Hell, I've never seen a party like that in my life."

Another neighbor puts the attendance at "over 100," but yet another says "no more than 75." All agree the music was too loud.

Yet with BYOB and a mere pony keg on hand, there wasn't nearly enough alcohol to sate a crowd of this size -- or at least not enough to inspire drunken rioting. Even a neighbor who called police was galled by their behavior. "I saw the way they came in, and they just started busting things up," said the man, who was afraid to have his name printed. "I just didn't see why they had to destroy someone's personal property."

Police found no underage drinkers, no drugs. And the only violence occurred after they arrived.

Since that night, Melari and friends have been on the offensive. They packed a Tremont Block Club meeting to complain to a Second District lieutenant. Several participated in the Police Brutality March on October 22. They've been on the phone with Councilman Joe Cimperman and reported the incident to the Mayor's Action Hotline. A lawsuit will be filed this month; partygoers believe they can prove the police acted out of malice.

"They could have broken up the party easily, if that's all they wanted," says McGuinness. "What happened that night wasn't about noise. It was a power trip."