Mike O'Malley's Balancing Act: Rebuilding Confidence, Addressing the Drug Problem, Ousting Tim McGinty & More

Mike O'Malley's Balancing Act: Rebuilding Confidence, Addressing the Drug Problem, Investigating Wrongful Conviction Claims & Ousting Tim McGinty
Photo by Sam Allard

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What made you want to do this? Why did you run and when did you decide?

I have to be honest. I could have run four years ago. It's funny. It was approximately a year ago this time that I decided. Four years ago, I was willing to let Jim McDonald or Subodh Chandra or whoever was going to win to win. And then Tim won. I knew Tim a bit, but never had him as a supervisor. When he came in, I just questioned his ability to manage people and manage the office and how he was pursuing justice. I thought at some point last year, "If not me, who?" and "If not now, then when?" I suggested the idea to a couple of colleagues and for the most part they thought I was nuts.

To take on a sitting Democratic prosecutor in a Democratic county.

I thought to myself, I've been in elected office, I thought I was a good councilman, that during my tenure I made good progress in my ward. I had a track record, I had relationships with people. And they know who you are and how you handle people. I thought with my background and knowledge and experience in that office, that I made a credible challenger. I had been there, after all. I was first assistant and had 300 people under me who could say what kind of boss I was. I thought with my experience of 30 years in public life, if not me, then who? But people thought I was nuts.

I remember getting a call about this time last year and the person said you were running. It was kind of a shock. No one was talking about someone taking on McGinty.

I had told some friends and they said the first thing you have to do if you're serious is put out a poll to see if you have a chance. So we did that, and it revealed that of the various names against McGinty, I ran the best. And it also revealed that he had serious issues within the county and with his record. We saw those numbers and the naysayers said, "Well, maybe you can win."

The primary vote was certainly a referendum on McGinty's resume as a whole, but specifically it felt like a referendum on how he handled the Tamir Rice case.

I would say this: Maybe. But I would also say that part of it was that he had a record of close to 30 years as a public servant, whether as prosecutor or as a judge, and I think that while the public as a whole maybe became more aware of him once he was prosecutor, there was a whole segment of the community who knew him very well already and those are the people who deal with the criminal justice system on a daily basis.

Was Bill Mason one of the people you talked to at first?

He really wasn't involved in my campaign, no. I felt like I had to stand on my own.

I ask because every time your record and resume are mentioned, it's because you've been in the office before and people can see your experience, but also because it was during the old era of Cuyahoga County politics, the era where people ended up in jail and on the front page of the paper. Should there be any concern about those ties and relationships?

Absolutely not.

It wasn't a race that seemed to catch the attention of the media before that primary night. I don't know how many people actually thought you had a chance, let alone a chance to beat him by the margin you did. McGinty only won one ward, and that was the one he lives in. Did you have polling that indicated that, or at least a feeling?

I only did one poll prior to the election. In the course of the campaign, I felt the response growing and growing. We worked really hard. I was always cautiously optimistic. That night, when I saw the first absentee ballots come in and I was only down a point or two, that was a victory for me. I felt good knowing those people had voted early in the election cycle and I was optimistic that, as the individuals who had voted that day, who had heard both campaigns, that more would come in my direction.

You've avoided saying whether you would have recommended charges in the Tamir Rice case. Is that something you'd address once you take office and have a chance to review more?

Well, I've said that I'm going to advocate for the law to be changed in use of deadly force cases. We need an independent investigation and prosecution. What I intend to do is search for an independent prosecutor or help from the Ohio Attorney General's office in such instances. Second, I have pledged to the NAACP that I would support their motion seeking the release of the grand jury transcript in this case. The case was handled in such an unusual manner, outside the bounds of how cases are handled by grand juries. I'd support the release of the transcript. I think it's important for the public. Until your paper broke the news on how the vote was handled — voting for justified or not, not voting on charges — I think the whole county and whole country was under the impression there'd been a vote on specific charges, whether to indict or not. It was an earthquake.

Who has the final say on releasing those transcripts?

The judge whose grand jury it was, Judge Nancy McDonnell.

It probably won't happen, but you'll support that effort?

Yes. You speak through your motions. I would be supportive of that effort. I think it would be part of the healing process to understand what transpired. It's walking a fine line though. Other people would ask why you want to open the wound.

So for any incoming use of force cases, you will not handle those.

We're talking about use of deadly force cases. What's clear to me throughout the campaign is that there's a perception in the county ... . Quite frankly, the Ohio State Supreme Court grand jury review committee has opined on this. Whether you're a judge or a prosecutor, you have to avoid the appearance of conflict. A blue ribbon panel says, quite frankly, that for a prosecutor of a county who works with those officers on a daily basis, there's a perception that there's a relationship that develops that should preclude them from reviewing cases those same officers are involved in. Which is what I said. Which is what the community has said. There's a perception of conflict. We sit next to them, they're our witnesses, they're our partners in seeking justice. The communities throughout the county have the same view. The appearance of conflict needs to be reviewed. The way to do that is to step aside and have an independent investigation and independent review. I'll also tell you that in my discussions with law enforcement, they welcome that approach. I'm hopeful given that report that there will be a change in state law that requires it.

There's going to be some pushback from the Ohio prosecuting attorneys association, becase I think they're the advocate for prosecutors throughout the state and they don't like giving up authority. But we have to get together and work toward the common will of the vast majority of the people in this state. These are tragic situations, and you hope we don't see any more, but you have to expect at some point we might. The Attorney General in our cases, whether it's the East Cleveland tragedy or what have you, has made themselves available. What's surprising is that the Attorney General came out against the proposal.

Yeah, I think Mike DeWine basically said we have enough work to do already. I also think it's a case of no one wanting to hold that particular hot potato.

If you go to an administrative judge and say the Attorney General says no and you have to seek the appointment of the Hamilton County prosecutor or the Franklin County prosecutor to handle it, those individuals are not really accountable to the people of our county. You have them making decisions and there is no way for our citizens to hold them accountable. At least if you had the Attorney General, that's someone who our voters can hold accountable in an election. It bodes well with our principles of democracy that we should be able to vote on our decision makers.

We've talked a lot about confidence in the office. You're not in the same department, obviously, but you work with the police all the time in the office. Is it hard to rebuild and keep confidence in the criminal justice system when you have someone like the police union president being openly antagonistic about the Black Lives Matter movement? The same guy who openly disagrees with the federal consent decree yet sits on the Community Police Commission. A variety of groups representing minorities and immigrants have asked that he be removed from that position, incidentally.

We live in a free country. And if you're speaking about Mr. Loomis ... free speech is a principle of our democracy. Sometimes I think he needs to think deeper before he speaks. He has a responsibility to represent his men and I understand that. I think sometimes you have to balance that against what's best for the community. You can be an aggressive advocate for your members — and all union heads are and they should be ­— but there's a way do to it that's less combustible.

In addition to grand jury reform, there's been a lot of talk about bail/bond reform. In that vein, sort of tangentially connected, you've talked about how courtrooms throughout the county can be more consistent and how we can make sure that similar cases in different municipalities are charged the same.

Yes. When we had a meeting with the Greater Cleveland Congregations, I talked about convening a meeting of the prosecutors so that cases are handled consistently throughout.

Give me an example.

The crackpipe case. If Cleveland has a "three strikes and you're out," that doesn't mean it's the same in Euclid or Shaker. So you could be on one side of 185th and charged, but be on the other side and not. You have to bring some consistency to these types of cases, the minor issues, but you have to balance that against other concerns. I've told groups, listen, it may be a win if a low-level drug case isn't handled as a felony. You may think that's a win. But is it a win if it's handled as a felony and they are afforded services at a county level that they wouldn't on a municipal level and eventually those charges are dropped? You have to be careful what you wish for. Municipal courts don't have the services that the common pleas courts do. So my goal, as we seek justice, is to try and help these people with addictions overcome and recover and end the cycle of crime in the community. So if someone who maybe faces a misdemeanor and that's a win, we have to make sure those people are afforded the same type of help that someone with a felony might receive in common pleas court. How do we allocate services to the muni court level? How do we make sure people with low-level felony convictions aren't stigmatized by that in the future? And how do you end the cycle?

During my tenure as Region 2 Supervisor, I saw issues of burglaries in Tremont or Ohio City. When people's heirlooms are stolen or they're held up at gunpoint, that's a scar that never fully heals. It's what makes people question whether they're safe. It's what destroys communities, especially when you're talking about areas you want to revitalize, especially when you're talking about having residents who, once they have children, want to stay and not bolt.

Besides the restrictions on drug court and advocating for a consistency in charges throughout the county, how else can you address treatment once you take office?

Well, I can say that one of the initiatives we're looking at is to hopefully have a component to work with law enforcement officers and county agencies to create a response team for mental health patients that are having a crisis moment.

Instead of having cops be the first responders?

Yes. The appearance of a black-and-white might heighten anxiety in those situations. Can we work toward a mental health crisis team instead of having a black-and-white go out that may end in a tragedy like we've seen in our own community? There are no boundaries to the problem. We just saw it in North Royalton, where a guy undergoing a mental issue stabbed an officer in the head and then got shot and killed.

And establishing a facility so you're not taking them to an incarceration facility. A place that has mental health professionals who can de-escalate the situation. There's a significant population in jails that have mental health issues. It's a critical component.

One of the things you agree with Prosecutor McGinty on is the limited application of the death penalty. What's your thinking behind that?

I want to make it clear: There are some cases where the death penalty is appropriate and almost necessary. But I think you have to look at the entire situation and certainly get input from the victim or the victim's family. I will say there are certain instances where there is no other option, and we've seen those cases in our community. I think it's an appropriate policy in the worst examples.

In those worst cases, like Anthony Sowell, there is at least a certainty that there isn't in others. Which is to say that Ricky Jackson was once on Death Row and he's innocent. And the idea that there is anyone on Death Row who is innocent is something to consider.

Yes, the level of certainty in those cases is an example. But also those examples are crimes so heinous that there is no other option. You know, just as many people think justice is someone sitting in prison for the rest of their life. Many victims' families feel that way too.

How soon can you start making decisions about how the office will function going forward? Basically, what sort of transition effort is underway?

Well, we tried to transition. Lisa Williamson is going to be my first assistant. I tried to work out a deal so she could come in several months early and begin to evaluate, so we could get a running start. I'll just say that gesture was kind of shot down. Having said that, Tim is one individual. I'm having daily conversations with people below him who are assisting me in crafting our team going forward. So I guess you can say it's being done in spite of him.

Anything you haven't had a chance to say during the campaign or now?

I'm just looking forward to coming in and serving the public and building confidence in that office, and working with the great team that's already in that office.

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