Cleveland’s police officers are required to fill out a “use of force” report every time they use any force above the bare minimum, ranging from pointing a gun at someone to tasing or shooting them. After suing the city under public records laws, Cleveland Scene obtained data on the use of force reports Cleveland officers filed in 2019 and 2020. This six-part series is based on what that data told us, and didn’t tell us.
1. About the data
Find out how we got the data, and what’s included.
2. Police Regularly Point Guns at People Who Aren’t Resisting
While the city's consent decree with the Department of Justice says police should give people a chance to submit to arrest before using any force – including pointing a gun at them – Scene found dozens of cases where police said they pointed guns at people who weren't resisting. That included at least one man who had told someone he wanted to commit "suicide by cop," one unarmed homeowner whose burglar alarm had gone off, and more than one person who was asleep.
3. Some Uses of Force Unreported, Unfilmed
Scene found numerous cases where officers didn't file a report when they should have, including some incidents that led to complaints. There were also dozens of times in 2020 where officers failed to turn on their body cameras when they were supposed to, or reported that they were accidentally disabled during a use of force incident.
4. Data, Documents Still Difficult to Get From Police
Scene struggled to obtain the city’s use of force reports, despite police officials’ public claims that the department has become more transparent. In fact, the Community Police Commission asked a judge to step in to make sure they get the data they need to monitor the department under the consent decree.
5. Only 4% of Officers Reported Using Force More Than Three Times in a Year. This Officer Reported Seven
Officer Ryan Sowders filed more use of force reports than anyone else in the department in 2019 and 2020. Sowders had been previously convicted of a misdemeanor for punching a handcuffed, pinned man in the face during an arrest. His use of force reports included pointing a gun at a man hiding in a basement with a lampshade on his head, and tasing a young man with limited English comprehension because he wasn't following verbal instructions. None of his uses of force in 2019 and 2020 were found to be outside the city's policies.
6. Punishment for Excessive Force Rare, City Data Shows
In official reports, the city looks like it disciplines police for inappropriate uses of force fairly regularly. But by requesting detailed information about those incidents and cross-referencing them with UOF reports, disciplinary notices and Civilian Police Review Board meeting minutes, Scene found just two cases in 2019 where an officer was disciplined for using excessive force.