Cleveland Police Use of Force: Punishment for Excessive Force Rare, City Data Shows

click to enlarge Cleveland Police Use of Force: Punishment for Excessive Force Rare, City Data Shows
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The Department of Justice Consent Decree calls on the department to “fully, fairly, and efficiently” investigate allegations of officer wrongdoing. And the city’s official publications seem to show that the department is taking use of force policy violations seriously, with 15 cases where officers were disciplined for use of force policy violations listed in the city’s 2019 annual use of force report.

But the city would only identify officers in five use of force policy violations in 2019, and in only one of those cases did the department rule the use of force itself was out of line. The rest of the policy violations where the city turned over identifiable details were for other infractions related to a use of force incident, like failing to turn on a body camera, or acting unprofessionally.

Each violation listed in the annual report includes an “incident number,” the general policy violated, and the consequences for the officer. But it doesn’t include the officer’s name, the date of the allegation or any detailed description of the officer’s actions. And the “incident numbers” are not system-wide incident numbers that can be cross-referenced with an incident report. Instead, in the report, the “incident numbers” just label the violations 2019-1 through 2019-15.

The first list

In response to a request for details on each of these violations, the Cleveland Police Department initially sent a spreadsheet with just six entries, one of which was labeled “within policy.” The sheet identified the officers involved and rulings on whether they violated use of force policy, but not any details of how they broke the rules or what happened to them.

Scene was able to glean that information from divisional notices on disciplinary action, which are periodically issued by the department. Scene found that, out of the five 2019 incidents the city listed as “sustained,” just one was for the actual use of force, involving Officer John Petkac.

The rest of the violations listed were for failure to de-escalate, violations of body camera requirements, failures to provide service, failure to properly investigate and professional conduct. Two resulted in written reprimands, and two led to a two-day suspension. Petkac’s was the only case listed where an officer was fired.

In that case, which garnered media attention, Petkac repeatedly tased a man who was mocking him. But that wasn’t Petkac’s only troubling use of force that year. While Scene couldn’t find a use of force report for the Oct. 5, 2019 incident listed by the city as the cause of his firing, he did file a report for a July incident where he tased a man who was yelling at him near a homeless shelter. In the use of force report database, that is one of three cases labeled as “not within policy” out of 524 reports.

The city didn’t turn over descriptions of the other two events. In place of a narrative, the database contains a note saying the report is for statistical purposes, and more information can be found in the department’s internal investigation system.

A judge ruled against Cleveland Scene in seeking those details, finding that those reports were part of ongoing investigations, and thus exempt from public records law. Scene has appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

While the department also sent data for violations listed in the 2020 use of force report, only one of the officers listed there showed up in a disciplinary divisional notice, a document where the department lists officers who have received disciplinary action. There also aren’t any use of force reports filed by the officers listed on the days the alleged incidents took place, making it nearly impossible to divine what the officers did or how they were held responsible.

It can take months after an officer commits an offense for their name to be listed in a disciplinary notice. For the 2019 incidents the department listed where Scene could find corresponding disciplinary notices, more than a year elapsed on average between the actual incident and the date of the disciplinary notice.

An anonymous list

Scene asked the police department about the discrepancy between the spreadsheet the police department provided and the number of violations listed in the annual report. In response, the department sent a different spreadsheet listing 17 use of force report numbers, some with multiple violations, and disciplinary action taken for each violation, but no names or badge numbers. The new list included the five case numbers from the department’s original list that were labeled as “sustained.” Altogether, the list included 20 violations.

The department also listed the punishment meted out in each case, and whether the policy violated was about body cameras, use of force, or “other.” Six of the cases listed suspensions of one or two days, and one person, presumably Petkac, was listed as fired. In 12, officers received retraining, verbal counseling, or letters of reinstruction. One received a written reprimand.

Asked why non-force violations were included, the department said, “Table 41 in the Use of Force Report includes policy violations in use of force incidents. Specifically, all policy violations are included and [are] not limited to just use of force. In 2019, there were 17 use of force [incidents] that involved at least one policy violation that may or may not have been force related.”

Scene could find use of force reports with matching numbers for 13 of those violations. Where the same use of force case number appeared on both spreadsheets, the person disciplined often wasn’t one of the officers who had filed a report. Scene therefore couldn’t glean any additional information about the violations from disciplinary notices.

Civilian Police Review Board reviewed additional uses of force

The Civilian Police Review Board considered allegations of excessive force against 26 officers in 2019 and 2020, four of which the board voted to uphold, according to a Scene review of minutes and agendas. Though two of the incidents in question occurred in 2019, neither appeared in either spreadsheet provided by the police department.

The chief of police only accepted the board’s recommendation for one of these cases.

In a December 2020 virtual meeting, the Civilian Police Review Board considered a complaint brought against Salvatore Santillo. According to a CPRB investigator’s description of the incident, in November 2019, Santillo and his partner were responding to a call about shots fired when they spoke to a man who was sitting on his porch.

Santillo told the man to go inside his house, but he refused.

Santillo then “grabbed him by his neck, searched him, addressed him in an unprofessional manner, placed him in the rear of his zone car, and improperly issued a citation for disorderly conduct,” the investigator told the board. “He was not considered a suspect at that point or any other point during the encounter. Officer interviews, [wearable camera systems] and complainant interviews failed to establish any elements of individualized suspicion or probable cause for PO Santillo to have approached [the] complainant on his property.”

CPRB members also watched the body camera video, and voted to sustain the complaint of excessive force.

“He didn’t need to be frisked, he didn’t need to be searched, he didn’t need to be grabbed,” said board chair Michael Graham. “He was grabbed violently by the hoodie and shaken, is what I saw.”

The Cleveland public safety director upheld the board’s recommendation, issuing Santillo a 20-day suspension.

City throws out excessive force finding

But the safety director overturned the one other 2019 case where the board censured an officer’s use of force.

In June 2020, CPRB considered a complaint against Sgt. James Dziuba. The incident began with a group of people playing guitars at the Ascension Day Festival, according to investigator Eric Richardson. A different officer told the guitarists they had to leave the area, so they packed up their instruments and began to leave. Then Sgt. Dziuba, leading a group of officers, stopped the musicians and arrested them for disorderly conduct.

The complainant said Dziuba took his cell phone, and it wasn’t returned to him with his other property. He also said Dziuba twisted his arm.

Dziuba denied that he had any physical contact with the complainants, and that he had taken the cell phone. But when the investigator showed Dziuba camera footage of himself taking the cell phone, he demurred.

When investigating the complaint, the investigator also found not only that Dziuba hadn’t turned on his body cam, but also that he had told other officers they didn’t need to either, contrary to department policy. Richardson located surveillance video and body cam footage from one of the other officers present showing Dziuba physically contacting the complainant, but he said he wasn’t able to see any force that wouldn’t be defined as “de minimis.”

Department policy defines de minimis force as actions taken to guide or control a subject that “do not cause pain and are not reasonably likely to cause pain.” That could include stopping or guiding a subject with only the officer’s hands, or handcuffing them with “only minimal resistance.” Officers aren’t required to report instances where they use only de minimis force.

Richardson told the CPRB he recommended a finding of “insufficient evidence” for the use of force complaint, but he said it was “a coin toss, because I had to weigh his credibility of his denial of any physical encounter, except for having handcuffed him, that was clearly contradicted by the surveillance video, but the surveillance video was not clear enough to show and make a conclusive determination whether that force that was used was beyond de minimis.”

The CPRB decided that, even if Dziuba only used de minimis force, that qualified as excessive, since he shouldn’t have been arresting the musicians in the first place.

But Cleveland Safety Director Karrie Howard ignored their recommendation, ruling that “the record does not support a finding of guilt.” Howard also threw out the board’s finding that Dziuba had cited and arrested the complainants inappropriately. For failing to turn on his body camera, Howard gave Dziuba a two-day suspension.

The city has not responded to a Sept. 8 public records request for the investigative file for the incident.

Activists concerned about accountability

City officials have insisted the department is holding officers accountable for any misdeeds, and that they’ve done so in collaboration with the CPRB.

“It’s [about] having checks and balances within the department of safety,” Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard said during an April panel about the consent decree. “Officers are held accountable when it’s appropriate to do so.”

But some activists say punishment for officers is unsatisfactory.

Kareem Henton, an organizer with Black Lives Matter-Cleveland, pointed to the high-speed police chase that ended with the death of 13-year-old Tamia Chappman. The CPRB voted to discipline several officers in the case, but most of their recommendations were overturned by Howard.

Henton said the data collected by the Scene confirms his sense that officers are not being held accountable when they use force inappropriately.

“I would expect to see more firings,” he said. “I would expect to see more suspensions. And if we got that, then we would actually see a change in police culture. Nobody wants to give away paychecks. Nobody.”
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