Law & Order: C.L.E.

What happens when the police need prosecuting?


Police Chief Calvin Williams' atten-HUT lacks a drill sergeant's gravel and militance. He doesn't lean into it. His register and demeanor don't change. He's been standing at the lectern here in the sardine-packed chambers of Cleveland City Hall for four ultra-sober minutes and he suddenly calls to mind a high-school athlete, punished with performance in a spring musical, reciting more than performing his flagship monologue.

He's speaking to the 46 graduates of the 133rd Cleveland Police Academy class on the subject of rigorous training and honor. Like almost all of the ceremony's uniformed speakers, Williams said "Good afternoon" twice when he approached the mic to get what he deemed an adequate response from the overheated guests. (For what it's worth, this middle-school-teacher tactic appears to be the Cleveland Division of Police's lone stab at personality, and the crowd's 100-percent into it).

What Williams hasn't said, however, is anything related to Tamir Rice or the Department of Justice. To be fair, "How about you guys buck the trend and stop using so much excessive force?" probably wouldn't comport with the afternoon's pomp and circumstance. But still, the specter of recent events hovers over his remarks.

"I hope you're prepared ... as a matter of fact I know you're prepared for this journey," he says to the steely eyed cadets. Beyond them, the gathered parents and grandparents and significant others keep themselves cool with programs. Fwap. Fwap. Fwap.

"The actions of a rookie officer can be just as impactful as those of a vet," Williams says.

He intends, it would seem, to impart a sense of responsibility (and maybe even confidence) on this new crop of cops, to let them know that they now have the "authority and the ability" to change citizens' lives, i.e. for the better. But it's impossible not to think of Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer with only six months under his belt in the department, who shot and killed Tamir Rice on Nov. 22, 2014.

But very few of the speakers this afternoon — not Mayor Frank Jackson, certainly — acknowledge the climate into which these 46 new officers are diving headlong.

Only Matt Zone, City Council's public safety committee chair, has the good sense to append some reminders to his congratulations. (Safety Director Michael McGrath did warn of the dangers of complacency).

"Recent events around our country have highlighted the importance of strong, collaborative relationships between local police and the communities they preserve and protect," Zone said. "Trust between law enforcement officials and the people they protect and serve is essential to the strategy and stability of our city."

The rest of the graduation proceedings are about what you'd expect. Class speaker Emmanuel Velez thanks family and friends in a heartfelt speech. Top scorers in physical and academic exams receive awards. Frank Jackson, resembling less and less a human being in his public appearances, manages to reiterate his boilerplate conviction that public service is the most honorable kind of job out there. All 46 graduates, four of them women, 16 or 17 of them people of color, shake hands with city leaders and smile for the cameras as they receive diplomas. Bagpipes and hankies are pretty heavily involved.

And when Williams says atten-HUT, the new officers stand, lithe and snappy in their navy blues, and at their commander's beckoning, they chant what they call their "core values," printed as an acronym on the program's back flap.

"Pride!" they shout. Professionalism! Respect! Integrity! Dedication! Excellence!"

The reverb is extreme, and a grandma seated in the chambers' second public pew whispers, "God bless them. God bless them all."

Truth is, though, if we put ourselves in the officers' shoes (which is what every prosecutor must do when legally evaluating uses of deadly force), why bother with the blessing of God when police departments already have the blessing of the state and federal courts?

High legal standards and a conflicted, inconsistent prosecutorial system have all but guaranteed that these 46 new officers will be able to do whatever they please on the job — skip work, run reds, chase cars, shoot first — without the inconvenience of trial or even the whiff of serious repercussion.

Just ask the DOJ.

CITY HALL: CITY COUNCIL CAUCUS, JAN. 5, 2015, 12:20 p.m.

DOJ. That's the United States Department of Justice, which released a scathing investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police less than two weeks after Tamir's death. The investigation found that Cleveland police engage in a "pattern or practice of unreasonable force" in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and had been doing so in spite of the DOJ's last visit for similar reasons more than a decade ago.

Though it didn't include the Tamir Rice shooting — the DOJ began its digging in March 2013 and reviewed upward of 600 recent cases, including the November 2012 high speed chase, not to mention untold division documents, community interviews and expert analyses — the findings nonetheless perfectly described the encounter at Cudell Recreation Center: in particular, "the employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes necessary."

To be clear, the investigation is an indictment. It's horrifying. The Cleveland Division of Police looks indefensibly guilty, and not so much for the high-profile incidents that dotted local and national news, but for the reels of encounters that never made headlines. These transgressions aren't anomalies. They're standard operating procedure.

That's not to say that every officer wakes up each day with a chip on his shoulder, ready to kill. Comments to the contrary abound, and the bad apple is the easy but apt analogy here. There are a lot of really good, responsible police officers out there who do, as the PR suggests, "put their life on the line" to protect and serve local communities. But the DOJ report was decisive on the extent of the department's ailments.

It's not just officers on the street: CDP officers "shoot people who do not pose an imminent threat," "hit people in the head with their guns," "use unreasonable force against individuals with mental illness, in medical crisis," "carelessly fire their weapons," and so on. It's also the command structure, deeply embedded problems that Frank Jackson still refuses to categorize as systemic failure. It's the inadequacy of reporting uses of deadly force, it's the inadequacy of the internal review mechanism, it's the failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct. It's an absolute shit-show, is what it is.

And this afternoon, prior to the Police Academy graduation ceremony, Councilman Brian Cummins apprises his colleagues that he's not happy with the city's handling of the report.

It's their first gathering of 2015 and many of the councilmembers are happily slurping up their lunchtime soups at the conference table. Kevin Conwell snags two gratis turkey wraps. Most of the conversation — in fact, the caucus' only agenda item — has centered on the nomination of Brian Kazy to fill Martin Sweeney's vacant seat as Sweeney heads to Columbus. Cummins was the only council member who wanted to discuss that item, and he's the only one now suggesting that the city's response to a gravely serious Federal investigation has been anything less than stellar.

"I don't think we're doing enough," Cummins tells the table. He's a Green Party guy and a Jackson critic, banished as such to the role of heretic. But almost everything he says seems to make sense (from a citizen's, not a politician's, perspective). "I think there's a real urgency to this, and even in the midst of budget hearings, I think we need to be having dialogues. The listening tours, they're not necessarily dialogues — they're listening tours. As elected officials, I think we need to step up and do more."

"I disagree," counters Council President Kevin Kelley from the head of the table. It's clear he takes exception to Cummins' tone as much as he does to his comments. "The listening tours are just the beginning. I think the approach of council has been the right approach. I think we have to start by listening to people."

Matt Zone, the listening tours' face and spearhead (as public safety committee chair, recall) says he actually agrees with much of Cummins' sentiments, but that a specific "successful dialogue" Cummins has referenced was actually a "demand session" from local affinity groups.

"They're real definite on what they want," Zone says. "It's easy to get out in front as politicians and do a lot of talking. We need to back up and, frankly, create a safe space. I see us in 2015 delving into a lot of topics like this."

But that's different than transparency, suggests Cummins, who's concerned among other things that the DOJ report isn't even available on the city's website. (Cummins has since posted it on his personal blog.) Councilman Marty Keane calls transparency a "buzzword," and says that every day, council members are advancing the goals of the DOJ report by listening to constituents in their communities. Kelley encourages Cummins to present his suggestions to Zone.

Says Zone to Cummins: "The stuff that you raised is important, but we can't get it all done yesterday. There's a process to go through."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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