What's Next?

Cleveland Police dig their way out of another PR nightmare

Narlin Shadd looked forward to a summer evening spent watching an Indians game with his family. But things took a sour turn when the 55-year-old teacher from Brooklyn Heights drew the wrath of a traffic cop while navigating clogged downtown streets after the game.

Angered that Shadd did not immediately follow an order to stop at a crosswalk, Officer Alvin White engaged in a confrontation with Shadd. White punched and subdued him, and had him thrown in jail for assault and resisting arrest. Shadd spent the weekend there, but a grand jury later declined to indict him.

In 2008, three years after the incident, Shadd was awarded $50,000 by a U.S. District Court that ruled White used excessive force and unlawfully restrained him. The lawsuit exposed White as a troubled officer who had a history of complaints of physical abuse and domestic violence. He was once arrested in Shaker Heights after being accused of punching a woman.

But the lawsuit also raised questions about accountability in the Cleveland police department. According to court records and depositions, no record of White's arrest made it into his file prior to the Shadd incident. White faced no administrative discipline despite a pattern of credible complaints, including some from family members. According to police spokesman Sammy Morris, there is no record of internal discipline for White — even after the 2008 court ruling against him.

Though the affair might otherwise have been lost to history, it has gained renewed attention in light of the recent spate of police mishaps that have the department's leadership scrambling to restore its tarnished luster. It won't be the first time.

The past year has been particularly unkind to Cleveland police. The discovery of 11 bodies at a home on Imperial Avenue last fall invited nationwide scrutiny of the department. In March, a CBS News reporter grilled Cleveland Safety Director Martin Flask about a series of apparent missteps by detectives prior to the ghastly discovery.

In response to criticism, Mayor Frank Jackson assembled a three-person commission to study methods of remedying the problems. Among the recommendations: implement a training program for all police personnel designed to improve "customer service" to the public. According to Morris, officers had begun such training prior to the release of the commission's report on March 30.

Less than a week later, two officers seemingly failed their customer-service test. It happened in response to multiple calls claiming a woman's body was lying alongside Interstate 90 west of downtown in the early morning hours of April 5. The two responding officers, David Muniz and Matthew Prince, drove by at 50 mph without stopping before concluding it was just a dead deer. Hours later, it was confirmed to be the naked corpse of 28-year-old Cleveland mother Angel Bradley-Crockett, who had been killed overnight and dumped by the side of the road.

The next day, as reports emerged about the hours that lapsed between the first call about the body and the police's acknowledgement of their mistake, Flask ordered an investigation of the patrolmen involved. It revealed that Prince and Muniz sat in a West Side Cleveland cemetery for an hour prior to being dispatched to I-90, and they returned for another hour immediately after their drive-by. The officers are also suspected of lying on their end-of-shift reports.

Flask, a former Cleveland police chief, says the best way to deal with the controversy is swift action. "When we have instances like with officers Muniz and Prince — or any other officer who violates that community trust — we have a duty and a responsibility to the public and the men and women of the Division of Police to hold those officers accountable," he says. Both officers are scheduled for disciplinary hearings on May 14.

According to Flask, who is expected to preside over those hearings, the city's charter allows three basic options: No action against the officers, suspension for up to 30 days, or firing. While he declined to say what punishment might be in store, he says "I wish I had more options."

In response to the Bradley-Crockett fiasco, Chief of Police Michael McGrath issued a memo essentially scolding every one of his patrol officers.

"If members possess a mindset of entitlement or are influenced by negative attitudes, I recommend that you examine your commitment to your chosen profession," he wrote. The memo, leaked to The Plain Dealer, was read to patrol officers for 10 days at roll call — a move that angered police union head Steve Loomis, who called it an "unfair slap in the face."

But city council members and police leadersacknowledge that city residents are tired of officers who bash the city or display a poor attitude while responding to calls. Flask says McGrath has encouraged council members, during committee meetings, to tell residents to notify the department about any questionable conduct or statements by officers. According to Morris, a system is already in place for citizens to file complaints of any kind against officers.

"I think the men and women of the Cleveland Division of Police owe the citizens, and the citizens have an expectation of quick, responsive, professional service," says Flask. "Anything less than that is unacceptable. If we have officers who don't live up to their oath of office, I think the chief and I have a duty not only to the division, but more importantly to the community, to deal with those officers and hold them accountable."

While everyone may be in favor of rooting out bad cops, critics say the police have failed for too long to address flaws in the system that allow bad cops to go undetected.

"The police cover everything up unless they get caught completely with their pants down — then they act concerned," says William Saks, a civil rights lawyer from Cleveland Heights who represented Shadd. "But behind the scenes, their main mission seems to be covering up misconduct."

By the time Alvin White faced charges for the Shadd fracas, he had already been charged in a separate incident for criminal misconduct and investigated four other times.

But federal court records show that as recently as summer 2007, McGrath and Flask admitted to having passing knowledge and minimal input when it comes to tracking and disciplining officers who pose a risk to the public. Instead, they relied on layers of supervision — from the officer's immediate supervisor to the chief's office — to supposedly detect and control problem officers, according to depositions in the Shadd case. Police leaders and investigators never reviewed White's file despite recurring instances of serious misconduct.

McGrath admitted at the time that the chief of police typically never even reads through an officer's personnel file prior to a disciplinary hearing — an admission that Saks says exposes the department's lax attitude toward cleaning up their ranks.

"Somebody from outside can request the officer's personnel file and go through it, but the chief himself doesn't do it, and nobody else below him goes through it," says Saks. "It's clearly feasible to review the offender's whole record, but they choose not to do it."

McGrath, through a police spokesman, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

In 2000 — five years before Shadd's run-in with Officer White — the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation of Cleveland police under Flask's leadership. At issue was the department's guidelines for use of force and handling misconduct complaints, among other concerns.

In a 2007 deposition for the White case, Flask said he was not worried that the federal government had scrutinized his department because it was also looking into other departments around the country. The probe, he said, "was in many ways rather routine."

At the time of the federal investigation, the department under Flask promised to create a system to monitor officers who frequently receive non-deadly force complaints, take excessive sick time, or raise other red flags. But that tracking system took seven years to set up. And the department has been careful to cast the programs not as a form of discipline, but as tools to nurture stressed-out cops. Once the officer's behavior is on the radar screen, that officer is referred to one of two programs run by the department's mental-health arm.

The "Wellness Program," according to the department's policy statement, is "a confidential voluntary program of peer support to provide members support and alternative resources in times of stress, as well as information, literature and training. Contact is voluntary and confidential."

The "Early Intervention Program," according to policy, is meant to "provide guidance and assistance to members displaying changes in performance and/or diminished interpersonal skills." It becomes an option for officers who get on the radar for non-deadly force complaints and other alarming indicators. A problematic officer may be monitored for up to six months, but may ask to opt out of the program at any time. Records of an officer's time in the program are sealed from public view.

The department's promise to implement the programs was enough to satisfy the feds, who issued a statement in 2004 that their investigation was complete.

But Saks argues that those programs have no teeth when it comes to dealing with troubled officers — especially since the programs are voluntary and participants can opt out at any time. While the Early Intervention Program relies on indicators to collect information about officers, supervisors can choose not to act on that information.

"The Justice Department came in, but the Cleveland police gave them a lot of lip service, and the feds backed down," Saks says. "The basic promise was that they were developing a system to weed out bad officers. They backed down on a basis of this fairy tale," he says, referring to the Wellness and Early Intervention programs.

"Just the word 'early' indicates the mindset that [all officers are] completely innocent and police management is just looking for deviations from that," Saks claims. Based on the facts of the Shadd case — and the apparent holes in supervision — "there's never a means of identifying a pattern of misbehavior by an officer," he says.

Spokesman Morris says the department will look into why there is no information on file about the civil judgment against White. He declined to disclose whether White took part in the Early Intervention or Wellness programs. White could not be reached for comment.

Flask believes police leaders deserve more credit for dealing with personnel problems that don't make it into the public eye. "What I've seen through my career is that most wrongdoings — mistakes and errors, intentional or otherwise — are identified internally," he says. "The chief — and not just this chief, but his predecessors — have taken the appropriate action against those individuals who violate their oath of office. I do believe the mechanisms are in place."

As for those problems that do become public? Flask says he is aware of the detrimental impact such episodes have on the department.

"Incidents like the one on I-90...the results are a lack of confidence by the community in the ability of police to provide the service the community expects," he says. "The best way that we can deal with that is to take action against those employees."

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