The Cleveland Police Department’s use of force policy, which was instituted at the beginning of 2018, requires every officer to file a detailed report every time they use more than “de minimis” force on a subject, ranging from pointing a gun at someone to tackling them or tasering.
Officers do not have to file a report when they use “de minimis” force, which is defined by the department as, “Physical interactions meant to guide and/or control a subject that do not constitute reportable force.” As examples, Cleveland’s policy lists stopping, pushing back, separating or guiding someone in a way that shouldn’t cause any pain.
In addition to a detailed narrative of the events and why the officer used force, officers are required to report the steps they took to de-escalate the situation, the exact type of force they used, whether there were any injuries to the subject or the officer, and a litany of demographic information.
The police department releases annual reports summarizing the use of force data, but not the reports themselves. Police officials have routinely pointed out that the number of use of force incidents in 2020 were below 2018 and 2019. These summaries don’t any information about individual officers or incidents.
With the help of Case Western Reserve University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, Cleveland Scene was able to obtain detailed reports from all use of force incidents that were not under continuing investigation from 2019, 2020, and early 2021.
Scene initially requested the data in September 2020. The city first provided unrelated materials, and then rejected the request, saying it was “overbroad.” The city turned over most of the data in May 2021, but withheld incident narratives for cases under investigation. The Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city on those narratives, but Scene is appealing the decision.
The database included information on 351 unique use of force case numbers. Where multiple officers were involved in a single incident, the officers’ various reports were filed under a single number. Altogether, Scene reviewed data from 524 individual reports.
Scene cross-referenced this data with police disciplinary notices
, Civilian Police Review Board minutes and agendas
, and citizen complaints made to the Office of Professional Standards. For some incidents, Scene also obtained body camera footage. As many of the subjects in use of force incidents were never charged with or convicted of a crime, Scene is not releasing this footage out of respect for their privacy. In other cases where Scene did not obtain footage, this story relies on descriptions by CPRB members and investigators.
The most recent deep-dive into use of force reports was a decade ago, when The Plain Dealer ran a series analyzing use of force reports filed between 2006 and 2011. Among the paper’s findings were that uses of force were rarely found inappropriate
; some officers failed to file use of force reports in high-profile cases
; and officers who used force abnormally frequently were allowed to continue on the force
Since then, Cleveland has grappled with the 2014 police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. A Justice Department investigation of Cleveland cops’ use of force led to a 2015 consent decree in 2014, which requires the department to change some of its policies and practices. Last year, America watched in horror as George Floyd suffocated under a Minneapolis officer’s knee; and Cleveland protests against police violence ended in violent confrontations. This year, residents petitioned to put an initiative on the ballot creating stronger civilian oversight of the department, which both the outgoing mayor and one mayoral candidate have derided.
Yet Scene’s analysis found many of the same problems reported by the Plain Dealer ten years ago.