CLEVELAND — News 5 has been reporting in Northeast Ohio communities for the last 75 years. Reporters work to get information out to viewers every day. But, in our quest for answers, we come up against barriers to information from unhelpful sources.
During the second E.W. Scripps National News Literacy Week initiative, News 5 is looking at how transparency with local police departments can impact reporting through the lens of two deadly officer-involved shootings: the April 2020 death of Desmond Franklin in Cleveland and the January 2021 death of Vincent Belmonte in East Cleveland.
Franklin, 22, was shot around 1:50 p.m. on April 9 by Cleveland Police Officer Jose Garcia. At that point, Garcia was off duty. He was not wearing a police badge or uniform and he was not driving a department-issued police car.
The Cleveland Police Department released a statement before 5 p.m. that day that said Garcia was in the area of W. 25th and Pearl investigating "criminal activity" but did not expand on what that activity was.
The statement from police was short and full of facts, but gave little detail.
"Many of those details they couldn't really relinquish at the time as it's a pending case. But we did have a police report to go on," said News 5 Anchor Frank Wiley. Wiley did some of the early reporting on the death of Franklin.
The report said Garcia saw two men that were possibly involved in criminal activity. Garcia was in his personal car when he chased Franklin's car. In that April 9 report, police said one of the suspects had a gun and that was when Garcia fired his gun. At that point, Franklin's car crashed into a cemetery fence.
During the early reports, Wiley said News 5's goal was to be as transparent as possible with the information.
"I mean, we want to make sure the viewers know this is all we have, but this is what we were told and when we wanted to juxtapose that with what the family shared," Wiley said. "That way, no one can say anything was misconstrued. And we're also conveying to the viewers that we're sharing every bit of information we have. We are -- we don't have much."
Over the next few months, the key questions News 5 had about the April 2020 death were not answered.
We wanted to know why an off-duty police officer, who was not wearing a uniform or driving a police car, decided to pursue Franklin and shoot into a moving car in the middle of the day.
Police never answered our questions on or off-camera about the details of that day.
On April 11, CPD released 911 calls that came in minutes after the shooting.
More than a month later, police gave News 5 a two-line report which said Franklin was "engaged in aggravated robbery and felonious assault on an off-duty police officer," but did not expand further.
"I think any time you're talking about police using force against a civilian, there are always a whole lot of questions," said Scott Noll, an investigative reporter with News 5.
The lack of transparency from police left a lot of unanswered questions for reporters and family about what happened in the minutes before the shooting.
To find those answers, Franklin's family started their own investigation. And the lack of answers led to protests and calls for action over the summer.
At one of those protests, outside the Cleveland Police Department, a leader said, "I just want to point out, again, that we need to fight just as hard for all of the cases that don't have extensive video showing what happened. We need to stop letting the cops be the sole type of - anything - for any kind of investigation."
"And it's not necessarily that we've dropped the story or we've forgotten about it," Noll said about reporting on deaths at the hands of police. "A lot of times we're waiting on records, video, audio recordings, things that really go and fill in a lot of the blanks to answer the questions. And not only we have, but the community has."
Seven months after Franklin's death and 12 miles away in East Cleveland, 19-year-old Vincent Belmonte was shot by Sgt. Larry McDonald.
Noll did early reporting after the shooting and learned from police Belmonte ran from police. They say he had a gun.
Unlike in Cleveland, East Cleveland Police Chief Scott Gardner met media at the scene.
"Some departments, some municipalities are really good about getting someone to answer those questions, whether it's on camera, whether it's by Zoom, whether it's by phone," Noll said. "They went they answered questions that they told us things that they knew as they knew them at that point."
Availability like that gives News 5 a chance to get a better understanding of what happened and to challenge any inconsistencies. The department also released body camera video from officers on scene. But, the video released by ECPD showed McDonald activated his camera while chasing Belmonte but then turned it off after two seconds.
The missing video led to outrage and calls for change in the department.
At one protest in front of East Cleveland City Hall, one speaker cried out, "We demand justice for the blood, for the life that was taken."
During another several days after Belmonte's death, there were more calls for change.
"We want the truth of what happened in this situation," said one protester. "We want to know why his body cam was turned off. And, we want this officer that was involved terminated immediately and, possibly, brought up on criminal charges."
The access to the video, the scene, and police officers may not get the answers the family wants and deserves, but it can slow misinformation from spreading.
"I think the biggest thing is when people don't get answers to the questions they have, a lot of times they'll either start filling in those blanks themselves or they'll start filling it in with what other community members tell them," Noll said. "But if police aren't putting their side out, that other side is getting out there and that takes root. That starts to spread. And that raises even more questions and a lot of people's minds."
Neither Garcia nor McDonald have been charged.
"I think the biggest thing for people to keep in mind is we are trying we're trying to get those answers. We're trying to ask those tough questions," Noll said.
East Cleveland Police: 5 - Complied with all information requests in a reasonable time frame
- Complied with all information requests in a reasonable time frame
- They held a news conference, quickly released body camera video and explained that body camera video was missing.
Cleveland Police Department: 3 - Partially complied with information requests
- They provided basic information but declined requests to answer specific questions on or off-camera.