Red Flags: Euclid’s Use of Force
Melissa Highsmith always wanted to be a police officer.
The 30-year-old Cleveland resident earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and even applied for a job at a local police department.
“You’re supposed to trust them,” Highsmith said. “You’re taught when you’re little, police officers are there to help you.
“But now, it’s like completely opposite,” she said. “That’s the last place I want to go if I need anything.”
On March 6, 2017, Highsmith expected a quiet night.
Around 6 p.m., she drove to Euclid to meet her friend, Shanell Gist, at Gist’s apartment.
The long-time friends planned to celebrate Gist’s final semester of graduate school.
First, they spent a few moments in the parking lot. Gist wanted to show Highsmith her new car.
Highsmith said they didn’t see or hear anyone.
“We were outside for a couple minutes,” Highsmith said. “Went back upstairs, locked her door, getting settled in.”
They opened the bottle of champagne Highsmith brought as Gist’s 2-year-old daughter played in another room.
Then, without warning, a man kicked down the front door and burst into the apartment.
Highsmith was scared. She was also confused.
The man who had used a knife to break the lock and enter the apartment was Euclid Police Officer Daniel Ferritto.
Highsmith said Ferritto screamed at her and Gist, repeatedly claiming they ran from him when they were outside.
“He said, ‘You don’t run from the f**king police,’” she said. “That’s when I started verbalizing, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I would never run from police. I want to be a police officer.’”
The next thing she knew, she said, Ferritto grabbed both sides of her shirt and dragged her to the cement patio outside the apartment.
“He picked me up and just slammed me onto the ground,” Highsmith said. “I was slammed on my head, like bleeding from the back of my head. Bleeding on my knees from being thrown on the cement.”
She said Ferritto placed her in handcuffs facedown on the ground but refused to explain why he arrested her.
“I was terrified of what was going to happen next…nothing made sense,” she said. “A person like that should not get to hold the position that he holds. It’s scary.”
In his incident report, Ferritto said he demanded the women stop after hearing Highsmith and Gist yelling racial slurs in the parking lot. He also said they had an open container of alcohol in the car.
“The two females fled on foot from police and one of the females resisted,” according to Ferritto’s narrative. “The other female [Gist] endangered her two-year-old child by leaving her home alone.”
Highsmith was charged with open container in a motor vehicle, resisting arrest and obstructing justice.
Gist was charged with child endangerment.
The charges against both women were eventually dismissed.
“[That tells me] that I did nothing wrong,” Highsmith said. “And they [Euclid Police] did everything wrong. And they know it.”
She and Gist have since filed a federal lawsuit against Ferritto and the City of Euclid for civil rights violations.
The incident is among the hundreds of use of force reports 5 On Your Side Investigators reviewed as part of our exclusive investigation.
We uncovered a broken system that leaves innocent civilians injured and allows problem officers to continue patrolling the streets – in many cases, with little or no accountability.
For example, Ferritto was never investigated related to Highsmith’s incident, even after the lawsuit was filed, and remains on the force.
When a Euclid Police officer uses force during an incident, he or she must report what happened in what’s called a resistance/response form, per department policy.
We spent six months examining all of the 273 forms filed by officers between January 2016 and June 2018.
Immediately, a troubling pattern emerged: only a handful of officers were involved in the majority of incidents involving uses of force, including punches, takedowns and Tasers.
Our data analysis found less than 20 percent of Euclid Police officers were involved in more than 80 percent of the use of force incidents.
“When that happens, that is a red flag for the organization,” said Jim Buerrmann, president of the Police Foundation, a non-partisan research group dedicated to improving policing practices.
“Clearly, when a small number of people are responsible for the lion’s share of the use of force, somebody needs to be taking a very hard look at that,” he said.
So, which officers used force the most?
In addition, we found Amiott’s partner during the arrest, Shane Rivera, was involved in more use of force incidents than almost any other officer during the time period we reviewed.
“The things they have done, the way they handle people, they just [need to] redo their whole force,” 37-year-old Lamar Wright said.
Wright has also filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations by Euclid Police officers.
On Nov. 4, 2016, he pulled into a driveway of an acquaintance on East 212th Street in Euclid to call his girlfriend.
Seconds later, two men wearing dark clothing appeared at his car doors, guns drawn.
He thought he was being carjacked by robbers.
Instead, it turned out the two men were Euclid Police officers Kyle Flagg and Vashon Williams, who were doing surveillance on a nearby home.
It was surveillance that had nothing to do with Wright.
Flagg’s body camera video shows the officers demand Wright show them his hands and get on the ground.
WARNING: The video below contains graphic content.
For a brief moment, Wright struggled to raise his arms.
He had recently had stomach surgery. A colostomy bag was still attached to his right side.
“I was in bad shape,” he said. “My stomach was still open from the staples.”
Wright said Flagg then grabbed and twisted his left arm and pulled him to the ground. In the video, you can hear Wright repeatedly say Flagg is hurting him. Flagg then deployed his Taser. Williams used his pepper spray.
The officers accused Wright of “reaching,” appearing as if he was grabbing a weapon.
Wright said he was lifting up the arm rest around his colostomy bag to cooperate with officers’ orders. Police did not find a gun in his car.
“I mean, you just don’t treat people like that,” Wright said. “I just wish this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Wright’s lawsuit alleges Flagg and Williams filed false police reports about the incident.
They charged Wright with resisting arrest and traffic violations. Those charges were dismissed.
The officers remain on patrol.
“It’s crazy – like they’re almost getting away with it,” Wright said.
Even more troubling, we found Flagg was involved in 35 use of force incidents alone – more than any other officer.
“You need to find out why this officer has many times more use of force cases than other officers,” Buerrmann said. “The best practices in policing today indicate that you should take a look at what’s going on with that officer’s experience.”
Like Rivera, Ferritto, who’s accused of attacking Highsmith, was involved in multiple incidents. Specifically, his name is mentioned on 24 response/resistance forms.
Between Flagg, Ferritto and Rivera, the three officers account for 30 percent of the department’s use of force response/resistance forms.
“It's obligation of the leadership of that organization to try to find out why that's occurring and then make a decision about helping that officer, removing them from the context or removing them from the organizations…[and] protect the people of that community.” Buerrmann said.
“Sometimes, it is the assignment the officer gets…sometimes there’s personal issues going on. Frequently, it is that latter case,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s because they lack certain training.”
Trouble with training
The department’s use of force training has come under fire in the six federal lawsuits filed against the City of Euclid over police brutality during the last two years.
In a recent lawsuit filed by Euclid resident Shajuan Gray, the complaint referred to a use of force PowerPoint presentation utilized by the department for training purposes.
The first slide, part of the department’s 2017 winter in-service “Defensive Tactics Training,” shows the image of an officer in what appears to be riot gear striking a person lying on the ground with their hands in the air. A caption next to the image reads, “serving and protecting the poop out of you.”
Gray, 46, said on March 27, 2017, Officer James Aoki knocked on her door about a noise complaint that she was playing her music too loud. She was in the shower at the time and answered her door in a bath wrap.
Gray alleged Aoki forced his way into her apartment and assaulted her in her kitchen, leaving her with bruises on her body.
“As he’s slamming me and pushing me against the freezer and refrigerator, he’s twisting my arms up in an uncomfortable position,” she said. “I’m telling him then, ‘You’re hurting me. Why are you doing this to me? Please stop.’"
In the lawsuit, Gray said her bath wrap fell off while Aoki allegedly assaulted her, exposing her chest. She said he refused to let her to get dressed before he took her to the police department.
Aoki, who has been involved in 14 other incidents involving the use of force since 2016, did not have a body camera on during the incident.
Later, an assisting officer arrived, who was wearing a body camera. His video showed Gray walking down the stairs of her apartment in handcuffs wearing only her bath wrap. She can be heard asking to be allowed to put on clothes and telling officers they're hurting her.
WARNING: The video below contains graphic content.
In an incident report, Aoki said Gray refused to provide her name, tried to shut the door on the officer and resisted arrest.
She was acquitted of the charges filed against her after the incident, which included resisting arrest, obstruction of official business and noise violation charges.
Gray’s lawsuit wasn’t the only one that highlighted problems with Euclid’s use of force training presentation.
Luke Stewart was shot and killed by Officer Matthew Rhodes in March of 2017.
According to his family’s complaint, Stewart was asleep in his car and unarmed when Rhodes approached him. After waking Stewart, a struggle ensued when Stewart began to drive his car.
Rhodes then shot him.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled Rhodes was justified when he shot Stewart, but, in an unusual move for a judge, he sharply criticized the Euclid Police Department.
In his ruling, Gwin wrote the training presentation shows the department displays a “cavalier indifference” to use of force training.
Along with the cartoon of an officer beating an unarmed individual, the presentation also featured a skit by comedian Chris Rock, titled, “How to not get your ass kicked by the police!”
“Have you ever been face-to-face with a police officer?” asks the comedian. “If you have to give a friend a ride, get a white friend. A white friend can be the difference between getting a ticket or getting a bullet in your a**.”
Gwin described the comedy video as “grossly inappropriate” to show officers as part of formal training.
He also criticized the department for giving officers the same “barebones” test each year on its use of force policies and Chief Scott Meyer’s failure to create a training committee as mandated by the department’s policy manual.
We made multiple requests via phone and email for a sit-down interview with Meyer. He did not respond, so we went to a recent city council meeting to share our findings and ask him about his department’s use of force.
When asked whether he believes the police department’s training materials are appropriate, Meyer said yes. When specifically asked about the Chris Rock video, he did not respond.
We also asked Meyer why 20 percent of his officers account for more than 80 percent of use of force response/resistance form.
“That’s something we could talk about at a later time,” Meyer said.
We asked if our findings indicate a red flag regarding the officers’ conduct. He told Investigator Sarah Buduson, “Didn’t I just tell you? It’s not that I don’t have a comment. I don’t have a comment for you.”
“Leadership in police matters,” Buerrmann said. “The police chief or the sheriff is very similar to the captain of the ship. What he or she says to the organization, or doesn’t say, sends a very clear message about what’s acceptable. Any statement, or lack thereof by any police leader, can potentially be problematic.”
“There’s a clear problem with their training,” Highsmith added. “I think they need to kind of revamp their entire police department.”
Hours after our investigation published online, Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail responded to News 5's reporting via email and said the city and police are "committed to providing a safe community and to treating all residents justly and with dignity and respect."
She said the city has contacted the U.S. Department of Justice to implement a procedural justice training program for its officers. You can read her full statement below:
RE: Mayor Gail Response to Red Flags
The City of Euclid and the Euclid Police Department remain committed to providing a safe community and to treating all residents justly and with dignity and respect. The incidents in this report occurred in 2016 and 2017. Our goal remains to continuously upgrade and improve the Euclid Police Department. To that end, we have implemented new programs such as a multi-department use of force review committee. We reached out to the Department of Justice to implement a Procedural Justice Training Program, the very first of its kind in Ohio. We have and will continue to far exceed state training requirements and have enhanced training in areas including community relations, de-escalation techniques, and defensive tactics. EPD use of force incidents remain well below the national average*. We will continue to work with the Euclid Police Department, residents, and community partners to ensure Euclid remains a community where we all can be proud to live, work and visit.
Kirsten Holzheimer Gail
Mayor, City of Euclid
A day after News 5 published this report, the Euclid FOP Lodge 18 responded by calling the investigation a "witch hunt," and providing a statement which reads, in part:
The officers mentioned are some of the most decorated in the department and are probably responsible for taking more guns, drugs and violent criminals off the streets than the rest of the department combined. Some are even assigned to a Community Response Unit, which is tasked with addressing severe crime in the community. Some have saved almost as many overdose victims with Narcan, as times they’ve used force.
You can read their complete statement on their Facebook page here.
A dream on hold
After Ferritto hurt her, Highsmith said, she feels anxious when she sees a police officer.
“[It’s] constant, automatic,” she said. “Everything tightens up. Even if I’m just driving down the highway.”
She said the incident led her to put her dream of becoming of police officer on hold.
“I don’t want to work alongside them,” she said. “I just feel like I can’t trust police officers.”