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Cleveland Heights arrest of driver goes viral, raises questions about police procedure

Cleveland Heights police are conducting an investigation into the incident
Cleveland Heights arrest of driver goes viral, raise questions about police procedure
Posted at 11:13 PM, Jan 26, 2023

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — Demetrius Kern of Cleveland said he was simply trying to file a citizen complaint against a Cleveland Heights police officer, but suddenly found himself handcuffed and under arrest.

Kern talked exclusively to News 5 about the Sept. 22, 2022, incident which produced a viral video and questions about police procedures.

Kern said a female officer cut him off and nearly caused an accident as she tried to make a traffic stop on a car that was in front of his vehicle. Kern told News 5 he safely stopped his car after the incident and waited patiently on the sidewalk for the officer to finish up her traffic stop. That's when Kern could be seen on police body camera video asking the officer for her badge number so he could file a citizen complaint. The officer could be heard apologizing for the situation telling Kern she activated her lights and siren and called for backup.

The video shows a Cleveland Heights police sergeant responding to the scene, who asked Kern to give his name and information when Kern wasn't stopped or issued a violation. Kern told the officer without a violation he didn't have to give his name but the sergeant continued to insist, eventually arresting Kern on a charge of obstruction of justice.

Kern believes his civil rights were violated by an officer who wasn't properly trained, didn't understand the law and unfairly imposed authority.

“This was a consensual stop, I pulled over to get her badge number to go to the police station to complain about her reckless driving," said Kern. “I didn’t break any laws and I told them that, I didn’t break any ordinance, I didn’t break any infractions. And I’m like why so much machismo, and he yells sit down and at that point I was already sitting down, and I was like what do you want me to do, do you want me to sit on the ground.”

Cleveland Heights court records indicate the obstruction of justice charge against Kern was dropped less than two weeks later on Oct. 3 due to a lack of evidence. Kern pointed to police body camera video which clearly indicated the female officer repeatedly apologized for the arrest, telling him she was simply following the orders of her superior officer.

“She apologized over and over and over, and she continued to say this is what he wants to do, I’m just following the rules," said Kern. “If you look at his video, he throws my constitutional rights in the garbage.”

News 5 has decided to not name the uncharged, and so far, undisciplined officers, while the City of Cleveland Heights continues to investigate the incident.

On January 27, Cleveland Heights Mayor and Safety Director Kahlil Seren issued the following letter to all residents calling for police policy changes.

Dear Cleveland Heights resident,

Earlier this week, a video was posted on YouTube featuring edited clips of police body camera footage from a September 22, 2022, traffic stop that led to a complaint against a Cleveland Heights police officer.

Like many of you, I first became aware of this incident as a result of this video. Due to policies adopted under our previous form of government, it has been the practice of the Cleveland Heights Division of Police to internally investigate and resolve complaints about police conduct without notifying the City Manager/Mayor.

I want to share with you what I have subsequently learned, what I think it means, and what we are doing about it.

During this traffic stop, the interaction between a motorist, Mr. Demetrius Kern, Officer Lewis, and Sergeant Wolf resulted in Mr. Kern eventually being handcuffed and cited for obstruction of official business. This charge was dismissed eleven days later at the request of the City Prosecutor.

A few hours following the traffic stop, Mr. Kern came to Cleveland Heights City Hall and filed a complaint against Sergeant Wolf. Cleveland Heights Police Chief Chris Britton investigated Mr. Kern's complaint and ordered Sergeant Wolf to attend a de-escalation training session.

I have spent the last four days reviewing the unedited body camera footage (which you can view here [r20.rs6.net]) and documentation related to this incident. I will complete my administrative review and release my determinations shortly.

I believe, however, that this situation clearly demonstrates that existing policy in Cleveland Heights is insufficient for a government with an elected Mayor and illuminates why these policies must change. Executive oversight of the Division of Police must become the standard in Cleveland Heights.

I have already begun work to change how Cleveland Heights handles complaints about police conduct. During last year's city budget process, I announced I would create a new Bureau of Professional Standards within the Cleveland Heights Division of Police to formalize internal controls and accountability. I will appoint the first Captain for this bureau next month.

In consultation with City Administrator Sinnott, Chief Britton, and the Captain of this new bureau, I will update our policies and procedures for receiving, investigating, resolving, and reporting complaints related to police conduct.

In Cleveland Heights, our Division of Police has earned a reputation over the years for being dedicated to a cooperative and productive relationship with residents and visitors to our city. Our continuing work toward systemic improvement will help to maintain and strengthen this relationship with the community.

Cleveland Heights Director of Communications and Public Engagement, Mike Thomas, told News 5 the Cleveland Heights Mayor is also evaluating the incident. The city issued the following statement:

"In Cleveland Heights, we work to keep our community safe and enforce the law while treating everyone with dignity and respect. We take situations like this very seriously. Following Mr. Kern's complaint about the September 22, 2022 incident, Cleveland Heights Police Chief Chris Britton immediately launched a full investigation to determine what happened, why, and what steps the City of Cleveland Heights should take in response. The results of this investigation are currently under review, and any information produced in this investigation will be open and available to the public."

News 5 had National Law Enforcement and Procedures Expert, Tim Dimof, evaluate the incident and the police body camera video.

“The citizen asked for the badge number, and that officer is obligated to provide that badge number," Dimoff said. “This person just wanted her badge number, wanted to leave and then file a complaint, and with that, that citizen is not obligated to provide their name.”

Dimoff also said there is a lesson to be learned from this situation.

“It doesn’t appear to be any criminal activity including obstruction. It appears to be a conversation and a concern by a citizen, who is really not required to identify himself," said Dimoff. “How they handle those situations with citizens is more crucial more than ever, and this is a good lesson for law enforcement officers across the country.”

James Hardiman, prominent Northeast Ohio Civil Rights Attorney, also evaluated the incident and believes additional training is needed for some officers on the Cleveland Heights police department.

“To try and create and offense where there was none was totally inappropriate," said Hardiman. “It seems to me Cleveland Heights needs to reign in some of their police officers.”

Hardiman said situations like this one shed light on the relationship between the community and law enforcement agencies.

“Citizens often times become emotional and citizens often times don’t do the right thing, but that does not rise to the level of criminal activity," said Hardiman. "This is part of the reason why there’s a disconnect between the community and many law enforcement agencies. If we could try to defuse the situation and make the police department a partner rather than an adversary, rather than an occupying force, I think that would make a substantial amount of progress.”

Meanwhile, Kern said he is considering filing a lawsuit, a GoFundMe account has been established to help with legal expenses.

“They won’t give the public the gratification of saying we’re wrong I’m sorry," said Kern. "It's all I wanted when I made that original complaint, which I told the other officer, all I wanted was an apology. This guy, if he’s a sergeant, their bad apple is pretty high up on that tree.”