CLEVELAND — For the fifth straight year, the number of citizen complaints against Cleveland police officers declined in 2018, marking a 65% decrease in total complaints in that time frame, according to the Office of Professional Standards’ annual report, which was detailed at Wednesday’s Safety Committee meeting.
Despite improvements in total complaints -- as well as how efficiently they are investigated -- the report also shows that more than a third of the time, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams goes against the Civilian Police Review Board’s recommended discipline.
According to the 2018 report, there were a total of 227 complaints filed against police officers with the Office of Professional Standards, a significant decline compared to the more than 660 complaints filed in 2013. An overwhelming majority of those complaints were filed against the Third District, one of the most active and densely populated police districts in the city. A map showing where complaints were filed shows a wide swath that encompasses much of the city with a concentration of complaints occurring in the city’s downtown core.
More than half of the complaints were filed by women. Nearly 57% of complainants were black, according to the report.
You can read the full report here.
The report also categorized the nature of the complaints. More than 75% of the complaints fell into one of three categories: lack of service, unprofessional conduct or improper procedure. Complaints related to excessive force and biased policing only accounted for roughly 6% of all complaints in 2018.
However, Roger Smith, the administrator for the Office of Professional Standards, told council members that even complaints related to lack of service can have negative consequences in terms of a citizen’s trust in the police department.
“You have to look at it collectively and how it affects overall practices,” Smith said. “If you establish a track record of being rude and disrespectful in your interactions with the community, that becomes part of the expectation. Bad expectation leads to bad interactions, which leads to increasingly bad results in other ways.”
Smith also detailed the gains OPS has made in terms of how quickly complaints are investigated and, ultimately, adjudicated. Of the 227 complaints the agency investigated in 2018, nearly 40% of them have been fully investigated and presented to the Citizen Police Review Board. Approximately 38% of the complaints that remain are still under investigation, although many of those complaints were filed in the waning months of 2018. Roughly a dozen complaints have been referred to the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which handles the criminal investigations into police officers.
He said the timeliness of investigations is a main priority for OPS. The average length of time to investigate was 76 days. However, if the criminal investigation-related delays are removed from the equation, the number of days for a case to be completed drops to a mean of 68 days. OPS expects to complete half of its cases this year within 60 days.
Smith took over the beleaguered agency in 2018 after public criticism of the agency’s inability to complete and adjudicate cases in a timely basis. Since then, Smith said the agency has shown remarkable improvement.
“I can tell you today that one of the things I am most proud of is the attitude that the OPS investigators,” Smith said. “They have taken to being a part in turning around the work of the agency and getting it to the point where not only they could be proud, but the community could be proud of what we are doing as well. If that didn’t happen you wouldn’t be seeing any progress today.”
Despite the reported improvement in OPS’ efficiency, there were still several points of frustration for those who sit on the Civilian Police Review Board, the entity that listens to the complaints against officers and ultimately decides whether the complaints warrant discipline. The CPRB sends its recommendations to the police chief or director of public safety who have the ultimate authority in whether the levy discipline.
The CPRB adjudicated a total of 221 complaints in 2018 that had a total of 619 allegations. According to the report, 110 of the 619 (17.8%) allegations were sustained whereas 220 of the allegations (35.5%) resulted in the board exonerating the officer. More than 17% of the allegations were deemed unfounded, according to the report.
However, roughly 35% of the time that the CPRB sustains an allegation and recommends discipline against an officer, Chief Williams goes against those recommendations, according to the report. The CPRB has begun appealing the chief’s decisions that go against their recommendations.
“Perhaps the most frustrating part of serving on CPRB is the rate in which the chief disagrees with our recommendations, often without well-reasoned findings, including the level of discipline, if any, he chooses,” said Stephanie Scalise, the CPRB’s vice chair.
Scalise was also critical of Williams’ apparent lack of attendance at the CPRB’s public meetings.
“Despite repeated attempts for the chief to attend our public meetings on a quarterly basis to discuss those concerns, we’ve only had one meeting with the chief since I joined the board,” Scalise said.
Scalise has been on the board since early 2017.
This drew the ire of many of the council members on the Safety Committee, including committee chair Matt Zone.
“It is unacceptable and unreasonable that Chief Williams is not meeting with this board. They’ve asked for a quarterly meeting… That’s why he gets paid the big bucks,” Zone said. “The chief needs to meet with the board. He needs to find time. That is why he’s the chief. If he can’t do that then he needs to come to this table and tell me why he can’t do that.”
Councilman Zone said he would personally address the issue with Williams. Councilman Mike Polensek echoed Zone’s sentiments.
“I’m reading this and I’m shaking my head thinking, ‘why would the chief not want to meet,’” Councilman Polensek said. “That, to me, I find very troubling. I find it extremely troubling. I would hope that what we heard today no longer exists. That’s what I would hope to hear. Because at that point, it’s going to get very troubling and I think it is going to confrontational at the table. The chief has a responsibility not only to the administration, to the mayor, but he also has the responsibility to this body and the people of Cleveland.”
Scalise and other CPRB members highlighted a particular case in which Williams went against the board’s findings. The case involved a man who was arrested and charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor, which is what the arresting officer’s supervisor had instructed the officer to do. The felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor within 24 hours, officials said.
The nature of the sustained complaints that Williams did not agree with the review board on included unprofessional conduct, lack of service and improper procedure.
“You have certain situations where the police chief has gone against what the board has said and it’s truly affecting people’s lives,” said Councilman Basheer Jones.
The Mayor’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.