“Perfect Storm” for Police Reform: Why Cleveland Might Be Different
June 3, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Civilian control is being implemented over the investigation of misconduct in the police department of a major city, Cleveland. Politicians love it. The newspapers will run editorials about how great it will be. Police officers won’t really care. They don’t think it will work, because from their perspective, it hasn’t worked in the past. Historically, they’re right, it hasn’t worked. This time, they may be wrong.
The Department of Justice came to a settlement agreement following an investigation that showed a pattern of excessive force and other issues at the Cleveland Division of Police. Part of the agreement said that the Internal Affairs (IA) section would be headed by a qualified civilian who is not a current or former employee of Cleveland PD, nor a former or retired police officer.
All of this is good, except for the fact that in Cleveland under the settlement, IA doesn’t investigate general non-criminal misconduct on the part of officers, but only conducts criminal investigations against officers. The problem is that very few officers are criminally investigated. Most are jammed up over violations of departmental policy, not criminal actions. Plus, the civilian manager will likely be captured by the system — he reports to the Chief and is surrounded by cops.
This non-criminal misconduct will be handled by an Office of Professional Standards (OPS), led by an administrator. The OPS will not be part of the Cleveland PD, will not be controlled by the PD, and will have a separate budget. Further, if the OPS investigation finds wrongdoing by an officer, they present their recommendations to a civilian Police Review Board (PRB) in a public hearing. The PRB can accept the recommendations or ask for further investigation. The PRB can then send the matter back to the Chief of Police with their recommendations, which may include disciplinary recommendations.
This is where it gets interesting. In most places with civilian review, the Chief was free to ignore the recommendations of the civilian review board, and most did. Here, the Chief has to report in writing his reasons for deviating from the recommendations of the board.
Police officials, especially higher ranking police officials, don’t want to have to justify their decisions to others, and especially not in writing where it can come back and bite them. In one department, the officers on one shift never arrested people for domestic violence because the sergeant did not believe it was appropriate for the police to get into “family business.” Once the department required the sergeant to set out his justification for his officers not making an arrest in a domestic violence call, his squad started to make the same number of those arrests as the other squads did. All of this changed because the sergeant didn’t want his reasons for not arresting batterers to be written down on paper.
You’re not going to change the culture of a police department until you force the change from the outside and from the top down. Here, the PRB, the OPS, and the politicians have an opportunity to do that, by holding the Chief accountable for enforcing discipline. It’s really a perfect storm — a dead 12-year-old, an acquitted officer, and a DOJ investigation all serve to bring public pressure on the politicians to go after police misconduct. You may not put bad officers in jail to start with, but unpaid suspensions and fired police officers will get the attention of the other officers.
Then, if the culture changes, it will be time for the politicians to love it, for the newspapers to write about it, because police officers will really care about the citizens they are protecting.
Gregory J. Prickett is an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas. He is a former police supervisor with over 20 years experience and assignments in patrol, investigations, and training, among others. He is also a retired Air Force Reserve captain, having served in the security police career field
Main image via Facebook/Justice for Tamir Rice