By Eric Heisig, Cleveland Plain Dealer (Nov. 29, 2016)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Newly drafted guidelines designed to overhaul how Cleveland investigates and adjudicates citizen complaints against police will give the city a good start on fixing a system in which many residents long ago lost faith, the police monitor wrote Tuesday.
It won't fix everything, though, as there are still certain challenges because of union contracts, disagreements on legal interpretations and the city's past handling of complaints.
The manuals for the Office of Professional Standards and the Civilian Police Review Board, submitted Tuesday for a federal judge's approval, are the result of a year of work and are aimed at fixing one of the biggest problems the U.S. Justice Department found with Cleveland police.
The depth of the problems became clear when the monitoring team, which is mandated through a settlement the city reached with the Justice Department, started investigating the backlog of unfinished complaint investigations. Office of Professional Standards employees asked to explain procedures would often respond with "I don't know, there's never been a rule, never been a standard way of doing this," head monitor Matthew Barge said in an interview.
"Which means this covers a lot of ground that's never been covered before," Barge said, referring to the proposed manuals.
The monitoring team repeatedly points out in its motion to the judge that the city has a long way to go with its grievance-investigation process. The language is stern and the monitor takes great pains to detail the laborious steps the team and the city took to draft the policies, since the city's draft submissions often did not pass muster.
However, the motion says, the manuals "represent an important milestone in re-establishing trust among CPD personnel and community members alike in Cleveland's internal and administrative treatment of civilian complaints about the police."
Here is a breakdown of the major components of the complaint-investigation process, and some lingering problems.
The new Office of Professional Standards manual requires every contact with a complainant at the beginning of an investigative process to be documented, assigned a tracking number and reviewed, regardless of whether a formal investigation results.
The settlement mandates that the city accept complaints in a variety of ways -- online, by phone, with or without a signature or anonymously.
However, the current contract between the city and the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association says "[a]ll complaints filed by a citizen against [officers] shall be submitted by the complainant in his or her own handwriting," according to the motion.
The contract language also means that anonymous complaints may not result in discipline. The monitor insists that anonymous complaints are necessary and says the union contract provision may discriminate against people with disabilities who are unable to sign their names.
The monitor expects the city and union to "work expeditiously to ensure that the provisions of the Consent Decree, generally-accepted practice, and compliance with the (Americans with Disabilities Act) and equivalent Ohio state law are harmonized with the CPPA Contract," the motion says.
The Office of Professional Standards will assign all complaints to a "standard" or "complex" track, as well as to a category, such as "biased policing or "harassment." Within three business days, the intake coordinator must forward the complaint to the administrator for review, and the administrator will assign the complaint to an investigator within 24 hours of receipt.
All "standard" investigations must be completed within 45 days, while "complex" cases must be finished within 75 days.
After an investigation is completed, it must be forwarded to the Police Review Board for consideration no later than two regularly-scheduled meetings after the investigation is completed.
The Office of Professional Standards' administrator must review all completed investigations and make a final recommendation by using a "preponderance of the evidence" standard, meaning the infraction more likely than not occurred.
In "limited instances," the administrator may dismiss a complaint without a full investigation, the motion says.
The administrator shall not make any disciplinary recommendation. After a review, the administrator will then tell the complainant that the investigation has been completed and the Police Review Board will hear the matter.
Police Review Board makeup and expectations
The manual for the Civilian Police Review Board codifies what Cleveland voters passed in a ballot measure earlier this month to change the board's makeup. The board will now have nine members instead of seven, and include one member from each of the city's five police districts. One of the members would have to be between ages 18 and 30.
The Cleveland City Council will decide next week whether to place a measure on the November ballot that could change the makeup of a civilian board that is supposed to review use-of-force allegations made against police officers.
"The Monitoring Team will expect that Board members indeed 'use best efforts to attend all regularly-scheduled Board meetings,'" the motion says. "The Manual indicates that Board members 'shall receive compensation as may be established by the Council.'"
All board meetings are to be open to the public.
The board's manual says the board may, when discussing certain types of investigations, do so with a three-member panel. These could include issues such as bad demeanor, rudeness or a vehicle towed improperly.
The board is not bound by the Office of Professional Standards administrator's recommendations. It must write summaries for each adjudicated complaint.
If the board says an investigation warrants discipline, it will forward that decision to the police chief or the public safety director.
Police Review Board's authority
Under the guidelines, the Police Review Board may recommend suspensions. If the recommended suspension is 10 days or less, it goes to the police chief. If it is more than 10 days, the chief will also have to forward it to the public safety director for a final decision.
The motion notes a dispute the city and the monitoring team have over where authority lies on disciplining officers, and how those decisions can be overridden.
The monitoring team believes the city's charter allows the board to override a chief's suspension decision with enough votes. The city believes the board must send its overriding decision to the public safety director for a hearing and final decision, even if it is for a suspension lasting 10 days or less.