Issue 24 Fact Check: Cleveland police use of fatal force, resident complaints and a potential ‘mass exodus’ of officers
By Paul Rochford and Rachel Dissell, Cleveland Documenters
Cleveland voters go to the polls on Nov. 2. Along with picking a new mayor, they’ll vote on Issue 24, an initiative that would restructure police oversight. Attendees debated Issue 24 at a recent Cleveland City Council Safety Committee meeting.
Below Cleveland Documenters fact checks three issues discussed at the meeting, including statements by Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams.
- Complaints received by the Office of Professional Standards have been cut in half since the city agreed to a Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.
- Over the past 15 years there have been 43 fatal police-involved encounters between Cleveland officers and residents.
- There was a “mass exodus” of officers in cities with police accountability reforms similar to what Issue 24 proposes.
What’s Issue 24? Here is a quick reminder:
Issue 24, or the Community Police Commission and Police Oversight initiative, would amend the city charter to change the oversight structure for the Cleveland Division of Police. The organization Citizens for a Safer Cleveland is leading the campaign supporting Issue 24.
The initiative proposes the creation of a demographically representative Community Police Commission, which would work with the Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) to review police conduct investigations, training and discipline.
The initiative also alters the structure of the CPRB, requiring two of its members to be lawyers with experience defending victims of police misconduct. Under the initiative, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) will report to the CPRB rather than to the chief of police.
- Here’s the text of the initiative petition
- Read more about the Safety Committee notes from Cleveland Documenters
During a Sept. 29th Safety Committee Meeting, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said that the Consent Decree, implemented in June 2015, has been effective and that Issue 24 is “trying to create a solution to a huge problem that does not exist in this city.”
Williams said, “Since 2014, complaints received by [the Office of Professional Standards] against Cleveland police officers [have been] cut in half since our Consent Decree started.”
According to the 2020 Annual OPS report, Williams is correct. The average number of complaints per year after the Consent Decree (2015-2020) fell 53% from the average number of complaints per year before the decree began (2010-2014).
However, the report offers a little more context, showing that while complaints have generally decreased since the Consent Decree, there were 276 complaints filed in 2020, a 25% increase from 2019. So far in 2021, there have been 267 complaints.
In 2020, a majority of complaints were categorized under Unprofessional Behavior/Conduct (35.9%) and Lack of Service (27.9%). Complainants indicate the category in a complaint form or in an interview with an investigator.
On average, in 2020, investigations of complaints were completed within 75 days, though nearly 25% of those investigations took 121 days or more.
During a debate on Issue 24, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams told City Council Safety Committee members that: ”Over the last 15 years, there have only been 43 fatal police-involved encounters involving Cleveland Police officers.”
Cleveland Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia told Cleveland Documenters that number came from the department crime analysis unit, but was not available in a published report.
In an email, Ciaccia said department data shows that from 2010-2015, there were 19 fatal incidents where officers used deadly force and 5 from 2016-2020 for a total of 24. She said the time frame Williams used in the meeting – 15 years – was not available without a public record request. Documenters are requesting that information.
The 2020 Use of Force report doesn’t list the number of residents killed by officers. The report categorizes use of force incidents into three levels. Level 3 includes fatal force.
Read the full 2020 Use of Force Report here.
Open-source investigations, which pull data from news reports and elsewhere, have found more police-violence deaths than data reported by police departments, according to The New York Times.
Researchers using death records and coroners’ reports recently found that government data vastly undercounts police-involved killings, especially of Black residents.
Open-source data from fatalencounters.org found that from 2005 to 2020 – the time frame Williams referenced – Cleveland police officers were involved in the deaths of 55 people. In 2021, two more people were killed, bringing the total to 57, according to the database.
The database shows 21 fatal encounters between police and residents from 2010-2015 and 12 from 2016-2020 for a total of 33, which differs from the numbers shared by the department. That’s likely because the police department defines a fatal use of force more narrowly.
Find the full Fatal Encounters data set, which includes the names of victims, the circumstances of their deaths, and methodology for attributing deaths to police encounters:
Here is a chart showing fatal encounters with Cleveland police for the past 16 years, including data through July 2021.
On average, before the Consent Decree was implemented (2005 to 2014), there were 3.9 fatal encounters per year and 2.8 after it was implemented (2015 to July 2021), according to the database.
Williams told council’s Safety Committee members on Sept. 29th that other cities that enacted reforms similar to Issue 24 in recent years saw a “mass exodus” of police officers.
Williams named Seattle, New Orleans and Portland as examples. Let’s look at each one.
Seattle overhauled its police accountability system in 2017. The new process includes: an Office of Police Accountability, Inspector General for Public Safety & Permanent Community Police Commission.
That first year, the department lost 28 officers. There’s been lots of back and forth – the new union contract and the accountability measures still don’t align. Overall, in 2020 the department has about 7% fewer officers than it did in 2017.
Seattle also has a much lower officer-to-resident ratio than Cleveland. In 2020, it had 1.7 officers for every 1,000 people living in the city, according to FBI stats. Cleveland had more than double that.
Williams also named Portland as a city that lost officers because of a similar charter amendment initiative.
”Fifty officers just left the Portland Police Department. It passed, they haven’t completely implemented it, they’ve been in a eight- or nine-month process of getting it actually implemented, but 50 officers left that police division and they’re a smaller division than we are.”
It’s too early to know yet how Portland’s charter amendment, passed in Nov. 2020, affected the number of sworn officers at the department. The number of officers overall has been steadily declining each year since 2017 for a total decline of about 5.5%.
What Williams was likely referring to were stories from this summer that 50 officers resigned from a specialized crowd control unit after another officer was charged by a grand jury with using unlawful force against a protester.
The officers resigned from the unit, not from the police force, according to news reports.
The department lost 115 officers to resignations & retirements in less than a year, after experiencing massive protests, The Portland Oregonian reported in April.
Officers gave varied reasons: being overworked, overwhelmed, politics and police reform efforts.
Portland has about 1.3 officers per 1,000 people in the city, far lower than Cleveland.
Police accountability reforms in New Orleans – the third city Williams mentioned – date back to 2012, when that city entered into a Consent Decree with the federal government.
Since then, the number of officers in New Orleans has fluctuated. Overall, the department had about 9% fewer officers in 2019 than it did in 2012. The city didn’t report 2020 numbers to the FBI.
New Orleans also has fewer officers per 1,000 people living in the city than Cleveland.
Where is Cleveland right now?
The city hasn’t reported officer employment numbers to the FBI each year, but what it did report shows just over a 7% increase in officers since the Consent Decree was signed in 2015.
Cleveland Documenters Civic reporter Doug Breehl-Pitorak and Documenters Laylah Allen and Helen Rucinski. See their notes and live-tweets here.