On a hot day last July, Mayor Michael White called a remarkable press conference. With the command staff of the Cleveland Police Division beside him in their neatly pressed dress blues, the mayor told the world he had credible information that white supremacists were active in the department. At least three of the city's six police district police stations, he charged, were pocked with racist graffiti.
White called it the most serious crisis since he took office in 1990. The mayor turned to the officers and, in a condescending tone, implored them to thoroughly investigate this perceived evil lurking within their ranks.
Eight months and one investigation later, it's clear the mayor's allegations were unfounded. In a 92-page report, Internal Affairs Sgt. James Muhic was able to turn up nothing more than hearsay and third-party gossip, not far removed from a child's game of "Telephone." Unwilling to let the IA report speak for itself, White sandwiched it in a four-inch stack of arrest statistics, complaint reports, and other raw data that implied racist leanings on the part of individual officers.
But there was no disguising the unstated conclusion of the report: There were no organized hate groups. While the mayor claims he was not the originator of that allegation, his actions certainly perpetuated it. And the police union has called for an apology.
Instead, it was a defiant White at City Hall on Monday, holding a press conference to counter strongly worded criticism from the police union and chastising reporters once again for suggesting he was the initial source of charges of police racism. Last July, the press conference degenerated into a Plain Dealer-bashing session; this time, the mayor remained cool and nonplussed. When asked if he would have done anything differently in retrospect, White answered before the question was fully phrased, in triplicate: "Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not."
Even in the opening letter of the package, addressed "Dear Community Leader" (copies were sent to the city's Community Relations Board and the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, among others), White insists he never made allegations about hate groups in the CPD, but was only commenting on tips he received. Then, instead of trumpeting the good news that investigators found no organized racism, he notes there have been active racists in the CPD in the past, and that some officers interviewed said they detect bias in their fellow officers.
Next comes a 100-plus-page "Analysis of Investigative Practices," which has nothing to do with the investigation. Instead, it's a collection of raw data about complaints against CPD officers, broken down by police district, race, and age, as well as statistics on the use of deadly force, broken down by race. The analysis lists -- by name -- all officers with more than three complaints filed against them and charts arrest subjects both by race and by the overall racial makeup of the surrounding district.
The analysis draws no conclusions. But it leaves the unmistakable impression that the CPD dispenses justice in an unequal fashion.
Beneath that is the IA investigation, which would be laughable if it didn't threaten to tar the careers of 10 officers -- and raise serious questions about the mayor's motivations.
Specific allegations of racist behavior are presented as hearsay, suspicion, and innuendo. In other cases, information that White touted as evidence of active racism turns out to be simple miscommunication. One officer, for example, once wore a lapel pin that symbolized "chaos," which White portrayed as a symbol of a racist group. In reality, the officer explained to Muhic, "the pin symbolizes confusion and disorder that is experienced on the police department."
Another example, not cited by White but mentioned within police ranks, is the allegation that then-Second District Commander Gregory Baeppler referred to his officers as "young nazis." The term actually started with then-Chief Rocco Pollutro, who referred to the Second District's most active traffic cops as "road nazis." The joke reached the point where the cops considered having T-shirts made up proclaiming themselves to be the "2nd District Road Nazis." They thought better of it, but it's clear the phrase had no racial connotation.
What's more, both black and white officers and commanders said in interviews that they never heard of "Elvis" or the number "311" being used as racial epithets. A First District cop was told by his son that 311 "was a rock band that had nothing to do with racism."
First District Commander Charles McNeeley told Muhic that he "wasn't completely comfortable" with four officers in whom he detected a racial bias. McNeeley said he monitored the work of those officers -- who are named in the report -- and provided anecdotal reasons for his discomfort, such as the officers referring to "them people" and allegedly calling some residents "niggers."
In the Sixth District, there was apparently no shortage of rumors about two brothers who worked together, one of whom has a tattoo of Elvis -- the apparent genesis of Elvis-as-racist-symbol. The two men -- also named in the report -- were rumored to be Nazis who spoke German in public. In 1995, IA searched the brothers' lockers for Nazi paraphernalia but found nothing.
Muhic concludes that there is a "substantial body of information circulating about the [two] brothers," but that much of it is third-party. He also states, "The strong possibility exists that additional information is being withheld by persons for various reasons."
If that's the case, why did White call the July press conference -- which one senior officer called "the most humiliating experience"of his career -- to announce the investigation, thereby guaranteeing that any officers being investigated would watch their behavior and keep their mouths shut? It not only destroyed any legitimate chance of exposing them, but called into question the mayor's credibility -- a point not lost on the rank and file.
"There's always been a question of motivation since the beginning of this investigation," says one high-ranking officer.
Last summer, when White was embroiled in a battle with police over his handling of the Ku Klux Klan rally, skeptics viewed the investigation as a transparent ploy to shore up his lagging support in the black community. Now that the results of the investigation have failed to support allegations he insists he never made, he's gone into a defensive crouch again. Instead of exonerating the department, he continues to attack it, using reams of unrelated statistics.
The key difference is that this time, nobody is buying it. Already stung by the ongoing health care fiasco and a council on the attack, White's credibility has been dealt a severe blow by the IA investigation, leaving him talking mostly to himself.
Few people are listening. And even fewer believe him.
Mike Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.