According to an internal review of Cleveland Police conduct on May 30th, 2020, local officers understood the precise use of force guidelines by which they are governed. The munitions teams who launched cannisters of tear gas and fired pepper balls, pepper spray, flash grenades, and assorted less-than-lethal bullets into a crowd at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center six months ago "acted within their training and used munitions effectively" as crowd control measures.
"When officers used force," the report asserted, "injuries to citizens were minor or non-existent."
John Sanders, the 24-year-old Sandusky resident who was shot in the eye with a beanbag round while snapping a photograph outside the Justice Center and who later had his eyeball surgically removed, would likely dispute the characterization of his injury as minor or non-existent. (Sanders was shot by a Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Deputy, not a Cleveland Police Officer, for the record, though the distinction is no doubt immaterial to him.)
The report, released Thursday, was overseen by retired Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Michael Black and was an attempt to document "all aspects" of the civil unrest on the day of the George Floyd demonstrations in Cleveland. It included the compilation and analysis of police reports, body camera footage, local media accounts, social media posts and internal intelligence.
The day's events, which evolved from an afternoon protest into scattered evening riots, have been reconstructed in meticulous, if sometimes suspect, detail. That's in keeping with the report's stated aims: not to ascertain why
the demonstration became violent, but to document what happened in order to improve police policies and procedures. The first half is a panoramic, hour-by-hour timeline of the chaos. It conveys well the extent of property damage downtown. The time and location of every broken window and every trash can set ablaze is recorded with precision.
It also confirms what had been previously known: that Cleveland Police were in tactical disarray for much of the afternoon and evening, overwhelmed both by the size of the crowd and the scope of attendees' responses. CPD's initial intelligence, harvested from a Facebook event post, dramatically underestimated the eventual number of protesters. The report describes attendance as "more than 1,000" at both 1:30 and 3 p.m., but based on personal observations I think it may have been closer to 3,000.
At a virtual press conference with the city's top safety personnel Thursday afternoon, Police Chief Calvin Williams described the report's recommendations as largely matters of personnel and equipment. Even if all 1,600 of the city's police officers had been downtown, he said, property damage and looting likely could not have been prevented entirely. But better planning, more officers and more strategic staging of "assets" could have more effectively controlled the crowd and ameliorated some of the damage. "It would have been a better outcome," he said, though he doubted that use of force could have been prevented even with maximal staffing levels.
That view is reflected in many of the report's recommendations. Some of them, including sensible suggestions about interagency coordination and large-scale event preparation, have already been implemented. But many of the others presage the escalating militarization of the department. Indeed, the unchallenged consensus that Cleveland Police were "unprepared" or "ill-equipped" for the demonstrations leads to almost no other outcome.
The report, then, serves a familiar purpose. Just as the erroneous information that Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief Calvin Williams fed the media
in the immediate aftermath of the unrest supported a narrative whereby a violent police response was proper and good, the report, which absurdly overplays the "tactics" of protesters, creates a framework for ongoing police violence. The principles of the police response on May 30th are never questioned. It's taken for granted that officers behaved commendably under extraordinary pressure. Their use of force isn't even detailed beyond the mention of 19 complaints registered with the Department of Internal Affairs and the Office of Professional Standards.
In order to prevent another riot, the report concludes, the department simply needs more
resources: more officers at more locations, more weapons, bigger and better gear.
In that case, it's worth considering: What would a fully "equipped," "prepared" department have looked like on May 30? And what will it look like next time? Hundreds of officers in full tactical body armor and shields, tear gas bazookas perched on every shoulder, tanks circling every grouping of six or more teenagers waving signs? Are we to shrug and accept that this is simply the appearance of a local law enforcement agency in the 21st century devoted to its citizens' First Amendment rights, as Williams insisted Thursday? Is this what citizens want?
Whether we want it or not, that appears to be where we're headed. More officers have already been trained on the ordnance unit, which is tasked with firing weapons upon crowds. Next up is more launchers to equip them with.
And because these officers will be taking up considerably more space in their bulky tactical gear — to withstand the barrage of fruits and vegetables heaved in their direction — the department now urgently requires much roomier and more protective vehicles, i.e., tanks. (The vehicle described below, which should "protect from projectiles" is no doubt an MRAP, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that has become increasingly popular with American police departments of all sizes
Not for nothing, but this is the opposite of defunding the police. And, if pursued, these acquisitions would represent enormous outlays of public dollars at a time of nationwide police controversy and fiscal precarity.
But justification for these acquisitions is nevertheless baked into the report itself. Though instances of police use of force are not discussed in detail, protester "tactics" are listed repeatedly and at length. After they are described throughout the timeline, they are synthesized in their own special section, which contains more head-spinning stupidity than the rest of the report combined.
I say without glibness that most of this is just too dumb to comment on. These aren't tactics so much as spontaneous expressions of self-defense. When an actively deploying pepper spray cannister is aimed at your face, you too might use the "tactic" of trying to bat it away. Others are just retroactive attempts by the police to save face. It's not like the size of the crowd, for example, was some big tactical secret. It's not like "those planning bad acts" instructed hundreds of attendees not to respond to the Facebook event to dupe the cops. Protests were happening nationwide. The momentum was organic. The police simply relied on weak intelligence.
The very first "tactic" noted, though, does require comment because it seems designed specifically to anticipate a legal challenge. Cleveland.com's Cory Shaffer reported
that police gave no audible dispersal warning, as required by law, before they began firing munitions into the crowd. This was corroborated by a number of eye witness accounts, (and my own, for what it's worth). But now, police can point to this report in their defense. It was the rioters,
they can say,
who tactically raised their voices to "drown out" the reading of the dispersal order. Absolutely risible.
Careful readers may also notice that throughout the timeline, certain alleged actions by protesters are duplicated or nearly duplicated, raising questions about the narrative's overall accuracy. Some are plausible repeat offenses. The protester with the green laser pointer, for example — referenced in the Rioter Tactics section above — is mentioned no less than four times during the timeline. (One senses this caused particular agitation among the riot police.)
Other examples of duplication are more questionable. They point to imprecision in the timeline's reconstruction, which might mean dishonesty by reporting officers, dishonesty by those producing the report itself or dishonesty by those even higher up the food chain. This could very well be an echo of the same tendency to exaggerate the actions of protesters to justify the police response.
To take one example, there was reportedly a broadcast between 3:30 and 3:44 p.m. of "a male wearing a black mask throwing an object under a black Chevy Impala."
Nothing came of this observation, incidentally, but for whatever reason it merits inclusion in the report. It sure raises suspicion, though, doesn't it? Who was the male? What was the object? Was it a bomb
In the report, those facts are irrelevant. Likewise the facts associated with an "unknown male" who, the report says, at 4:18 p.m
. "placed a black bag under a black car." Is this the same male who threw the object under the black Impala? Is this the same event, accidentally duplicated less than an hour later? If not, what was in this new black bag? Did anyone bother to investigate?
Other examples are even sloppier:
Other than "protesters" magically becoming "rioters" between 3:21 and 4:02 p.m., this is the identical event. Word for word. I happened to witness the event in question, though I couldn't say for sure which time is accurate. I can say that it happened only once. So why does it appear in the report twice? Was this a mistake? If so, by whom? Those reporting the incident or those writing the review?
On a similar note, one of the issues that the review was meant to address was the breakdown in communication which led to Chief Williams getting so many facts wrong in the ensuing days.
Scene wrote at the time that Williams lied to the media
, and we suggested a straightforward reason for his doing so: to shape a narrative in which the police were justified in firing upon the crowd. If the riot police were being attacked with rocks and bricks and glass bottles of urine, as Williams claimed erroneously, and if protesters had breached the justice center
, as he explosively alleged more than once, then police had every reason to fire back. It was they
who needed to defend themselves; what's more, they had to defend the public turf! The report's timeline achieves a similar effect with humdingers like: "There was a constant barrage of hard objects, such as frozen water bottles, frozen eggs, metal wrenches
, and frozen vegetables thrown at the officers holding the field force line." (Italics added.)
A constant barrage of metal wrenches.
In any case, after Scene's piece, Williams said that he was not
lying. He had no reason to lie! He was merely conveying information that he had at the time. Scene asked at Thursday's press conference, then, how he came by this bad information. Who told him that protesters breached the Justice Center? Where was the communication breakdown? In response, Williams directed us to page 13 of the report — though it had not yet been released to the media — and said it would show clearly the sequence of events which led to his statement.
Here it is:
Well, that explanation holds water from about 5:59 p.m. on May 30 to — in the most generous possible interpretation — maybe 6:04. If this report were taken seriously, officers would have been dispatched inside the Justice Center to collect these stealthy rioters who somehow made it past the police line without police detection. There are two possibilities: Either 1) an officer would have radioed immediately
to say that the information provided by the Sheriff's Deputy about the breach was incorrect, or else 2) officers would have radioed a few minutes later, after sprinting to confront the rioters in the Clerk's office, finding none, and reporting a false alarm.
Yet hours later, at a city press conference, as Frank Jackson declared a military-style curfew, Williams had not yet been set straight. On the contrary, he embellished these facts further, saying that protesters had not only breached the Justice Center, but had been starting fires and attempting to free the prisoners,
an allegation that even the report dares not countenance. Williams doubled down on these allegations days later,
in a private meeting with the editorial board of the Plain Dealer/cleveland.com, even after pressed by editor Chris Quinn.
There is no world in which Williams was deliberately deceived by his officers, who were themselves deceived by a prankster or opportunist from the County Sheriff's office, and that the deception lasted until County Sheriff Dave Schilling testified before county council a month later that no breach of any kind had occurred. The only explanation that makes any sense at all is that Williams was fabricating those facts intentionally — that is, lying.
But look at the way the report attempts to cover all these unpleasant tracks:
It was later determined that a CDP officer relayed this information by request from an unknown Sheriff's Deputy.
What? What do you mean 'later determined'? When? How? Who's the CDP officer? Why is the Sheriff's Deputy not only unnamed but unknown?
Did the CDP officer relay false information knowing
that it was false? What were the circumstances of the unknown deputy's request? Why aren't the report's authors, and the Cleveland Police brass, bringing the full might of their offices to bear on uncovering the identity of this nefarious deputy who caused such a stir?
In Cleveland, to ask those questions is to answer them.
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