ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Chief Williams with Mayor Jackson, police public information officer Jennifer Ciaccia and others
It took months for Cleveland Scene to get the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force data. After multiple requests were rejected or answered with unrelated documents, Scene had to go through the courts to get most of the use of force reports, and some questions are still unanswered.
Cleveland Scene first requested all officer use of force reports for 2019 and January through September 2020 in September 2020. First, Cleveland provided a table showing the total number of use of force reports in 2019 and 2020 through September. When Scene reiterated its request for the actual reports, they rejected the request as “overbroad.” When Scene submitted a request for a single month of reports, the city sent incident reports, which didn’t describe the use of force involved.
After suing the police department with the help of Case Western Reserve University’s First Amendment Law Clinic, Scene finally received data on individual use of force reports in February 2021.
But that data provided only partial descriptions of what happened in the incidents. Scene continued its lawsuit against the department, finally receiving the full narratives from the reports in May 2021.
Asked about the city’s refusal to provide data during a panel on use of force in February, Police Chief Calvin Williams first claimed Scene’s data request had not been denied. But he added, “Sometimes people ask for everything and the kitchen sink, which we may not have at the time. So those requests have to be sent back, have to be fine-tuned, and then come back to the city’s process of answering public records requests.”
Scene requested body camera videos of all the incidents reported by Officer Ryan Sowders in February, when an analysis of the available data showed he’d filed the most use of force reports. Scene didn’t get those videos until June 30. Even then, some of the videos appeared to be redacted to the extent that they were useless, blocking out any view of either Sowders’ or the subject’s actions.
The release of data and records has proven a thorny issue for groups involved in the consent decree.
On Sept. 3, a federal judge ordered Cleveland to release data and documents on police discipline the Community Police Commission had requested months and years previously, to no avail.
The CPC filed the case because, according to their filing, the city had said it would not provide disciplinary notices for officers going forward, even though the police department provided the same documents for the Justice Department and the monitoring team. The city claimed that giving them to the CPC as well would be unreasonably burdensome, and was outside the CPC’s mandate.
“The City does not deny that while in many cases it has ultimately provided some of the requested information to the CPC, it has often done so only after repeated requests, months of delay, and intervention by the Monitoring Team and the United States,” lawyers for the CPC wrote in their request for intervention. “Indeed, the City acknowledges that there are currently outstanding data requests from the CPC, but even in the face of a motion seeking to compel that information, the City does not commit to when—or even whether—it will do so.”
In a forum about the consent decree, Gary Singletary, the Cleveland city government chief of counsel, touted monthly meetings between city officials and the Cleveland Community Police Commission as evidence of progress.
But CPC member Latoya Logan would have none of it.
“We have been looking for documents since 2017,” Logan said. “Those meetings that we have every single month, we stopped going for a period of time because we were not getting anywhere. In fact we’re often disrespected and dismissed in those meetings by the CPD and the city.”
Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter Cleveland also said the department’s reticence is troubling.
“Cleveland said that they would do a better job of fulfilling people’s records requests, including law enforcement [records],” he said. “Requesting this information has still been very problematic when trying to get certain records, so nothing has changed...It just strikes me as just them continuing to circle their wagons.”
Black Lives Matter-Cleveland wants the city to hire someone outside the police department to fulfill requests for police records, in the hopes that an independent arbitrator will create more transparency, Henton said.
Mariah Crenshaw, the founder of an advocacy group called Chasing Justice LLC, said Cleveland’s resistance to providing records casts doubt on the statistics it cites to show the department’s progress.
“How are they tracking this? Where are [city officials] getting the data from?” she said. “Because when you ask for that information, they don’t have it.”