The city’s community police commission on Thursday formally asked the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation into the way law enforcement agencies handled the May 30 demonstration against police brutality in downtown Cleveland.
The commission released a letter on Thursday addressed to Justice Department officials in Cleveland and Washington D.C. asking for a probe into “multiple incidents of excessive force, unconstitutional policing and other civil rights violations” carried out by the Cleveland police department, Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority police.
The commission is a group of community members tasked with providing oversight of Cleveland police procedures under a 2015 consent decree, agreed to because of a pattern of excessive force. In the letter, members cited “media outlets” that reported on the chaos of the demonstrations. They include links to six cleveland.com stories showing that public records and video contradicted initial law enforcement accounts justifying the use of pepper spray balls and other non-lethal weapons.
“Based upon articles in the Plain Dealer and cleveland.com and Scene Magazine, all of the evidence indicates police violated the civil rights of peaceful protestors,” Lewis Katz, a commission member and professor emeritus of law at Case Western Reserve University, told cleveland.com in a phone interview Thursday. “That’s the job of the department of justice, to investigate and bring criminal charges where necessary.”
The letter includes the bean-bag round shooting of 24-year-old John Sanders that left the Sandusky native without an eye, that is under an internal investigation by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department and a criminal investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations.
“The Cleveland Community Police Commission asks that the DOJ once again take a look at law enforcement in Cleveland centering around the practices and policies of these agencies in Northeast Ohio that may deprive persons of their right to lawfully assemble,” the letter says. “The Constitutional violations specific to exercising first amendment rights appear to have continued despite current reform efforts mandated by the DOJ.”
The commission argues a federal investigation would complement the work that led to the consent decree. Members asked that any investigation encompass other police agencies that also worked at the protest and focus on whether people were denied their constitutional right to assembly.
“Residents of Northeast Ohio deserve equal and professional treatment by all police officers when exercising their right to assemble and protest,” the letter says.
Requests for comment sent to the offices of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman and Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, were not immediately returned.
The monitor team overseeing Cleveland’s consent decree has announced that it will conduct its own investigation into the demonstrations, and Cleveland police and city council have said they will also review the incident.
Katz and Gordon Friedman, a civil rights attorney and another member of the commissions, expressed hope that the Justice Department will heed their request and actually investigate the police department’s response.
“I’m not going to speculate, but I’m just going to hope that the victims get a fair hearing from this office,” Katz said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has opened just one civil rights investigation involving local police during his three years in office, a stark contrast from the approach of President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, which launched 25 such investigations. Those resulted in 14 police departments across the country entering into consent decrees, including Cleveland police.
Katz and Friedman both said they expected the commission’s letter to get more traction in Herdman’s office than in U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department in Washington.
“I have faith in the leadership of Justin Herdman,” Friedman said. “He’s been responsive to the police commission and his attorneys were largely part of the group that wrote the consent decree.”
The commission also cited a lack of transparency and conflicting public statements by city and county law enforcement officials as a need for the Justice Department to conduct a broad, outside investigation.
Officials from Cleveland police, the sheriff’s department, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office and Herdman’s office have made several pubic pleas for people to help them investigate crimes committed by those who attended the demonstrations and participated in the rioting and looting, and have been swift to bring charges when investigators have identified perpetrators.
“We’re asking the police department’s behavior to be examined,” Friedman said. “We’re looking for answers for if they were justified in using the tear gas, the pepper pellets. We shouldn’t ask the police to investigate themselves. That’s an old tradition that gives disastrous results.”
Cleveland police have two investigations into the officer captured in photographs and video striking a man with a baton and pepper-spraying a woman.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department has refused to acknowledge whether it has identified the sheriff’s deputy who is suspected of firing the bean bag that struck Sanders in the eye.
© 2020 The Plain Dealer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.