Investigator | Probe shows Cleveland police discipline often weak

Shauna Smith is still waiting.

Tom Meyer ' An internal investigation on law officials

CLEVELAND - Shauna Smith is still waiting.

It’s been five years since her son, Kenneth, was shot and killed outside a downtown Cleveland night club.

The assailant, Roger Jones, has been identified, but has not faced any consequences.

“He has not been held accountable at all for any of his actions," Smith said. “Nothing has been done.”

Smith and her attorney, Terry Gilbert, successfully sued the city and Jones. A jury recently awarded the estate $4 million in damages

Jones is not your typical gunman. He’s a Cleveland police officer.

“He should not be on the force,” Smith said. “If officers are held accountable, then maybe they’ll stop.”

Shauna Smith extended interview

 A review of five years of disciplinary records obtained from the department by Channel 3 News shows it’s not uncommon for officers to avoid serious ramifications for their conduct.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the city’s police force and found what they called a “pattern of excessive force” and a lack of accountability. These findings form the backbone of a 2015 consent decree between the DOJ and Cleveland.

Still, Jones symbolizes a discipline system that is slow to act. Punishment that is meted is often viewed by critics as soft. And even when firm action is taken, such as termination, a strong police union often finds relief through arbitration.

"Historically, the police system in this city has been inept and indifferent regarding police discipline,” Gilbert said. “What happens is that police officers know that not much is going to happen to them."

THE "BAD APPLE SYNDROME" 

The Channel 3 News investigation examined 873 disciplinary cases between 2012 and 2016. The cases involve mostly police officers. Some involve dispatchers and other support staff.

The news station found 44 percent of internal disciplinary cases ended with what critics say amount to a wrist slap – no punishment or a written warning.

In all, the accusations are wide-ranging: from sleeping on the job, too much facial hair and abuse of sick time to improper use of social media, manslaughter and rape.

Channel 3 News reached out to Cleveland City Hall hoping to interview Police Chief Calvin Williams. Per protocol, the news channel contacted a city spokesman on March 28.

The spokesman was again contacted by email on April 4 and April 12. The last two emails went unanswered.

Steve Loomis, head of the patrolman’s union, said the city often seeks discipline for minor or petty infractions. For example, an officer was accused of misconduct for allegedly making derogatory comments about the city while talking to a suicidal man threatening to jump off a bridge.

“They'll put you up on charges for that," Loomis said. “So, he went up on charges for defaming, or making derogatory statements, toward the city. We have to be able to communicate with people."

Former officer Khalid Samaad, who now works as a community activist, observed disciplinary cases while attending hearings as part of his job.

He said the city must do a better job of removing officers who do not meet the department’s standards.

"Some of them warranted what we call ‘the bad apple syndrome’,” he said.

In the five years Channel 3 News examined, 52 members of the Cleveland Police Department were arrested. The charges ranged from drunken driving to manslaughter.

The investigation uncovered 24 instances where officers were given plea bargains in court. Several saw drunken driving charges reduced to reckless driving. Some accused of domestic violence received a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.

The internal discipline often ended with suspensions of less than two weeks. Three officers wound up taking early pensions and resigned. Six were fired, but not all lost their badges. Arbitration and appeals reversed some firings and other penalties.

For example, Officer Shani Hannah stabbed her boyfriend in 2012 and was convicted of misdemeanor assault. The city fired Hannah, but an arbitrator sided with the union and Hannah was later reinstated last year.

The same outcome was given to Det. Vincent Luccarelli, who was found to have sent sexually suggestive text messages to crime victims and other women he met through his duties. The city tried to fire him, but last year he won a court-order and kept his job.

“"He should be so far removed from the police department it should be like going to the moon. you should see someone on the moon before you see him in uniform again," Samaad said.

EXPERT: POLICE DON’T WANT TO ARREST POLICE

Bowling Green State University professor Phil Stinson co-authored the only extensive study on police arrests ever undertaken. It’s a 600-plus page report released in 2016.

The work was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

 “If you go out and try to find statistics on police officers who are arrested across the country, I don’t think you’ll find much, other than what we have,” he said.

Dr. Phil Stinson speaks, part one

As part of the research, Stinson’s team accumulated a data base of about 11,000 officers arrested in a 5-year stretch. Cleveland police ranked 18th in the nation with a 16.71 rate per 1,000 officers.

“It’s a lot. It’s a big data base and it’s growing every year,” he said.

Stinson acknowledges that the data base is not complete. He said not every officer arrest is reported. Further, he said, some victims are reluctant to file complaints or lodge accusations for fear they will not be believed.

He said it’s common for police who face charges to receive special treatment from the justice system.

“One way to say it is that police are exempt from law enforcement. In other words, police officers don’t like to arrest other police officers,” he said. “But what we see with law enforcement officers is that quite often after they’re arrested, they get a very favorable plea bargain. They get a sweetheart deal quite often.”

Dr. Phil Stinson, part two

He said police who work under a collective bargaining unit appear to receive lighter penalties, both internally and in the court system.

“Police officers don’t like to arrest other police officers,” he said. ‘It's a systematic problem in law enforcement and people just don't pay attention to it."

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