CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland’s police union on Thursday called for the resignation of Safety Director Karrie Howard and the U.S. Justice Department to end their court-ordered consent decree aimed at police reform in the wake of a string of officer firings.
Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeff Follmer said at a news conference that Howard is a “puppet” for the Justice Department. He said Howard’s harsh stance on disciplining police misconduct cases is motivated by a plan to either keep his job when a new mayor is elected or find a new job when Mayor Frank Jackson’s term ends in 2021.
“It’s quite clear in our view that [Howard] is on a political agenda to only make his resume better by disciplining our officers,” Follmer said. “A lot of these officers that got suspended are really good officers.”
In his first year as safety director, Howard fired 13 officers in different misconduct cases, including four on March 28 and one on Thursday. Follmer said the union appealed or will appeal 11 of the firings. The union filed 80 grievances out of 120 disciplinary cases in the last year, Follmer said. The appeals are in various stages.
Follmer’s statements come as police accountability for misconduct is debated in Cleveland and across the country, and as violent crime in Cleveland, including homicides and shootings, continues to increase after a particularly violent 2020.
It also comes about one year after a scathing U.S. Justice Department report on Howard’s predecessor, Michael McGrath, who soft-pedaled discipline during his tenure as safety director, the report says.
“The Department of Justice is no good for the city,” Follmer said. “Right now, it’s all about discipline. Can anyone tell me what they have done? They’ve done more discipline.”
Police unions have long rejected calls to reform departments claiming that doing so hamstrings officers from doing their jobs. Former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department made police reform a priority. The move, coupled with the rise of civil-rights movements like Black Lives Matter, led police unions, including Cleveland’s, to back then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. For his part, Trump’s Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, all but ended the practice of seeking reform agreements with troubled police agencies, effectively shuttering the department’s Civil Rights division.
Cleveland’s police union declined to endorse a preferred candidate in the 2020 election. Current President Joe Biden signaled early in his first term that his Justice Department would return to the Obama-era practice by announcing a so-called “pattern and practice” investigation into the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Follmer’s call to oust the Justice Department recalls the early union rhetoric surrounding Mayor Frank Jackson’s decision to invite an investigation into Cleveland’s police department that led to the 2015 consent decree agreement mandating sweeping reforms of decades of unconstitutional policing.
Cleveland police spokeswoman Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia did not respond to a message seeking comment. A message left with consent decree monitor Hassan Aden was not returned. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Others disagreed with Follmer’s assessment. Cleveland Community Police Commission member Lewis Katz said he believes Howard’s disciplinary decisions are “a step in the right direction” and a “distinct improvement” over McGrath. He said it appears Howard is consistent in handling the cases and issues highlighted by the Justice Department.
“People want to see a fair shake for the citizens regardless of age, color or gender,” Katz said. “I think the community recognized the inconsistencies in the disciplinary process that existed before Howard and that the community wanted a fair and consistent application of the department’s policies.”
Subodh Chandra, a former federal prosecutor and lawyer for the ballot initiative Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, which calls for civilian oversight in misconduct cases, said he disagrees with the CPPA’s stance regarding disciplining officers. He said he doesn’t believe the consent decree should end. He said some of Howard’s decisions have been inexplicable but that he doesn’t believe it’s fair to ask for Howard’s resignation.
“Howard’s record is imperfect, but it has been encouraging that he has been taking a more no-nonsense approach to discipline,” Chandra said. “And of course, they want to end federal oversight because they are a lawless organization, and they want to resume their lawlessness.”
Follmer said harsh discipline handed down by Howard has contributed to low morale among officers, who feel they cannot do their jobs without fear of being fired.
“It’s a crying shame what the city is going through,” Follmer said. “Homicide rates are up. Violent crimes are up while we are afraid to do our job, while supervisors are afraid to make their calls and do their job. Who suffers from this? Obviously, we do as far as the discipline, but the citizens of Cleveland, suffer from this.”
Follmer said harsh discipline could also be why the city has attracted fewer applicants for the 130 open police positions, including 24 positions that came open in April when officers either retired or resigned.
He also said another reason could because high-profile police misconduct cases are scrutinized now more than ever. He said many applicants often go through the police academy but leave for suburban police departments, where they are better paid.
Follmer particularly took issue with the Friday firings of four officers. CPPA attorney Joe Delguyd outlined several specific issues the union took with the firings of officers Michael Guion, Katrina Ruma, Samuel Ortiz and Chanae Dontizen.
Delguyd said Dontizen, who was fired after sending a direct Instagram message to a man she knew after she saw his photo at the police department that labeled him a threat to police. Delguyd said she told her supervisor she would message the man and sent him a message later telling him not to misbehave and not take any violent action against the police.
“She wanted to deter him from doing anything to police,” Delguyd said.
Guion was fired for his second drunken-driving conviction and for failing to investigate a domestic violence incident. Delguyd said other officers kept their jobs after two drunken driving incidents and that Guion has since “found sobriety.”
Ortiz, who served 15 years in the military, including a 15-month tour in Iraq, was fired after an incident in which he didn’t immediately ask for medical assistance after a woman said she took a “large amount of pills.” He later contacted an EMS paramedic to influence the paramedic’s interview with internal affairs investigators and later lied about doing so, according to the city. Delguyd said Ortiz didn’t remember contacting the paramedic but turned over to investigators his text messages with the paramedic as soon as he found them.
Ruma, a 24-year police veteran, was fired for a slew of different issues, including that she put a recording device in the women’s locker room. Delguyd said in that instance, someone kept going into Ruma’s locker, so she put a camera inside her locker. He said the camera recorded an employee going into the locker, and the department disciplined the employee.
“No citizens were hurt in any of these incidents,” Delguyd said. “There was no use of force situation. There was no abuse. No one was being disrespectful to anyone, and certainly not a member of the community.”
Follmer said the union would set up an insurance program for fired or suspended officers so they can get paid while they await an arbitrator’s decision.