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Q&A: Cleveland police applicant screening documents show details of a flawed process

City of Cleveland
Cadets from the 148th and 149th Cleveland Police Department training classes arrive for their graduation ceremony on March 9, 2022.

Earlier this year, the monitor overseeing Cleveland police reform criticized the city’s Division of Police for the way it handled the hiring of three new officers. The monitor said they were not properly screened. All three were what’s known as "lateral hires," where the department brings in someone already working for another police agency.

Ideastream Public Media’s Matt Richmond received through a public records request the application materials and documentation of how the three officers were screened. He joined Morning Edition Host Amy Eddings on Tuesday to discuss the details.

EDDINGS: What did you learn from looking at these documents?

RICHMOND: There were two main issues with the way with the city screened the applicants.

In one case, for one applicant, Timothy Wright, he was a police officer at the Cleveland Clinic when he was hired, and he had called in a bomb threat in 2016 to the hospital where he was working, and it was because of an interpersonal conflict with a colleague. And also that same year was reprimanded for sexual harassment.

These issues led the other police agencies where he was applying at the same time to reject him. It was Akron, Cleveland Heights, Warrensville Heights, Pepper Pike, Richmond Heights. All declined to hire him. But the city went ahead and offered him a job.

There were no giant red flags like that for the other two applicants I looked at. One officer didn’t perform well on a personality test that was given by another department. There were no big red flags from on the job.

Another issue for all three was that it appears the city didn’t do pre-hire drug screening or steroid screening, and they didn’t do a full review of the officers’ use of force history or their training or complaints that were received against them by the departments where they worked.

And according to paragraphs 308 to 311 of the consent decree, they were supposed to do that for every lateral hire.

EDDINGS: The assumption is they didn’t do this because they were lateral hires? What has the city said about this process?

RICHMOND: First of all, at a consent decree hearing in federal court earlier this year, the Department of Justice said it wasn’t just lateral hires that the city was using a lax screening process for, it was also the new recruits that they were bringing into the department.

And so the city law director, Mark Griffin, said that the city decided it’s not worth it anymore for them to do these lateral hires. They took like 60 applications. Only five of them passed the screening and then three were actually hired.

EDDINGS: The city knows it’s being scrutinized under this consent decree, which has been in place since 2015. If they knew there were being watched like this, why hire these three officers in this way?

RICHMOND: Many listeners will remember that Timothy Loehmann, who’s the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, was a lateral hire, and in his case the city never even asked his previous employer, the Independence Police Department, for his record. And if they had they would have seen major red flags before hiring him.

In this case, they avoided the same mistake and actually called the departments, got the information they needed and still made the job offer.

One thing to remember is the city has budgeted the police department for 200 more positions than they currently have. This has been going on for years actually. They’ve been unable to hire enough officers. There has been a lot of pressure on the department to fill all of these positions.

EDDINGS: So just to recap the city’s Division of Police this time did not do what they did with Timothy Loehmann — they actually called these three officers’ or applicants' previous employers — but in this instance especially with these three lateral hires, they basically overlooked what they say from those departments?

RICHMOND: It looks like they did the minimum as far as the background check goes and hired them anyway.