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Body cam footage shows Cleveland officers searching for legal cause to arrest armed Black activist

Cleveland Division of Police
A still from body cam footage showing Antoine Tolbert's arrest while openly carrying firearms on Cleveland's East Side on May 23, 2022.

Antoine Tolbert was arrested on May 23 for openly carrying two firearms while walking down St. Clair Avenue on Cleveland’s East Side.

Ohio is an open carry state, and it’s always been legal to carry a firearm as long as it’s not concealed by clothing. About three weeks after Tolbert was arrested, it became legal in Ohio to carry a concealed firearm without a license.

But in Tolbert’s case, the officers who responded had differing opinions on the law, and after a sergeant arrived on scene, the decision was made to arrest him on charges that did not apply and were quickly dropped.

Antoine Tolbert was arrested and taken to county jail after carrying a shotgun down St. Clair Avenue on Cleveland's East Side. The charges were quickly dropped.

Tolbert still ended up spending the night in jail and lost his new job at a local community development corporation when videos of the encounter spread across social media. He also said he was forced to move out of his house because the video was being used against him in a child custody dispute.

After parking his car at the Rite Aid at 105th Street, Tolbert walked alone down St. Clair at about 6:30 p.m., wearing body armor and carrying a shotgun in one hand. A handgun was holstered on his leg.

Police body cam footage from Tolbert’s arrest, released to Ideastream Public Media, show disagreements among the officers who arrived on the scene.

This video shows an officer who was not identified and arrived to the scene early. The officer gets out of his patrol car, speaks with Tolbert briefly, debates whether any laws are being broken and does not detain or arrest Tolbert initially. He is however involved in the arrest at the end of the incident. Editor's note: This video contains language that some people may find offensive.

One officer, identified in police reports as Officer Santa, is clearly heard on the footage warning that arresting Tolbert would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“I mean we have this in the 4th [District] all the time and my boss would eat us alive if we tried to detain that guy,” Santa said. “Personally, I don’t work out here. I don’t know how the bosses run out here. That’s a tough call.”

Tolbert is part of an activist group called New Era Cleveland. They conduct armed patrols of neighborhoods on the city's East Side to prevent violent crime. Tolbert has spoken to Cleveland Division of Police cadets about his group and the neighborhoods where they’ll work as officers.

Santa and her partner, who mentions in the footage that he knew Tolbert from a class at the police academy, spoke to Tolbert from a distance and stayed by their cars.

“Listen man, a lot of people don’t like that you’re kind of walking around with a gun,” Santa said to Tolbert.

“That’s a personal problem,” Tolbert responded.

“We just want to make sure you’re OK,” Santa said.

In this video, an unidentified officer arrives at the scene with a police dog. The officer brings the dog out of the car near the end of the incident and stands nearby while the K-9 becomes agitated and barks at Tolbert as officers confront and detain him. This officer also was not clear on whether Tolbert was breaking any laws. Editor's note: This video contains language that some people may find offensive.

Tolbert was allowed to continue down St. Clair. But other officers, who are not identified in police reports, decide to arrest him.

“Be advised, it is open carry but he can’t walk down the street with a gun in his hand like that,” said one unidentified officer on the radio.

Some officers claimed that Tolbert needed to use a sling to carry the shotgun over his shoulder.

According to Buckeye Firearms Foundation Executive Director Dean Rieck, there’s no law saying how the firearm has to be carried. He said Tolbert wasn’t committing a crime.

“There is no legal reason for the police to arrest anyone for open carrying who is not otherwise committing a crime,” Rieck said.

A spokesperson for the Cleveland Division of Police did not respond to questions about Tolbert’s arrest or whether the department was reviewing the officers’ actions.

Eventually a Sergeant Henderson arrived and made the decision to arrest Tolbert.

“Improper handling of a firearm. He can’t walk down the street with a firearm in his hand,” Henderson told an officer at the scene. “Holster is one thing. But walking down the street with a firearm in his hand. Can’t do that.”

Improper handling of a firearm only applies inside a motor vehicle. Tolbert was walking. Henderson also said he was being charged with inducing panic because people who saw Tolbert walking with a gun called 911.

This video from the body cam worn by Sgt. Henderson shows his decision to arrest Tolbert before arriving at the scene, confrontation with the armed activist and subsequent conversations with former Councilman Basheer Jones and two people who identify themselves as Tolbert's parents.

According to the incident report released by Cleveland police, Tolbert was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and inducing panic. Those charges were both dropped after Tolbert was brought to jail. A grand jury in June also later declined to charge Tolbert with carrying a concealed weapon.

The police videos show more of the tense moments before Tolbert’s arrest than the videos posted to social media. Officers in a total of eight police cars responded to the scene from multiple districts, including gang units and a K-9. They also requested assistance from a police helicopter.

Once the decision was made to arrest Tolbert, the K-9 was brought out of the car. One officer used a ballistic shield as he began to approach. Several other officers, with their guns drawn, circled Tolbert and slowly moved closer as he stood on the sidewalk near 89th Street.

“At that moment, I was like, wait a minute, something is seriously wrong here,” Tolbert said. “I’m looking around, there’s a K-9 in the middle of the street that was trying to get me. I was not putting my gun down so this K-9 can attack me or so you can shoot me.”

Tolbert was arrested without incident and brought to county jail. He is planning to file a lawsuit against the city sometime later this month.

Matthew Richmond is a general assignment reporter at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.