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Mayor Justin Bibb: Cleveland working 'quickly' to end 7-year-old police consent decree

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb points speaks at a news conference on crime statistics and police staffing.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb speaks at a news conference on crime statistics and police staffing.

Mayor Justin Bibb said Cleveland officials are “working as quickly as we possibly can” to end federal court oversight of the city’s police force.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday on police staffing and crime statistics, Bibb said his office was looking to speed up the city’s compliance with the 2015 consent decree. Cleveland signed the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice after a 2014 investigation found a pattern and practice of excessive force by officers.

“The quickest we can get out of this decree, the better it will be for the police department and the taxpayers, so we can kind of use that money to reinvest back in the community in the long term,” Bibb said.

Asked whether the city had set a date for asking a federal judge to terminate the decree, Bibb replied, “I am working as quickly as I possibly can to get out of it.”

The mayor’s comments were his administration’s strongest signal yet that it was looking to exit the consent decree that has mandated changes to police policies, practices and training.

In an Aug. 2 memo to Monitor Hassan Aden, Law Director Mark Griffin highlighted the decline in police use of force and increase in de-escalation techniques. The memo was submitted to Cleveland City Council and released publicly.

While he stopped short of requesting an end to court oversight, Griffin pointed Aden to a new set of Justice Department recommendations for consent decrees – among them, minimizing the cost to the local jurisdiction and holding a termination hearing within five years.

Cleveland’s consent decree is now more than seven years old. The city has budgeted $3.9 million for compliance in 2022, which includes payments to the monitoring team.

The city’s attorneys have recently sparred with the monitoring team over the monitor’s suggestion that Cleveland should challenge an arbitrator’s ruling that reinstated a fired police officer. The next court hearing on Cleveland’s progress under the consent decree is scheduled for Sept. 22.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Bibb endorsed a ballot issue to grant broad new powers to a police oversight board – a change to the city’s charter that will outlast the consent decree. The mayor now must implement the voter-passed initiative. Bibb and council are expected to announce their nominees for the new Community Police Commission soon.

A mid-year report
Bibb and public safety leaders called the press conference to discuss the police department’s mid-year report, which contained a small glimmer of promising news amid a bleak picture of homicides in the city.

Police recorded fewer homicides in the first six months of this year than they did in the first half of 2021. By the first week of August, 90 people had been killed in homicides, most of them shot. That number is down from the 101 deaths recorded by the same time last year, according to police statistics.

But Cleveland is still contending with a spike in killings. Last year, 169 people died in homicides, more than double the figure of a decade earlier. In 2020, 179 people were killed, a marked increase over 2019’s number of 122.

It’s too early to say whether the decrease in homicides this year is a trend, Bibb said. But the city is trying to employ “precision policing,” he said. Cleveland received a state grant this year to boost its surveillance capabilities. The city and Cleveland Cavaliers also spearheaded a nighttime basketball program to keep young people busy and out of trouble.

Chief of Police Wayne Drummond said police have tried to be “laser focused” on hotspots for violent crime, teaming up with federal law enforcement to bring federal charges where possible.

“We identify individuals that we know are trigger-pullers, and we try to find those individuals, obviously, and pull them from our neighborhoods,” he said.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to attract candidates to join a police force that has long struggled with attrition. Although the city is budgeting for a force with a strength of 1,640, the Division of Police currently employs just shy of 1,360 officers, according to the mid-year report.

The Bibb administration and the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association recently completed a new contract agreement giving rank-and-file officers a 7% raise this year, with 2% raises in both 2023 and 2024. In addition to granting raises, the city has also loosened restrictions on beards and tattoos in an effort to make police jobs more appealing.

Cleveland also plans to hire a marketing firm to help with recruitment, city officials said.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.