Cleveland's High Cost of Fixing Its Police Department

The city of Cleveland has spent, on average, more than $4 million a year for the past four years on court-enforced police reforms.

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
The city of Cleveland has spent, on average, more than $4 million a year for the past four years on court-enforced police reforms.
The city of Cleveland has spent, on average, more than $4 million a year for the past four years on court-enforced police reforms.
Cleveland Police Department

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The city of Cleveland has spent, on average, more than $4 million a year for the past four years on court-enforced police reforms, according to numbers the city provided to cleveland.com.

The estimated costs do not include everything related to the reforms. They do, however, provide a window into what the city committed to spend to improve its police department when it entered into an agreement with the Justice Department in the wake of years of high-profile incidents where officers used force.

Many of those incidents resulted in lawsuits and tens of millions of dollars in settlements paid by the self-insured city. One of the hopes when trying to forge an agreement, known as a consent decree, was that reforms will lessen the burden on taxpayers by having fewer incidents that lead to litigation, former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said.

“The hope, of course, is that there’s less need for those kind of lawsuits and there’s fewer lawsuits that require large settlements,” said Dettelbach, who helped negotiate the consent decree with Cleveland.

The city’s consent decree was forged and finalized in May 2015. The Justice Department took an interest in the inner workings of Cleveland police following a series of high-profile incidents, including a 22-mile chase that ended with officers firing 137 shots into a car in November 2012, killing occupants Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

The city paid a combined $3 million to settle lawsuits filed by Russell and Williams’ families.

The consent decree came a little more than six months after police officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice at Cudell Recreation Center in November 2014. The city paid $6 million to settle with Tamir’s family, making it likely the largest settlement the city ever paid in such a case.

There are other examples of the city settling for large amounts, including several worth millions of dollars that stemmed from incidents that happened before the city agreed to pursue reforms within the police department.

City consent decree coordinator Greg White provided cleveland.com rough estimates on consent decree costs, including for training, recruiting, drafting new policies, hiring new staff and consultants, and paying a monitoring team to oversee the reform efforts.

The city’s estimates were conservative. They do not include several key purchases and moves that can be attributed to the consent decree, including a plan to add 250 more officers. That also doesn’t include much-needed upgrades to the department’s patrol cars and equipment.

Those projects, worth millions of dollars, were also tied to promises Mayor Frank Jackson made on the campaign trail for his fourth term in 2017, as well as to a push to raise the city’s income tax rate by a half percent the previous year.

The consent decree also called for the city to assess its staffing and equipment needs, and a Justice Department investigation noted the police department was short-staffed and lacked the equipment necessary for officers to properly perform their jobs.

Dettelbach, who was U.S. attorney from 2009 to 2016 and now works at the BakerHostetler law firm, said curbing settlements, while a benefit, was not necessarily a main goal in reaching a reform agreement. A larger goal was to make upgrades and performing training that the department failed to do for years.

“You can't put a price on making sure that police officers have up-to-date equipment,” he said. “You can't put a price on making sure that there are enough police officers to be safe and protect the community, and you can't put a number on making sure that citizens and community members build a trusting relationship with the police officers who are protecting them.”

White said the amount of money the city has spent, as well as the work it has done on several major projects, shows the commitment Jackson and his administration have to the reform efforts.

In recalling the discussions his office had with Jackson’s administration, Dettelbach said it’s fair to assume Tamir’s death was one of several factors that led the city to the consent decree. However, Justice Department staff heard of many other incidents when talking to people at meetings, as well as to officers at the union hall and during ride alongs, Dettelbach said.

Tamir’s death may have just been the latest example of a systemic problem.

There was a shared sense of urgency, “and I think that led the parties to really come together and have a very, very important discussion and negotiation about making things better,” Dettelbach said.

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