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Cleveland’s Blame Game Before the Trumpocalypse

Instead of planning properly for a raucous RNC, the city and its police are bracing for catastrophe—and fighting over who will shoulder the blame.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

A gunned-down 12-year-old whose name none of us can—or should—shake off will likely be the most important factor in whether or not the Republican National Convention runs smoothly next week. From 10,000 feet above, that might seem like a lot to lay on a single bit of tragic gunplay. But in Cleveland, there’s no doubt that a massive shake-up to civic life in this city arrived in late 2014 with a one-two punch: the November shooting of Tamir Rice and, less than two weeks later, the announcement of a Department of Justice consent decree with the city, ordering it to take dramatic steps to address chronic police misconduct. 

Many have noted that Cleveland will be the first city to host a national political convention while its police force is under federal oversight for past bad acts. But that observation alone undersells how radically your world has been pulled inside-out if you wear a blue uniform. The Rice shooting and consent decree triggered a complete rewiring of a police department that’s operated with little oversight and few consequences for more than 50 years. Under the federal decree, the Cleveland PD is gradually changing its policies and practices after generations of engaging in racist behavior, producing sloppy internal investigations, and escalating routine police work into matters of life and death. It’s slow, painful surgery that will continue into the 2020sAnd now, with its hoped-for transformation far from complete, the Cleveland PD is about to come under the hot lights of intense national media scrutiny.

The stakes and pressure couldn’t be cranked higher for the city’s troubled cops as they face the ultimate daunting task—refereeing a roughhouse political melee featuring a polarizing candidate, potential convention floor dramaguerilla clown protestorsBrexit anti-heroesgun-toting white supremacistsgun-toting black militants, “patriotic” bikers, and an estimated 50,000 more. And we don’t know which Cleveland Police Department we’ll be getting if the 2016 RNC becomes a black-eye ideological thunderdome a la Chicago in 1968—the old, or the new?

“A lot of the pieces in the consent decree are not in place until later,” says Jacqueline Greene, a local civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who’s working to monitor the convention. “So do we have the same police force that we had before? Because that one obviously had a pattern and practice of unconstitutional use of force.” 

The old-school Cleveland police department was indeed heavy on the fist and quick on the trigger, whether that meant pouring 137 bullets into a fleeing Chevy Malibu and killing the two unarmed, innocent occupants, back in 2012, or rounding up 71 people in a mass arrest following street protests related to the same incident. At the RNC, any reversion to these time-tested instincts could easily turn tense situations into unjustified arrests, excessive force, and unholstered service weapons, leaving behind a street cluttered with not only more Tamir Rices, but Dan Fickerses and Timothy Russells and Malissa Williamses and Kenny Smiths.

But a bright, shiny, and new Cleveland PD could pose its own potential for trouble. Could the post-Tamir, the post-DOJ Cleveland force be so spooked and overburdened by their recent history that they hug the sidelines and lose control—while a Trump supporter, say, begins kicking in the head of an anti-Trump demonstrator, or an anti-fascist pulls his conceal carry (or his blade) on a pro-Trump white nationalist, or an anti-Trump marcher and a pro-Trump marcher both pull out their conceal carries and accidentally send a bullet through a guerilla protest clown’s leg and New Black Panther’s stomach?  

The city doesn’t seem sure which worst-case scenario is more likely. But Cleveland is unquestionably bracing for violence and chaos. You can see it in the constant bickering between two camps—city hall and the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Associationin the months leading up to the Trump coronation. It’s played out as a low-volume game of brinkmanship that can best be described as desperate political ass-covering, a musical-chairs scramble not to get caught exposed when the song cuts out. 

If the RNC protests spin out of control and combust, if the police overreact or underreact with grave consequences, neither the city nor the police officers want to shoulder the blame. Or the massive financial burden of the lawsuits that the DOJ’s consent decree makes much easier to file—and win.

Logical planning has been stiff-armed aside by this self-preservation and buck-passing. Mix that with the combustible nature of the Trump campaign and its opposition, toss in the tinder-box politics of the moment, and you have an unprecedented powder-keg. And if it goes off, there is truly no telling how the “new” Cleveland PD will go about dousing the flames. 

Cleveland is unique among big cities with police departments that have long histories of excessive force and abuse. Most departments began to change, however slowly, in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement threw a spotlight on racist and biased policing. But until late 2014, the Cleveland PD went untouched—for reasons that had everything to do with race. 

Carl Stokes, the city’s first black mayor (and the first in any major American city), tried to spearhead a reform campaign after his election in 1967. But a combination of blatant racism and below-ground fears over blacks taking over the city’s political machinery doomed the effort. The mayor’s political enemies characterized Stokes’s reform ideas as anti-cop, and therefore—with the right bounce of expedient political logic—“pro-criminal.” Stokes left office bemoaning the police department as “my greatest failure.”

Nothing changed in the ’70s. A confidential city hall memo dated October 1972 complained about a number of recent cases involving “the actual indictment of Cleveland policemen for offenses such as armed robbery, rape, and manslaughter, the damaging of a bar by members of the Cleveland Police Department, and continuous citizen complaints of poor or no response to calls for assistance and help.” 

But while other major cities like New York and Baltimore hosted grand-jury investigations and commissions tasked with spotlighting police corruption and misconduct—processes that helped to air out bad police and bad policies alike—Cleveland still went without a major shake-up. A nosediving tax base in the ’80s led to a smaller police department, which in turn caused the police union to fight harder for a contract that made it difficult to get rid of wayward officers. That was the rock-solid status quo—until late 2014.

Tamir Rice’s death rocked the gravitational balance in Cleveland. The city had seen dozens—if not more—questionable police shootings in the years leading up to 2014. Cleveland police officers had been tied to at least 10 cases of wrongful conviction. The Department of Justice had investigated the department’s use of force back in 1999, but opted to allow the city to self-monitor its compliance to federal requirements. None of this outside pressure cracked the Cleveland PD’s protective shell.

The sudden lightning storm of international outrage over the 12-year-old’s death blindsided local law enforcement. It was the starting bell for what followed. The final DOJ agreement, issued in May 2015, was a damning expose of excessive force and routinely ignored citizen complaints; the city was required to be monitored by the federal government well into the 2020s. Just three days before the report came out, mass protests had erupted after the acquittal of Cleveland patrolmen Michael Brelo for his part in a 2012 car chase that ended with two innocent African Americans shot 137 times. The same month saw the first lawsuit filed by one of three black men wrongfully convicted of murder in 1975 and exonerated 39 years later (the longest wrongful imprisonment in U.S. history), alleging a pattern of civil rights abuses. 

For a department that had gone so long operating in a vacuum, the sudden hothouse atmosphere surrounding policing had to be discombobulating. Not only was the Black Lives Matter movement laying increased attention on race-based law enforcement, but Cleveland had landed on the short list of prime offenders.

Bad publicity was one thing, though, and lawsuits another. The increased scrutiny invited litigation. Last fall, sure enough, a federal jury dropped a $5.5. million judgment against the city for a 2012 police shooting the department had deemed justifiable. Any future plaintiffs alleging wrongful death or excessive force—including, next week, Republican Convention delegates, media, and protesters—will have a well-documented 110-page legal complaint signed by the U.S. Attorney General to bolster their claims. The city’s fear of litigation has become so pronounced, in fact, that earlier this year, in twist of evil-legal-genius logic, Cleveland was caught trying to back out on the city’s contractual obligation to indemnify police officers saddled with big-money court judgments.

That last move—the city’s legal gymnastics to cut loose their own patrolmen—is not only unprecedented nationally, but could pit the city and department against one another in any future legal jousts. And if your standard-issue political convention is already a minefield for potential lawsuits, then a political convention that will nominate a highly contentious candidate who repeatedly stokes the ire of minority groups while inviting the support of white supremacists—well, next week’s RNC will take liability to a whole new level.

The uncertainty has led to what can only be called an epic round of ass-covering by the city and police in the run-up to convention. Skirting liability and shunting the blame—not proper planning—appear to have been the guiding principles behind the city’s exceedingly odd, and anything-but-comforting, rollout of its plans for the Trumpocalypse.

Ideally, Cleveland would have announced its permitting procedures for convention protesters months before the convention. It would have laid open lines of communication between activists and demonstrators, and participated in group meetings with attorneys and organizers. 

But it wasn’t until late May that Cleveland rolled out its proposed plans for issuing protest permits at the convention along with other security measures. And when they landed, they amounted to a bizarre effort to keep protesters and demonstrations at a distance from the convention. The proposed “event zone” for the RNC blanketed three-and-a-half square miles of the city—a geographic buffer that stretched well beyond the downtown neighborhoods where the convention will actually take place. 

And when you read “well beyond,” think well beyond—across a river and valley, into an entirely different part of the city. By law, the city and Secret Service have complete control over an event zone; it also subjects the area to tight rules—no sleeping bags, tents, water guns, tennis balls, aerosol cans, coolers, ladders, grappling hooks, “sound amplification equipment” and other items—aimed at deterring troublemaking visitors. Needless to say, it was not a popular plan with the Clevelanders who just happened to live in the far reaches of the zone.

The proposed rules also courted disaster, allowing only a single parade route within the event zone—a path running down a bridge before taking a dogleg right away from Quicken Loans Arena, the RNC’s ground zero. That would have put anti- and pro-Trump groups basically on top of one another on an isolated bridge. The point was to deny the protesters visibility, to keep them at a far remove from the delegates and media collected at the arena. But the upshot could have been nightmarish. 

Such a straitjacketing proposal was sure to get a legal challenge, and it came in June from the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a number of groups—both pro- and anti-Trump—planning demonstrations. In late June, a federal judge concurred with the plaintiffs, calling the zone “unduly large” and finding “constitutional problems” with Cleveland’s game plan. The two sides hashed out an agreement that kept the restrictions in place but slashed the event zone down to a manageable 1.7 square miles.

You could read this time- and money-eating rollout, the resulting legal challenge, and the ultimate compromise as poor planning on the part of the city. You could also see it as a clever prophylactic against liability. Should something unravel at the RNC, the city can always point out that it originally had different plans, stricter limits on protests, but was forced to compromise by a federal judge. The legal sturdiness of such an argument would be up to the courts, but the city’s positioning would at least give it a jumping-off point for a legal defense: Well, we wanted to do it our way, but the courts forced us to change the plan. 

The same self-serving scramble is evident in the mixed messages coming from the police department brass and the officers’ union. Although the specifics of the plan are not being made public, public documents indicate around 4,000 officers will be on hand for the four-day event. Cleveland PD’s 1,500 officers will make up around one-third of that figure, with the rest filling in from outside law enforcement agencies from across the country working in conjunction with local cops. A $50 million federal grant funded local convention prep; the money went toward everything from police training to new riot gear and bicycles. The constant refrain from City Hall and the upper ranks of the department: All systems go, the city is ready! “I am looking forward to a safe event,” Chief Calvin Williams wrote in an open letter to the city earlier in July.

But for months, Steve Loomis—the bald, bear-sized, bullhorn-mouthed head of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association—has been unleashing criticism at the city and department higher-ups over their lack of preparedness. In March, Loomis complained the city was behind with training outside officers and local cops. In April, he said patrolmen had not yet been fitted with new body armor or trained in crowd control. In May, Loomis again blasted the city’s convention prep, vowing to it responsible for “lost or damaged property or civil liabilities as a result of the city’s lack of training or preparedness.” The same message came in June. And in early July, Loomis attacked the city in a letter over a new round of orders related to the event. “This last hour rushing is simply a weak attempt to divert responsibility/liability away from the city and on to us should thing go poorly,” Loomis’ letter concludes. “I simply will not allow that to happen.”

On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer that a police union head would raise a fuss for his members. And Loomis, as Clevelanders know, doesn’t possess much of an “off” switch when it comes to tossing verbal punches at any and all comers. (Most infamously, he suggested that Tamir Rice’s family invest some of their $6 million wrongful death settlement in schooling kids on the dangers of playing with toy guns.) Most local media has tuned out his comments, reasoning that he’s not privy to convention prep specifics.

But there is a more calculated effect at work here, and it’s one that looms ill for the Republican Convention and its thousands of protesters, media, and attendees. His comments and criticism position the union boss as a soundbite-ready Cassandra. Loomis’s repeated warnings will look on-point if the grimmest scenarios play out in the streets of Cleveland next week. If the RNC bottoms out into chaos, the patrolmen rank-and-file will have a ready, documented response: We warned you.