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Cleveland police officials failed to properly conduct background checks on new officers, including for bias, monitor says

by Jun 24, 2022Local News

Cleveland police headquarters

Cleveland police officials continued to fail to conduct thorough background checks of new officers, according to a new review by the consent decree monitor.

Officials didn’t check if applicants had issues at prior jobs, failed to look into criminal charges for at least one new officer and didn’t try to determine if officers showed any signs of bias against any racial or ethnic group before they were hired, among other issues.

The monitoring team, led by Hassan Aden, cautioned the city against rushing background checks in the face of a dwindling number of officers, who have left in droves during the last two years, either for more money at a suburban department or through retirement.As of last  month, the city had 1,383 police officers, or 257 below the level it hopes to staff the department.

“The monitoring team understands the challenges in addressing staffing shortages across police departments in the country,” the report said. “We also understand the risks involved in rushing to fulfill staffing numbers with people not suited to serve our communities.”

Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer reached out to city officials and Aden for comment.

Part of the 2015 consent decree that mandated reform in the department required better background checks of new hires, something the department has struggled with for years.

Cleveland police in 2014 failed to check the background of former Officer Timothy Loehmann before he was hired. Loehmann had been allowed to resign from Independence police in lieu of getting fired after supervisors found he was unfit for police work. Cleveland police never requested or looked at his file, and, eight months, later he fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

More recently, the police internal-affairs unit launched an investigation into Officer Ismail Quran after the anti-Semitism watchdog group Canary Mission unearthed anti-Semitic social media posts that Quran made before he was hired in 2018.

A report from the monitoring team in January also found three officers who transferred from other departments should have never been hired  . The report cited poor background checks.

The monitoring team’s recent assessment reviewed background checks into the department’s 148th Recruiting Class, which hit the streets in March. The class was chosen during the administration of former Mayor Frank Jackson.

The monitoring team reviewed 44 officers’ files to determine if officials followed mandated protocols for thorough background checks before police cadets are hired.

The monitoring team said the files are “best described as chaotic” with little organization inside accordion-style folders. It described the background investigations as “superficial.”

Several new officers had criminal histories that were not explained or explored, the report said. One candidate had several run-ins with police, including some that involved violence, according to the report.

“This candidate was hired without a considerable amount of time having passed or work experience to demonstrate that this was not a persistent pattern of problem behavior; there was no evidence in the file to indicate that these incidents were discussed or researched further,” the report said.

Officials also failed to thoroughly document when they spoke with past employers and never requested or reviewed any personnel files from prior jobs, including for one candidate who had previously worked in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff.

The monitoring team also found that a more thorough background check revealed that several candidates lied about their backgrounds during the vetting process. Some candidates failed to disclose they had been fired from previous jobs. One applicant indicated having no prior military experience, yet the file contained discharge papers. Another reported receiving a high-school diploma, but records showed the candidate actually received a GED diploma two years later.

The monitoring team also noted that many of the officers in the class applied to police departments across the country and were denied employment or passed over. Cleveland police officials, however, never questioned why.

“This finding raised questions about the selection requirements and standards currently in place at the division, relative to its peer agencies,” the report said.

Officials also failed to perform any kind of investigation into a candidate’s history of bias or if the recruit was able to work in a diverse city, the monitoring team found. Files showed neither a background-check investigator nor psychiatric evaluators assessed candidates for this requirement.

The report noted that city officials need to come up with a systematic way to identify officers who can or can’t work with all members of the public. It specifically noted that the department should conduct reviews of the social media accounts of potential hires.

Other findings in the report included:

    • Cleveland police investigators checked on candidates’ involvements in civil lawsuits the week before the monitoring team showed up for its planned review of the files. The report said that meant those in charge of background checks failed to complete that review before hiring the officers and did so only because of the monitoring team’s visit. “Compliance requires an enduring effort to do what is expected and to do so with integrity,” the report said.
    • The monitoring team said it also found that the amount of financial issues faced by the candidates was “remarkable.” Most worked low-paying jobs, are “very” young, and have not had educational opportunities outside of high school. The report recommended city officials provide new hires with financial-planning assistance. “Officers in financial distress can also be a liability for the division and encourage risky behavior of officers.”

The monitoring team noted that the city has already started background checks for a new round of candidates for its August class. The team noted it will work with police officials to conduct more thorough and organized checks.

Aden wrote in the report that department should only accept the most qualified officers if it wants to be the best police agency in the state:

Becoming that kind of agency begins with excellent compensation and benefits packages, purposeful and intentional recruiting, followed by thoroughly vetting its candidate pool to glean only the most qualified people to serve Cleveland communities.”

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