By Rachel Dissell and Mark Puente
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
Cleveland Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard’s decision to remove police officers’ names and badge numbers from internal department bulletins that detail discipline cases has prompted new questions about the level of transparency required for a department under federal oversight.
Howard said in an email to The Marshall Project – Cleveland that he made the decision in October, but it wasn’t announced to officers or the public. The formal write-ups, distributed monthly, detail police department employee discipline ranging from warning letters for failing to turn on a body camera to serious brutality or dishonesty that result in firings.
The safety director said that officers felt that the open notices made shaming part of the discipline and led to “significant misinformation.”
The goal of the notices, Howard said, was to provide “fact-based summaries and dispel any notion regarding lack of fairness in outcomes.”
“These notices are prepared and disseminated in the spirit of transparency and truth in accountability,” Howard wrote. “There is little to no value in providing the name of the subject officer.“
Howard’s move comes after Mayor Justin Bibb campaigned and promised to bring more transparency to policing. It also follows Bibb’s pledge in October to create an advisory committee to address privacy and civil rights concerns over how police officers use surveillance cameras and other electronic tools across the city.
Howard recently told The Marshall Project – Cleveland that the formation of the committee has stalled, because the city was waiting until the new Community Police Commission, whose members were sworn in last month, begins work.
City officials told The Marshall Project they will release the monthly notices without the officers’ names. They will also release the final discipline decisions for individual officers that include their names in response to public records requests, and that the information will be posted to its records website. It’s unclear whether all discipline records are currently being posted. The new procedure also makes it harder for residents and community groups to review the records without reading each of the individual letters, which are posted in alphabetical order.
Two veteran Cleveland police officers — a supervisor and a detective — spoke to The Marshall Project – Cleveland about Howard’s policy. Because officers can be disciplined for speaking to news media without permission from the department, The Marshall Project is not identifying them by name.
The supervisor said some officers were upset seeing their names on the notices.
Others, he said, “feel like (Howard) is trying to hide the screw-up officers” and that “people want to know” the names of officers who commit serious misdeeds.
“We want to know who we’re teamed up with,” he said. “That’s important to a lot of officers. That’s extremely important. Discipline should be a public matter, too.”
The detective said nobody could figure out why Howard censored the reports and that the notices should contain officer names.
When told of Howard’s response to The Marshall Project – Cleveland, the officer said: “He doesn’t care what officers tell him when they go before him for discipline. Why would he care if they were shamed? He’s hammering them.”
Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said he believes removing the officers’ names from discipline lists is an effort to help boost morale within the department.
Follmer cautioned that the discipline process isn’t complete when the discipline notices are posted and that all records, including an officer’s name, are eventually available to the public.
“The process is over once the arbitration case is ruled on,” he said.
Since Howard removed the names, Follmer said he has received calls from his union members asking to know which officers were disciplined for the more serious violations.
Early in the consent decree process, a years-long agreement between the city and federal government to reform police abuses, the team hired by Cleveland to monitor the department’s progress questioned the practice of circulating discipline notices that identified employees. A 2018 report from the team noted that no member of the monitoring team could “recall seeing this utilized in any other police department that it has run, worked in, worked with or seen.”
Officers told the monitoring team that the way the notices were circulated and highlighted during roll calls reflected the “negativity within the department,” according to the report, which was based on a focus group of nearly 80 officers.
At the time, officers said discipline was increasing even though serious incidents, such as officers using force against residents, were decreasing. Officers also said they felt that punishments administered were “arbitrary” and inconsistent. Or, as one officer put it, there was “no rhyme or reason why someone gets a certain number of days” of suspension.
In one incident, an officer received an award and then was later disciplined for the same incident.
Two years later, the Community Police Commission, a civilian group mandated by the consent decree, recommended changes to the discipline process. The group suggested ways to balance the mandate for transparency in sharing discipline information with the public with the goals of “correcting misinformation, organizational learning and growth.”
The commission stopped short of recommending that names and badge numbers be removed and instead said the city should comply with Ohio public records law and “share disciplinary information internally at its discretion.”
“Sharing of information should be done in a manner that respects privacy when warranted and does not incur unnecessary internal shaming of an employee who has been disciplined,” the committee stated.
Richard Jackson, a retired Cleveland police sergeant, was a member of the Community Police Commission when the issue was initially raised. The idea, he said, was to remove the names “for a short time and then getting back to putting the names back in.”
Jackson agreed from his own experience as a supervisor that the notices were not a true assessment of an officer. It could be that the officer didn’t have proper training, instruction or supervision, Jackson said, or that they weren’t well-liked by their supervisor. That was a primary concern of the commission and monitoring team, said Jackson, also a member of the Black Shield Police Association, which provides support for officers of color in the Cleveland area.
The commission itself struggled to get access to discipline notices and memos from Cleveland police in a timely manner.
“When we asked for the documents we were consistently turned away but the judge stepped in,” he said. “We were trying to build a database so we could see a progression of discipline. We were looking for the data to prove or disprove what we were hearing.”
Joanna Schwartz, professor of law at the UCLA School of Law and an expert on police misconduct, said “it is important for both officers and the public to have information about disciplined officers, and there is no legal restriction against it.” The Cleveland discipline notices contain misconduct allegations that have been both substantiated and unfounded.
Schwartz said the need for transparency and deterrence outweighs any potential embarrassment.
“There is a lot of conversation right now, in the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols, about how best to deter future misconduct,” Schwartz said. “If publishing the names of disciplined officers shames them, this is an indication that the system is working.”