This week's weasel cop
Cleveland police officers filed false duty reports, sat in parking lot for hours during storm
An arbitrator reduced the suspension given to two Cleveland police officers in 2013 from six-months to just 30 days after TV news crews caught them idling in a parking lot and filing false duty reports during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (File photo)
By Cory Shaffer | Northeast Ohio Media Group
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Two on-duty Cleveland police officers falsified documents to mask the fact that they sat idling in a downtown parking lot for hours on end during a massive, three-day power outage in the wake of 2012's Hurricane Sandy.
Wesley Harris and Kevin Freese agreed to a six-month suspension, but Cleveland police union officials successfully whittled the discipline down to 30 days through an arbitration process that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson on Friday lambasted as broken and prevents him from being able to rid the department of officers who break the rules.
The mayor made his comments at a time when the Cleveland police department and city officials have come under scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department for a litany of shortcomings including excessive use of force, failure to punish officers and a lack of accountability.
The case against Harris and Freese is one of 20 arbitration rulings the city provided Northeast Ohio Media Group in response to an open records request. Jackson has repeatedly said that arbitrators often overturn and weaken discipline handed out by police and city officials.
Harris and Freese were assigned to patrol Cleveland's Third District, which encompasses downtown, overnight Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 8 in 2012. The city was reeling from widespread power outages and downed power lines.
Local television cameras captured Harris and Freese sitting in their police car in the Asian Plaza parking lot for an hour and 23 minutes on Oct. 31. They also captured Freese with his feet hanging out the car's open window.
Cameras also caught the officers idling in the parking lot for 26 minutes on Nov. 1, and for two hours and 13 minutes on Nov. 8, according to the arbitration ruling.
In a disciplinary hearing, the officers said they had decided to take their lunch break in the plaza, and stayed as they finished writing reports. Union officials said its standard practice for officers working overnight shifts to park in well-lit areas to finish writing reports for safety reasons.
But Freese and Harris admitted to filing erroneous reports that did not reference their breaks. The reports they filed said they were paying special attention to other parts of the city despite Fox8 footage showing otherwise.
After the news story, city officials launched an investigation. Then-Safety Director Martin Flask said in a January 2013 hearing that the offenses, made more egregious by the fact that they came in the midst of torrential storm that rendered many homes without power, were punishable by termination. Instead, he recommended an unpaid, six-month suspension for both officers.
The officers said that they had no choice but to agree to the suspension, because they needed to do whatever they could to keep their jobs in order to support their families, according to the ruling.
The Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association disagreed and fought the discipline. The union argued that filing a false duty report is "a relatively minor" offense, and cited numerous cases where the department suspended officers for fewer than 10 for much more egregious offenses.
This is a common thread throughout many of the arbitration rulings.
Union attorneys pointed to a case in which one officer was caught sleeping on duty five separate times. He was given an eight-day suspension.
An officer was suspended for 10 days after he filed a false report saying he went to the scene of a traffic crash, but never went.
The city defended the suspension, comparing it to the 2010 case in which officers Matthew Prince and David Muniz were also suspended for six months. They were assigned to check on a reported dead body along Interstate 90. The officers sped by and, without stopping or getting out of the car, decided the body was actually a dead deer. They returned to a cemetery where they parked and sat for the next two hours, according to a Plain Dealer Publishing Co. story.
That object turned out to be the nude body of 28-year-old Angel Bradley-Crockett, who had been robbed, strangled to death and dumped along the highway.
The union argued that the charges against Harris and Freese were not nearly as extreme as those against Prince and Muniz.
In a December 2013 decision, arbitrator James Mancini agreed with the union that, based on the past cases, the city's six-month suspension was too harsh. Mancini lessened the punishment to 30 days and ordered the city to reimburse Harris and Freese for any wages lost beyond the 30 days.