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Investigation uncovers widespread bodycam policy violations by Cleveland Police

Close-up of  police body camera
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Cleveland police have used body worn cameras since 2015. They became mandatory in 2016.

Specialized police units in the Cleveland Division of Police appear to have not followed department policies on the use of body cameras and the storage of footage for nearly two years.

An investigator with the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), who discovered the years-long policy violations during an investigation into an incident where members of the Neighborhood Impact and Community Engagement, or N.I.C.E., Unit responded, said a lack of oversight has led to widespread policy violations.

“These violations include a late activation of a WCS [wearable camera system], officers not loading or uploading or labeling their WCS by the end of their tour, in some cases not doing it for over 100 days,” said OPS Investigator Art Bowker. “We also found one supervisor not completing daily checks of the WCS footage and also not completing quarterly audit reports of WCS footage.”

According to Cleveland police policy, every officer issued a body cam has to turn it on during interactions with the public and, at the end of every shift, has to mark and upload that footage to the department’s server.

Supervisors are required to check that those under their command are doing that each day and submit quarterly audits of the footage.

That includes the N.I.C.E. Unit, which was created to responds to areas with increased violent crime. Similar units have come under fire after officers from one in Memphis brutally beat Tyre Nichols, leading to his death three days later.

During an investigation of the May 2022 arrest of Antoine Tolbert for openly carrying firearms in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Bowker requested body cam footage from all the responding officers.

When the two officers from the N.I.C.E. Unit who responded, and can be seen in videos of the incident driving slowly alongside Tolbert yelling commands at him, did not provide footage, Bowker started to look closer and found seven officers in violation of the policy.

“These guys are all from the N.I.C.E. Unit, we’re talking about guys with 9-to-26 years of experience,” Bowker said. “And to need to be retrained on something as basic as WCS, when it’s to be uploaded, considering WCS has been around since 2016 - these are not new officers, this is a specialized unit with some expertise.”

Bowker found that one of the two officers from the unit who responded to the Tolbert incident, Det. Francis McManamon, had six incidents between Jan. 1, 2021 and Sept. 9, 2022, where more than 100 days passed before body camera footage was uploaded and labeled.

Policy requires that officers perform those tasks before their shift is over.

Bowker presented results of his investigation to the Civilian Police Review Board on Feb. 14, 2023, which recommended discipline to police leadership.

Violations of the body camera policy are a Group I level offense, and possible discipline ranges from verbal reprimand to up to five days suspension. Board members expressed concerns that the potential discipline for these infractions is insufficient.

“Exceeding 100 days is astounding, knowing that it is basically a part of your uniform,” said Civilian Police Review Board member Chenoa Miller.

The other N.I.C.E. Unit officer who responded to the Tolbert incident, Sgt. Joe Sedlak, waited 109 days after that incident to upload the footage. Bowker found four other incidents where Sedlak waited more than 100 days to upload and label footage.

Three other officers from the N.I.C.E. Unit, Det. Reginald Sullivan, Det. Taylor Bohlen and Det. Michael Schade, all had similar patterns of WCS violations.

Police Review Board Chairman Michael Hess ascribed the problems to leadership in the N.I.C.E. Unit.

“Its very weird that, of all of the time we’ve been doing this, and we’ve been using the WCS cameras for several years now, that this is the first time that we’ve found an entire unit’s worth of people that wholesale was just doing a very poor job of maintaining their video records,” Hess said.

Bowker found that the officer-in-charge of N.I.C.E., Lt. David Skrletts and his supervisor, Capt. Thomas Mandzak, have also failed to follow policy for years.

Skrletts was responsible for the daily checks that WCS footage was being uploaded and labeled.

“He acknowledged he had not been doing that duty. He acknowledged that he was not filing the quarterly lieutenant audit reports,” Bowker said.

Skrletts told Bowker the problem has been fixed.

Board members recommended a higher level of discipline, Group II, for Skrletts and his supervisor, Capt. Thomas Mandzak, for failure to supervise.

The full OPS investigation is not public yet because no discipline decision has been made. CPRB’s recommendations go to Chief of Police Wayne Drummond and then, if CPRB appeals his decision, to Public Safety Director Karrie Howard.

Bowker went on to say that the investigation in the Antoine Tolbert incident, and the closer look at WCS oversight in the department, point to systematic failures.

“In contacting the Inspections Unit regarding these quarterly audit reports, we received e-mails that reflected the following additional units were late in filing the second quarterly audit reports, which were due in July 10, 2022 – the cartel gang narcotics laundering unit, the traffic unit, the crime scene unit, the domestic violence and homicide units,” Bowker said.

He added that the failure to complete the audit reports means that officers are basically operating on an honor system when it comes to the WCS policies.

He listed several individual incidents that that have come to OPS’s attention – officers failing to activate cameras or incorrectly tagging video so it disappears from the system earlier than it should; one officer who was part of the department’s pre-disciplinary, “early intervention” program in 2021 was found to have failed to upload video from 37 incidents. This officer’s sergeant had not noticed those repeated failures.

“All this, we believe, means the CDP needs to start taking a proactive approach in supervising officers’ compliance with the [policy] requirements,” Bowker said.

A spokesperson for the Cleveland Division of Police said Wednesday, "This matter is under investigation."

Updated: February 16, 2023 at 4:51 PM EST
This story has been updated to include a response from Cleveland Police.
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Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.