Police union official on consent decree monitor’s team is signal to Cleveland union

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Here is a likely matchup to watch as the city of Cleveland begins to reform its police force under an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

In one corner stands Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association. In the other corner is Sean Smoot, director and chief counsel of Police Benevolent and Protection Association of Illinois.

Smoot is a member of a monitoring team that will oversee the reforms. His presence is a signal to Loomis and other rank-and-file officers here, said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center that assembled the team.

“There needs to be no question that [Loomis’s union] is at the table and able to communicate its views,” Bobb, who will not be involved in overseeing Cleveland’s reforms, said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office.

cppa-president-steve-loomis.JPGSteve Loomis

Bobb learned that lesson the hard way in Seattle, where he and his nonprofit center upset some of the city’s police officers while monitoring reform efforts similar to those underway in Cleveland.

Without the blessing of their union president, about 100 Seattle police officers sued Bobb and several city officials over changes to the department’s use of force policy. The suit, filed in May 2014, accused Bobb and others of “playing politics” with officers’ lives.

The revised policy prescribes specific levels of force for officers to use when confronted with specific levels of threat from suspects. The lawsuit argued that the policy stripped officers of their discretion, and gave suspects more rights than the officers.

Cleveland police agreed to make similar changes to their use-of-force policy last year, and are now implementing the changes. 

A federal judge dismissed the Seattle lawsuit about six months after it was filed, and the department is now in compliance and on track with all of the reforms, according to Bobb’s latest report on Seattle’s progress.

What happened in Seattle is a common scenario in cities undergoing police reform, Bobb told Northeast Ohio Media Group.

“Once the rank-and-file officer understands that the consent decree is not a threat, is not going to negatively impact on his or her career, is concerned for office safety and is figuring out ways to use force intelligently and more carefully, then this kind of free floating anxiety about the consent decree or the monitor will dissipate,” Bobb said.

Smoot’s role in Cleveland will likely be to convince Loomis and the his union that the reforms are not an attack on officer’s jobs, but are going to make their jobs much easier and safer in the long run, according to police-reform expert Sam Walker.

Walker, a University of Nebraska professor who studies efforts by the Justice Department to reform police departments across the nation, said the inclusion of a rank-and-file police officer on an independent monitor’s team is rare.

He said police unions are often left without a voice in the entire reform process.

“That’s been a source of problems in other cities,” Walker said. “[Unions] are major players, so to the extent that this an outreach, that’s a very positive thing.”