Posted August 27, 20221:36 pm
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Karima McCree-Wilson sounded exhausted as she addressed the board members on the video screen.
More than two years had passed since she began filing police complaints against her father. His attacks went unchecked for eight months, she claimed, until he was finally arrested and convicted of aggravated assault and domestic violence.
Throughout her experience, McCree-Wilson pressed Cleveland police to take her claims seriously. But officers, it seemed, routinely dismissed her. It wasn’t just their apathy that bothered her. It was how they blew her off—suggesting, to her, that they thought she was mentally ill.
McCree-Wilson, 37, told her story in February to the city’s Civilian Police Review Board, which considers allegations of officer misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations. By revealing her name during the public hearing, she allowed herself to become a symbol of domestic violence survivorship in Cleveland, even though she knew that allegations of mental instability would surface.
What McCree-Wilson didn’t realize is that she would soon become an early test case—perhaps the first one—for a new police oversight system in Cleveland, following a charter amendment passed by voters last fall.
After McCree-Wilson’s testimony, the review board came to her defense, arguing that a responding patrol officer in one case should have arrested her assailant—in this instance, her cousin, who she says punched her in the face—and that the officer’s failure to do so warranted a short suspension without pay.
Rather than make an arrest, the officer, Victor Claudio, appeared sympathetic to the cousin during their conversation, saying of McCree-Wilson, “She’s not all there.”
Both Wayne Drummond, the police chief, and Karrie Howard, the public safety director, refused to reprimand Claudio. Until recently, that would be the end of it.
But following the passage of Issue 24 last November, the review board will inherit disciplinary authority over the public safety department.
Now, the board has hinted it will use McCree-Wilson’s case as its first attempt to assert its new powers. But rather than act immediately, it will wait until the new oversight structure is safely in place. That waiting period will likely take months.
Ultimately, justice for McCree-Wilson will come with a curious twist. Despite the passions stoked by physical abuse, her case hinges on a highly impersonal technicality: the familial meaning of the word “consanguinity” and whether it applies to domestic violence in Ohio.
Domestic violence: a special kind of police response
McCree-Wilson’s troubles began in October 2019, when she lodged a police complaint against her father, with whom she shared a Mount Pleasant duplex. She accused him of throwing her on the ground, “smacking” her head, choking her and locking her out of the house, according to a police report.
At the time, McCree-Wilson was a program officer for the Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services, having earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology. She now works with a Cuyahoga Community College program helping low-income and first-generation students prepare for post-secondary education.
As an adult, McCree-Wilson was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, related to childhood trauma, she says. When triggered, it can propel her into hysteria. She manages it through therapy and identifying stressors, which include being yelled at by men or accused of things she didn’t do.
She’s open about her diagnosis because she wants to destigmatize mental health but cautions against catch-all labels for mental illness. PTSD, she said, “doesn’t mean I’m a schizophrenic.”
The incident with her father spiraled quickly, and a traumatized McCree-Wilson ended up in a psychiatric hospital for three days, she says. When discharged, she sought refuge at an aunt’s house in Glenville, where an argument with her cousin ensued.
He punched her in the face, which sent her into deep panic, she said. She spoke very fast to the 911 dispatcher. “Caller sounds mental,” the log noted.
When Claudio, the Cleveland police officer, arrived, he learned McCree-Wilson had just been discharged from a mental health facility. He acknowledged the mark on her face where her glasses had been knocked off, an independent city investigation later determined. The cousin, who also called 911, said McCree-Wilson was the aggressor and that he was protecting himself, according to Claudio’s report.
McCree-Wilson asked Claudio to make an arrest. But Claudio didn’t classify the incident as domestic violence, which meant he didn’t need to arrest anyone. Instead, according to the investigator’s report, based on body-camera footage, Claudio questioned McCree-Wilson’s mental state, asking the cousin, “Was she crazy or anything like that? She’s not all there.”
Claudio suggested that the family “get her probated,” a reference to involuntary commitment to a mental health facility. He advised McCree-Wilson to go the city prosecutor’s office if she wanted to press charges.
Reflecting on the episode, McCree-Wilson says Claudio’s attitude was in line with previous experiences with Cleveland police.
“I think he just decided he thought I was crazy,” she reasoned. But if so, “my mental health status doesn’t have anything do with whether I was assaulted or not.”
Domestic violence in Ohio calls for a special kind of response from police officers, who must go above and beyond their duties in typical assault cases. Requirements include separating parties, documenting injuries, giving separate interviews and filing a written report.
Alexandria Ruden is a supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland who exclusively handles domestic violence cases and has trained police officers across Ohio. She says some Cleveland police officers respond to domestic violence calls with incredible precision, while others don’t.
Though Ruden gives Cleveland police an overall grade of 50 percent for following the enhanced requirements—the failure of officers to fill out reports is the biggest complaint she hears—she notes that officers who’ve undergone certain training are well equipped to follow the law. She said the police division has made headway on its training programs recently.
Ohio House Bill 3, which last year passed the House and is currently in the Senate, would require every law enforcement officer in the state to be trained in making objective lethality assessments, said Ruden. If passed, it would be the most consequential domestic violence law enacted since 1994, when police were required to create specialized domestic violence policies, she said.
Melissa Graves is the CEO of Journey Center for Safety and Healing, a leading domestic violence service provider in Cuyahoga County. She agrees that the Cleveland police department has made recent strides, though she points to a steep climb in demand in recent years and argues that that the police division doesn’t have enough resources to handle the caseload.
Last year, she says, there were 8,609 reported victims in Cleveland, compared to 3,539 in 2017.
Graves also says more work can be done to combat stereotypes. “Abusers are highly skilled at manipulating perceptions of victims on scene,” she said. “It’s amazing how a perpetrator looks absolutely calm and collected, the victim is yelling and screaming, and the abuser says, ‘Look, she’s crazy.’ "
Frequent 911 calls
The problems between McCree-Wilson and her father are complex. Police records confirm that McCree-Wilson lodged numerous 911 calls, but he did, too. He also had a protective order against her, even though they lived in the same duplex. She was arrested for violating it, and once for domestic violence, which she attributed to self-defense. Charges were later dismissed.
Records also suggest that emergency responders had formed an opinion of McCree-Wilson’s mental condition. In a 2019 incident, after she told a 911 dispatcher that her father was trying to break into her home with a hammer, someone said over the police radio, “Mental health issues for all parties.”
McCree-Wilson asked the responding officer to file a report, but he declined, according to the incident log.
After another call, a responding officer reported that her father told her, “I’ll kill you,” but the officer also said that McCree-Wilson “is believed to have some type of mental health issue.”
In December 2019, Michael McGrath, then the city’s public safety director, sent McCree-Wilson a letter concerning 11 police responses in four months. “Repeated calls to the same property place an undue and inappropriate burden on the taxpayers of the City of Cleveland and on our safety forces,” he wrote.
Six months later, McCree-Wilson’s father was arrested and accused of domestic violence and assault; he had punched her twice in front of at least one witness, splitting her lip, which required stitches, according to court records.
Even so, someone cautioned on the police radio during the response that McCree-Wilson had mental health issues and called police routinely.
Efforts to reach McCree-Wilson’s father were unsuccessful, and both his trial lawyer and appeals attorney declined to comment. He argued in an appellant brief that “the State failed to prove the alleged victim suffered serious physical harm.”
In May 2020, McCree-Wilson took her cause to the Office of Professional Standards, a Cleveland body that investigates allegations of police abuse and presents its findings to the civilian review board. Through ensuing conversations with investigators, McCree-Wilson learned that police responders had formed opinions about her mental health.
The investigation eventually turned to the incident with her cousin. An investigator contended that Claudio should have treated the incident as domestic violence and arrested her cousin as the primary aggressor, per Cleveland police policy.
When she addressed the review board in February, McCree-Wilson spoke about Claudio, but also about emergency calls related to her father, ticking off the statutory requirements officers must follow during domestic violence responses.
“None of those things happened,” she said, arguing that patrol officers have a “lack of ability to discern between a trauma and mental health.”
Rosie Palfy is a member of the Cleveland Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, which was born out of the consent decree established by the U.S. Department of Justice to reform Cleveland’s police department. She understands McCree-Wilson’s perspective.
When her committee helped draft police crisis intervention policies, “there was an understanding that having a mental health crisis doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental illness,” she said.
More should be done to weave domestic violence concepts together with other forms of crisis response, like trauma-informed care and mental health, she says. “It’s almost like these topics are put into silos.”
Legal technicalities and a ‘test case’
Following her testimony, the civilian review board sided with McCree-Wilson, calling the incident with her cousin domestic violence. It drew its conclusion by citing an Ohio provision that applies domestic violence to “consanguinity,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “descended from the same ancestor.”
For consanguinity to apply to domestic violence, per Ohio law, the victim must reside or have resided with the offender. According to investigators, McCree-Wilson’s aunt told Claudio she was a previous resident of the house.
In April, Drummond, the city’s new police chief, exonerated Claudio, stating consanguinity didn’t apply. In May, following the board’s appeal, Howard, the safety director, stated in a letter, “There was no evidence presented to indicate that the complainant and suspect are ‘family or household members.’ "
The civilian review board has voiced its disapproval in strong terms. Member Michael Graham, a former Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor, in an April meeting posited that Drummond, “from on high, says, ‘I say consanguinity doesn’t include your cousin.’ No authority, nothing, just his opinion. And that seems absurd to me.”
Howard, however, is sticking to his reading of the law, saying in a statement, “We take all acts of violence very seriously and will take any and all action to protect victims of violent crime. However, we must comply with the law when differentiating assault from domestic violence.”
Stephanie Scalise, a former review board member who previously handled domestic violence cases as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor and the University Heights city prosecutor, says that regardless of the provision, disciplining an officer over the meaning of consanguinity might go too far.
“Do you think the average police officer has been trained in statutory interpretation?” she said. “That’s like your first thing in law school.”
McCree-Wilson, incidentally, says she isn’t interested in seeing Claudio punished. She just wants officers to be better trained to respond to domestic violence calls. “I’m just telling them, correct this,” she said.
Last November, Cleveland voters elected to create a new oversight system that would give the review board license to overrule any safety department disciplinary decision. Although the new language has been enshrined into the city charter, the review board has indicated that it won’t act on it until its manual is revised and yet another civilian committee is established.
In the meantime, the review board will bank its formal defense of McCree-Wilson until it feels safe to move forward. It recently discussed her battle as “one of our first test cases that we can appeal.”
McCree-Wilson was once a believer in the system. But her saga has caused her to fault not just with the police response, but also with civilian oversight structures. Though the review board sided with her on the arrest claim, she criticized its decision to dismiss her claim that Claudio acted with bias against her.
McCree-Wilson’s father was put on probation, and she has moved to another home. Regardless of what happens, she hopes other survivors of domestic violence—including those who’ve been diagnosed with a psychological disorder—will find a voice through hers.
“The more people who can say, ‘I have this condition and I’m dealing with it and living a productive life, but I’m not crazy’—it’ll reduce the stigma in the community and give survivors the ability to advocate for themselves,” she said.
Read the original story at cleveland.com: Domestic violence survivor still fighting for police accountability in one of first tests of new Cleveland citizen police review - cleveland.com