How one Cleveland police officer's lawsuit gives public rare view of department's disciplinary process

How one Cleveland police officer's lawsuit gives public rare view of department's disciplinary process

James F. McCarty, The Plain Dealer
By James F. McCarty, The Plain Dealer 
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on March 28, 2015 at 8:00 AM, updated March 29, 2015 at 7:07 AM
aaronreese.jpeg
Detective Aaron Reese

CLEVELAND, Ohio - In the past five years, Cleveland police officer Aaron Reese has twice been suspended from duty and accused of steroid use and fraud. Prior to being hired in 2009, he was accused of child abuse and civil rights violations.

He also was promoted to detective in December and received a Medal of Heroism after arresting a suspect who he and a partner accused of shooting at them in 2012, even though some city officials doubted that the citizen, who had a permit to carry the gun, ever fired it at the officers.

During a recent civil trial, jurors heard much about his past. In six hours of deliberations, panel member Rob Mathis said, several of them kept asking the same question.

"We kept wondering how this guy still had a job," Mathis said.

Indeed, Reese's complicated case may shed some light on all sides of the debate over police discipline in Cleveland.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a 58-page report that accused the department's leadership of failing to discipline officers who behave badly, or even to fully investigate some charges. In Reese's case, it appears that the department's internal affairs division did investigate, but his career was never derailed by the many allegations against him.

While Mayor Frank Jackson did not identify any particular officers, he has said that some bad officers remain on the force because labor arbitrators reduced the penalties that police commanders sought to impose. In Reese's case, an arbitrator cut a recommended suspension from five days to two days.

Spokesmen for the city's police union have noted that officers can be accused falsely, and should not be disciplined for wrongs they may never have committed. Reese was never criminally charged or civilly sanctioned, for anything.

The one administrative allegation that top commanders upheld against him was that he failed to disclose two accusations of child abuse on his job application. But Reese said the allegations were made by a former spouse, not by the authorities. No police agency ever upheld the allegations. The murkiness of the situation was precisely why the arbitrator reduced Reese's punishment.

The one certainty about Reese's situation is that his own actions opened up a window into his past, giving the public a rare view into a disciplinary process that is largely shielded from public view or oversight.

Reese's lawsuit exposes job history

Much of Reese's job history became public after he filed a civil lawsuit against prominent Northeast Ohio restaurateur Tony George in 2010 following a heated verbal confrontation outside a nightclub on West 6th Street.

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Tony George

Reese sued George in 2012, and the case went to trial in January. After two weeks of testimony, a judge dismissed all of Reese's claims against George for assault and battery, libel, slander, and invasion of privacy.

The jury rejected Reese's allegation of intimidation against George, as well as George's countersuit of intimidation against Reese.

Reese has not responded to requests for interviews. His lawyer, Jonathan Rosenbaum, did send an email in response to a reporter's questions.

"Just so we have this straight," Rosenbaum wrote, "my comment is, you have made it very clear to me from your one sided and unfair interpretation of what are the  'facts' of this and who caused them, that there is no point in answering any more questions about Aaron Reese. Aaron Reese is a career law enforcement officer who is not afraid to investigate powerful white collar criminals. Investigators who do that are often discredited by the targets of the investigation in retaliation and as a defensive strategy. Apparently, the Plain Dealer is unwilling to fairly report on this."

George's lawyers responded to Reese's lawsuit by delving deeply into his record.

During pretrial depositions, Chief City Prosecutor Victor Perez said under oath that he and two other city prosecutors considered Reese untrustworthy.

Perez recalled becoming suspicious of Reese after reviewing his report of the June 2012 shooting incident for which he received the medal for heroism. Reese's account of the arrest at West 9th Street and Lakeside Avenue was, word-for-word, identical to the report submitted by his partner, Vu Nguyen, said Perez.

Perez said he pressed Reese further, questioning his claim that he and his partner had been shot at by the suspect, although no other evidence or witness reports supported this accusation.

Police report raises questions

"I asked the detective to get more information," Perez said in a sworn pretrial statement. "They could not get more information."

An online search of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and Cleveland Municipal Court websites finds no mention of the case. There is no obvious indication that the suspect in the alleged shooting, Abdullah Mujahiddin, 33, of Cleveland, was ever prosecuted.

City officials did not respond to a public records request seeking a Felony Review Form, which prosecutors fill out when felony charges are filed or dropped. Perez did not respond to a request for an interview.

A police report contained a brief statement written jointly by Reese and Nguyen, in which they said they arrested Mujahiddin on two charges of felonious assault/shooting at police officers, and carrying a concealed weapon.

A summary in the program for the heroism award ceremony at City Hall said Reese and Nguyen responded to a report of a man waving a gun and pointing it at people. "With the aid of the vehicle's spotlight, (the officers) located the male who, upon seeing the officers, fired one shot at them."

The summary said Reese and Nguyen pursued Mujahiddin, surrounded him, ordered him to the ground, and arrested him without the use of deadly force.

In an interview with The Plain Dealer, Mujahiddin said he never shot at the officers and was not charged with doing so. He said that, on the night of his arrest, he had been involved in an altercation with four men in the Flats. Mujahiddin, who has a concealed carry permit, said he fired a warning shot into the air to scare the men off, then walked toward his apartment on West 10th Street.

Perez, questioned about the incident in pretrial depositions, said Mujahiddin said he had fired the gun in self-defense.

Reese and Nguyen didn't arrive until more than a minute or two later, he said. Mujahiddin said he had his hands in the air, the officers arrested him without a struggle, and they confiscated his 40-caliber Baretta from its holster, he said.

"I was no threat to them," said Mujahiddin. "I didn't even pull my gun out. I don't know how it turned into a case of me shooting at the police, let alone an act of bravery."

Tony George's attorney, Subodh Chandra, who served as City Law Director under former Mayor Jane Campbell, said other questions surround Reese's career in Cleveland.

Reese vs. George conflict boils over

George said the West 6th Street confrontation began after Reese, who was working a security job at the Velvet Dog nightclub at the time, shouted a profanity at him. Reese denied saying anything to George.

George, accompanied by his wife, stopped to confront Reese, and the men engaged in a heated argument. Reese accused George of assault and battery, but a grainy, black-and-white security video played during the trial showed they never laid a hand on each other.

Reese and George had a history of disputes dating back at least a decade, when George filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Public Safety, Reese, who was working as a liquor enforcement agent at the time, and more than two dozen other agents. George accused Reese and the other agents of anti-Arab discrimination, of harassment, and of unfairly targeting his restaurants and nightclubs with excessive inspections.

George received a $3,500 financial settlement from the agency and a letter of apology from its director, Kenneth Morckel, who instituted new protocol for investigations and enforcement of complaints. He also ordered additional supervisory oversight to ensure investigations were more closely monitored.

But Morckel did not admit to any wrongdoing, and the letter made no mention of Reese or any other enforcement agents.

George estimated he spent as much as $850,000 in attorneys' fees and legal expenses in pursuit of the civil rights lawsuit.

"Justice costs a lot of money," George said in an interview with The Plain Dealer in 2011. Yet he still considered the settlement a victory.

"This was never about money," George said. "It was about not allowing this kind of discrimination to happen."

Following the 6th Street confrontation in 2010, Reese asked Cuyahoga County and Cleveland prosecutors to file criminal charges against George. City prosecutors declined, and then-County Prosecutor Bill Mason, citing a conflict of interest, referred the case to then-Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce. Joyce, in a letter to a city prosecutor, said that, after viewing the video, it appeared to him that Reese was the instigator of the confrontation, although Joyce added, "No one will ever know what was truly said."

Lawyer alerts Internal Affairs to Reese

During the civil battle that ensued, George's former lawyer and a private investigator brought information about Reese to the attention of the police Internal Affairs Unit.

Documents filed with the court and transcripts of pretrial depositions, taken under oath, were contained in three boxes of records compiled in preparation for the recent legal battle between George and Reese.

Pretrial interviews and police reports show that Sgt. Timothy Stacho conducted an investigation in 2012 based on the information he received from George's lawyer and the private investigator, and he filed a report accusing Reese of 13 departmental violations. Stacho said he concluded Reese had used anabolic steroids, had provided false answers and omitted other information on his 2008 job application.

Stacho's 13-point investigative report resulted in a disciplinary hearing Feb. 24, 2012. It was presided over by Deputy Chief Timothy Hennessey, who now serves as assistant director of facilities and police in the city's Public Safety Department. Others in attendance were Stacho and Sgt. Brian Carney. Reese was accompanied by police union lawyer Patrick D'Angelo, union President Jeff Follmer and Vice-President Steven Kinas.

Stacho presented a report in which he concluded that, on Reese's job application, he:

  • Omitted information that he had been accused of abusing his then-2-year-old son, and was questioned by social workers from the Department of Children and Family Services in 2007 and 2008. County social workers could not substantiate the allegations.
  • Failed to report a verbal reprimand he received in 2006, while working as a liquor enforcement agent, for losing a digital camera belonging to the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
  • Failed to list a verbal reprimand he received while working as a Cuyahoga County Sheriff's deputy from 1993 to 1995.
  • Falsely claimed he had once been hired by the Lakewood Police Department.
  • Failed to report two driver's license suspensions he received for traffic accidents in 1994 and 1996.
  • Failed to provide a complete accounting of all the civil litigation he was involved in, which at one time numbered as many as a dozen cases. Reese was a defendant in some of the cases, a plaintiff in others.

According to Cleveland Police Department rules, "any falsification or omission" on a job application "shall be grounds for immediate termination."

After the hearing, Hennessey recommended dismissal of all but one of the alleged violations. Hennessey determined that Reese was guilty of having failed to list the allegations of child abuse on his job application, court documents said.

Reese suspended, keeps job

Hennessey recommended the dismissal of the steroid abuse charges because there was never any clear evidence presented to establish that Reese had abused steroids, according to an arbitrator's report delivered Jan. 22, 2014.

Stacho noted that, although Reese had elevated levels of testosterone in his bloodstream, and a fellow officer and former girlfriend had accused Reese of using steroids, he had tested negative for anabolic steroids when given a blood test. City Prosecutor Perez determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Reese denied taking steroids, explaining his high testosterone was likely the result of several legal over-the-counter supplements he was taking "to gain muscle."

In explaining his decision to drop the other 12 charges, Hennessey said Reese had offered "mitigating testimony" that convinced him Reese had not intentionally lied, according to the arbitrator's report.

Then-Chief of Police Michael McGrath agreed with Hennessey's findings that Reese was guilty of failing to report the child abuse accusations. Although both allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated, Reese was aware of the allegations, had been interviewed twice by county social workers, yet still checked the "No" box when asked on his application if he had ever been convicted or accused of physical, emotional or sexual abuse of a child.

McGrath and Hennessey did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.

On March 2, 2012, McGrath ordered Reese to serve a five-day suspension without pay, with two days held in abeyance until Feb. 24, 2014.

In sworn pretrial statements, Reese denied the child abuse allegations, but confirmed he spanked his son. He blamed the child abuse reports on his ex-wife, with whom he was involved in an acrimonious divorce action at the time. Arvette Reese insisted in an interview with The Plain Dealer that she made no child abuse allegations.

Reese said he failed to acknowledge the child abuse allegations on his police employment application because he was never formally charged with the abuse of his son. He testified that he believed he had answered the question truthfully because it only asked if he had ever been "convicted or accused" of sexual abuse of a child. In his case, it had only been "alleged" that he had abused his child, Reese said.

The police union filed a grievance on Reese's behalf, arguing that McGrath's suspension was made without just cause and that it should be overturned.

On Jan. 22, 2014, independent Arbitrator James Mancini found that the wording of the child abuse question was ambiguous, lacked clarity and could have been reasonably interpreted in two different ways. Mancini found that Reese had not intentionally falsified his job application, and reduced the five-day suspension to two days, with one day held in abeyance.

Last October, Police Chief Calvin Williams ordered Reese to serve a second, two-day suspension for appearing in court with his arms uncovered, displaying a "sleeve" tattoo of Cherokee tribal art stretching from his shoulder to his wrist. The police department requires that officers' tattoos be covered in public.

In 2010, Reese was the subject of a fraud investigation by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, accused of failing to report income received as a deputy sheriff while receiving unemployment compensation during a layoff from the Cleveland Police Department. He later repaid the state department from $3,000 to $4,000, which he attributed to an "inadvertent" oversight, according to his sworn testimony.

But Reese's record also includes more favorable mentions. In addition to the Medal of Heroism, Reese also received a Special Commendation Award for arresting a suspect with a handgun outside a nightclub in 2013, and a commendation letter from McGrath for assisting the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force in responding to a suspicious package at the Horseshoe Casino.

Plain Dealer researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this report.

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