FEATURED PHOTO: FORMER CLEVELAND OFFICE OF PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS ADMINISTRATOR MARCUS PEREZ
SignalCleveland.org, By Dakotah Kennedy, Posted December 12th 2023
Cleveland’s Office of Professional Standards is supposed to investigate complaints from residents, but employees say they got little response to their complaints about their boss, Marcus Perez.
For years, Cleveland’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS) has struggled to make good on its mission: to promptly and thoroughly investigate the complaints residents file against police officers or police department employees.
Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice, as part of its sweeping civil rights investigation into Cleveland’s way of policing, called OPS “an organization in crisis.”
Since then, police oversight work has become central to building trust with residents by giving them a reliable route to report misconduct, such as the use of excessive force during traffic stops or arrests. The success of OPS is also critical to Cleveland’s promise to deliver police accountability to its residents, a requirement under the consent decree agreement with the federal government.
Despite glimmers of progress, the office has remained chronically understaffed, often facing “enormous” backlogs of cases – and it operated without a leader for nearly 18 months.
Now, the agency is leaderless again, at least temporarily.
Administrator Marcus Perez took a voluntary leave of absence last week after an employee filed a complaint about his conduct. That complaint sparked a city human resources investigation, according to a city spokesperson. But employees in the office started filing complaints in June, one month after Perez took over. In emails, memos and resignation letters, the employees detailed a management style some called “abusive.” And they shared concerns that an agency created to investigate complaints wasn’t responding to theirs.
On Nov. 3, Perez touted the progress he had made in the last seven months during a presentation to City Council’s Safety Committee. He gave no indication of turmoil. When asked by the committee’s chair, Michael Polensek, about what’s been working at OPS, Perez said the hiring of new investigators had “changed the culture and environment of the organization.”
“It takes time to change the organization,” Perez said. “Sometimes when you’re changing out certain individuals and certain personalities, that’s a 180.”
Polensek said he was surprised to hear about Perez’s leave, which he said he learned about from Signal Cleveland’s recent article. Outside of Perez’s presentations to council, Polensek said he hasn’t had any further engagement with Perez. No one from OPS had come to him with any complaints, he said.
“I was optimistic that we’d start to see something happen [at OPS], but here’s another setback,” said Polensek, who further described Perez’s leave as “not a good sign.”
‘Mr. Perez still leads with impunity’
In 2021, when voters approved Issue 24, they gave OPS and the Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) greater independence from city departments that oversee police and public safety. Cleveland’s charter now requires OPS to report to the nine-member CPRB, which is made up of residents appointed by the mayor and City Council to the part-time positions.
Tyler Sinclair, a spokesperson for the city, said that Issue 24 did not take into account how these newly empowered boards and agencies would function in practice, specifically with regards to personnel matters.
“This nontraditional dynamic contains intricacies and challenges that can inherently create confusion, such as who to report a complaint to,” Sinclair said. “These difficulties are not unique to Cleveland as oversight complexities have been reported across the country in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego, and others.”
Sinclair said the city remains committed to the oversight work and is evaluating what policies can be updated or improved within the new law with the “intentions of residents at the forefront.”
Following their complaints to human resources, one employee reached out to board members in hopes of making them aware of Perez’s verbal abuse, threats and favoritism in the office.
During a July 11 meeting, some OPS employees shared their concerns directly with review board members. The discussion took place during a two-hour executive session, a portion of the meeting that is not recorded or made available to the public.
More than a month after the meeting, one employee emphasized the lack of response about the allegations against Perez.
“I have reported Mr. Perez’s conduct, […] and Mr. Perez still leads with impunity. Since we last met on July 11, we have not received any follow-up from you,” one employee wrote, addressing HR staff and all members of the CPRB.
That same employee said that they were told by the city HR manager that “HR has no authority to issue any corrective action regarding Perez” and re-directed the employee to CPRB as the “sole authority” on the matter. A week later, that employee resigned.
A city spokesperson told Signal Cleveland that the city will complete a thorough investigation but ultimately it will be up to the Civilian Police Review Board to decide whether to take action or not. Board Chair Billy Sharp has not returned multiple requests for comment.
During the Nov. 3 Safety Committee meeting, Sharp and Perez presented OPS’ favorable progress, including making significant headway toward clearing the backlog of cases and hiring more investigators.
Sharp said the board was working to give Perez “all the tools” he needed to be successful. “In all honesty, we’re digging out of a hole.”
“I can deal with honest news,” Polensek responded. “What I can’t deal with–what I won’t deal with–is people who come to the table and tell us something that’s not true.”
Two employees resigned from the Office of Professional Standards citing Perez’s leadership as “abusive” and “careless.”
Service Journalism Reporter (she/her)
Dakotah is a journalist and audio producer dedicated to untangling bureaucracy and providing power (information) to the people of Cleveland. She spent 10 years on the frontlines of direct service working with youth and system-impacted communities before receiving her master’s in media advocacy from Northeastern University. Dakotah is part of the Community team whose mission is to listen and amplify the issues Clevelanders care about most.