The Saga of a Top Police Reformer Who Says She Was Accused of Bias

·11 min read
Courtesy Ayesha Bell Hardaway
Courtesy Ayesha Bell Hardaway

It seemed like an obvious comment, the sort of response no one would bat an eye at.

It was the day after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, and Ayesha Bell Hardaway was speaking on a panel reacting to the decision on her local NPR station.

Bell Hardaway, a Black law professor at Case Western Reserve University, former prosecutor, and monitor on an independent team tasked with reforming the Cleveland Division of Police, said the verdict gave her a sense of relief. It was a reaction countless Americans surely experienced in a clear-cut case of a white cop with a checkered past taking a Black man’s life for no reason.

But when the moderator asked if Bell Hardaway believed the case against Chauvin was consciously framed to avoid a critique of the larger system of American policing, her response somehow set off a firestorm. Locals say the ensuing saga has imperiled reform in a city with a history of brutal violence by cops.

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In essence, Bell Hardaway’s response to the question of whether prosecutors tried to make the case apolitical was yes—it sure seemed like they sought to make sure that the murder inspiring protests against acts of police brutality against Black people around the country wasn’t seen as an “anti-policing” case. And she wasn’t happy about it.

“That just goes to show how much we don’t trust the general American public to have an honest and frank conversation and reckoning with the violence and the harm that continues to be inflicted against Black communities through law enforcement,” she said on the show. “That’s problematic. That’s why I really think this case was just low-hanging fruit.”

The response was about a minute long, and Bell Hardaway told The Daily Beast that afterwards, she didn’t think much of it. In her mind, what she said wasn’t controversial. “I didn’t think they were hard truths, I just thought they were obviously true,” she said in an interview.

But according to Bell Hardaway and community leaders in Cleveland invested in criminal justice reform, her words have been used to recast her as an unobjective cop-hater, a partisan far too biased to help monitor a police force working toward reform for decades. On Monday, she submitted her letter of resignation from her position on the monitoring team, after, she claims, she was given an ultimatum to either step down or take a role in the community engagement department, which has no power to hold the police to account.

“It’s very disappointing,” Bell Hardaway, 45, told The Daily Beast. “Things need to make sense, and this seems to be very irrational.”

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Bell Hardaway had been involved with the monitoring team since what is called a “pattern and practice” investigation by the Obama-era Justice Department found evidence of “structural and systemic deficiencies and practices” in the Cleveland Division of Police. Among other things, the probe concluded that cops there used “unreasonable force,” and had “insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community,” according to a findings letter issued by the Justice Department in December 2014.

The investigation came on the heels of notorious police shootings of Black residents, including the November 2012 shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in a hail of 137 bullets, and the November 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun. In both cases, no officers were convicted of crimes. The probe also followed a previous investigation opened into the department in 2002 by the Justice Department, which was shuttered quickly after the police department agreed to a set of reforms in 2004 that community leaders told The Daily Beast were never followed through on.

“It failed,” Kareem Henton, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, told The Daily Beast of the earlier probe. “That’s why we’re here.”

Henton and others said they never had tremendous confidence even in the more recent investigation due to what they see as little buy-in from the city government or the police department. Also raising red flags, they said: many past-law enforcement officials with prominent oversight roles on the monitoring team.

But they said the appointment of Bell Hardaway and her promotion to deputy monitor in 2019 gave them confidence that someone who was from the Cleveland area and innately understood the feelings of the Black community would be involved in the process to keep it honest.

Her departure over a short sound clip has thwarted all that.

“The common sentiment held is that she was the person that everyone felt best represented us and that was actually doing her very best to get the department to compliance,” Henton said, adding that he’s been receiving numerous calls from concerned residents since Bell Hardaway resigned. “And now that she’s been ousted, no one, I repeat no one, even folks that are a part of the process, believes that it’s going to work out. They believe the consent decree is going to fail just like the previous one.”

On June 3, Bell Hardaway said, she received a phone call about her NPR appearance from the head monitor on the oversight team, Hassan Aden. A former chief of police in Greenville, North Carolina, Aden served in law enforcement there and in Alexandria, Virginia, for more than 25 years.

The call was not unlike one she said she received from him on April 21, after she tweeted about people rushing to judgement over the police killing of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in nearby Columbus, Ohio. With only 10 seconds of video released at the time, Bell Hardaway said, too many online seemed ready to justify the shooting of a girl who appeared to threaten someone else with a knife. “Too many of y’all are super quick to voice your uninformed opinions justifying the Columbus police officers actions that killed Young Miss Bryant. Y’all are as trigger happy as some of these people with badges. Please don’t quit your day jobs,” she wrote.

She said Hassan told her he’d received messages from members of the Justice Department and city leadership expressing doubt in her objectivity because of the tweet. “I said, ‘How could that be? I’m asking everyone to reserve judgement,’” Bell Hardaway said. After a long conversation with Hassan, who she said made clear he believed the shooting was justified, Hardaway said she felt things ended amicably.

Which is why she said she was blindsided when he called and texted again this month and told her that her comments about the Chauvin verdict had once again prompted questions about her objectivity from city leaders and the Justice Department. This time, she said, he indicated that he wanted her to either resign or take on a less authoritative role in community engagement.

Hassan did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. The office of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the Cleveland Division of Police also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, Bridget M. Brennan, said she was disappointed by Bell Hardaway’s resignation.

“The importance of diversity of thought and experiences to the police reform process cannot be overstated,” Brennan said. “Professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway was an integral part of this dialogue, bringing a unique combination of local knowledge and legal expertise. Her presence on the Monitoring Team facilitated the progress and successes we have seen to date, and we were disappointed to learn of her resignation.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Bell Hardaway’s departure and whether federal officials had in fact been concerned about her previous statements.

Still, in response to questions from The Daily Beast about the concerns of community members following Bell Hardaway’s resignation and the project of improving the Cleveland Division of Police, a spokesman said in a statement that the agency remained “fully committed” to the terms of the consent decree.

“The Monitoring Team suffered a loss with Professor Hardaway’s resignation, but the Team still has an independent, court-mandated function to ensure that the terms of the Consent Decree are implemented,” the statement to The Daily Beast read. “The Department of Justice is confident that the Team can meet those court-mandated directives. We will work with the Monitoring Team to ensure Professor Hardaway’s replacement has similar qualifications, including a strong understanding of community concerns”

Despite these assurances, community leaders told The Daily Beast they have doubts.

“She really was—and it’s sad to say was—the local expert on constitutional policing on the monitoring team,” Lewis Katz told The Daily Beast of Bell Hardaway.

An emeritus law professor at Case Western Reserve University, Katz is also co-chair of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, a volunteer group created as part of the consent decree that is supposed to facilitate community participation in the process.

Katz said the commission has no real power and that, of late, the police department has been very uncooperative with them. He said Bell Hardaway’s appointment to deputy director in 2019, giving her a big role in making sure the police department was compliant with its stated goals, was a “smart choice,” but that there were many people in the police department who weren’t happy.

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“Ayesha has a strong understanding of racism in American policing and they didn’t like it,” he said, adding that her departure weakens the monitoring team and its ability to evaluate the department.

Ronald B. Adrine, a retired longtime Cleveland Municipal Court administrative judge, who said he’d been encouraged by Bell Hardaway’s participation in the consent decree process, agreed. “Frankly, she’s kind of been, at least for Black community, somewhat of a gatekeeper,” he said. “And she is the person in town that has the most knowledge about this work.”

Adrine said the move was particularly gutting given that he believes the city “lost four years” of progress on the decree because of the Trump administration’s hands-off approach to enforcing such agreements. As a result, he’s doubtful real, substantive changes will be made before the decree is exited.

When the decree and the Justice Department’s oversight of the department will end remains an open question. A spokesman for the Justice Department said that because the decree is a court order, any changes, including early termination, would have to be approved by the court after the city’s request and the Justice Department’s response.

Adrine, like others, said that the police department has never been “fully all in” with regard to the consent decrees. But he said the first real act of opposing it came earlier this month, when the police union president called a press conference and stated that he hoped it would come to an end in 2022.

Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeff Follmer said the Justice Department was “no good for the city,” at the press conference, according to Cleveland.com. The site reported that he also took aim at Cleveland safety director Karrie Howard, who is Black and replaced a previous safety director who was criticized in monitor reports for doling out light punishments to officers. Follmer called Howard a “puppet” for the Justice Department, and expressed his dismay over the firing of 13 officers in recent misconduct cases, the outlet reported.

Follmer did not respond to a request for comment.

Henton, the Black Lives Matter organizer, said he believes the push to get the city out of the consent decree as soon as possible and “sabotage” any efforts to make real change were apparent to him when Greg White, a retired former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, was installed by city officials as their liaison to the consent decree monitors in 2016. Henton accused him of being notoriously pro-law enforcement.

For her part, Bell Hardaway said that when she was appointed deputy monitor in 2019, White called her to tell her she was “too much of an advocate” and that she always felt he was hostile to her engagement in the project. “The type of person that would bristle at my mere presence,” she said.

When asked about Bell Hardaway’s resignation and his role in the process, White said in a text message to The Daily Beast, “My only comment would be that what happened was between Professor Hardaway and Hassan Aden, the head monitor,” he said. When asked about the accusations about his reputation and whether his allegiances lie with the police department, White wrote, “I suppose that would depend upon whom you are speaking with.”

Henton said that by successfully removing Bell Hardaway, the community lost a real voice. He said the other members of color on the monitoring team are in roles with little oversight powers.

“By not having her in that position, we feel that law enforcement won. The city won,” he said. “Ayesha Hardaway was probably the only person on there that had any real influence and could actually ensure that some substantive change could actually take place, and they just took her out.”

Bell Hardaway said being the subject of stories and attention because of her departure is not something she wanted. But ultimately, she said, she felt she needed to step down instead of taking a role with no real teeth.

“What that would have amounted to is the community believing I was still involved in the process without me having any meaningful input along the way,” she said. “That could be very deceiving.”

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