Cleveland police face questions, potential lawsuit after arrest of armed activist

Cleveland police face questions, potential lawsuit after arrest of armed activist

I confess that I hadn’t heard anything at all about the arrest of Antoine Tolbert until this weekend, even though he was placed in handcuffs all the way back on May 23rd and all charges were dropped against the activist a short time later.

The biggest question the Cleveland police face at the moment is why Tolbert was even arrested at all, especially since officers seemed to struggle to find something to charge him with.

Tolbert’s run-in with the law started when he was approached by officers while walking down the street openly carrying a handgun in a holster and carrying a shotgun in his hand; both activities legal under Ohio law. Tolbert is part of a group called New Era Cleveland, a group of black activists who, among other things, routinely carry out armed patrols in various neighborhoods, and this apparently wasn’t the first time that one of the officers who eventually showed up on scene had encountered similarly armed citizens.

One officer, identified in police reports as Officer Santa, is clearly heard on the footage warning that arresting Tolbert would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“I mean we have this in the 4th [District] all the time and my boss would eat us alive if we tried to detain that guy,” Santa said. “Personally, I don’t work out here. I don’t know how the bosses run out here. That’s a tough call.”

… Santa and her partner, who mentions in the footage that he knew Tolbert from a class at the police academy, spoke to Tolbert from a distance and stayed by their cars.

“Listen man, a lot of people don’t like that you’re kind of walking around with a gun,” Santa said to Tolbert.

“That’s a personal problem,” Tolbert responded.

“We just want to make sure you’re OK,” Santa said.

Tolbert wasn’t arrested then, and in fact was allowed to continue down the street. The debate between police, however, continued, and eventually it was decided to take him into custody.

“Be advised, it is open carry but he can’t walk down the street with a gun in his hand like that,” said one unidentified officer on the radio.

Some officers claimed that Tolbert needed to use a sling to carry the shotgun over his shoulder.

According to Buckeye Firearms Foundation Executive Director Dean Rieck, there’s no law saying how the firearm has to be carried. He said Tolbert wasn’t committing a crime.

“There is no legal reason for the police to arrest anyone for open carrying who is not otherwise committing a crime,” Rieck said.

A spokesperson for the Cleveland Division of Police did not respond to questions about Tolbert’s arrest or whether the department was reviewing the officers’ actions.

Eventually a Sergeant Henderson arrived and made the decision to arrest Tolbert.

“Improper handling of a firearm. He can’t walk down the street with a firearm in his hand,” Henderson told an officer at the scene. “Holster is one thing. But walking down the street with a firearm in his hand. Can’t do that.”

Improper handling of a firearm only applies inside a motor vehicle. Tolbert was walking. Henderson also said he was being charged with inducing panic because people who saw Tolbert walking with a gun called 911.

I don’t know how on earth police settled on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon when he was openly carrying a handgun and a shotgun, but as WKSU reports, both charges were dropped after Tolbert spent the night in jail, and a grand jury declined to indict him on any charges when it met last month.

Since his arrest, Tolbert says the social media attention on his arrest caused him to lose his job and that video of the incident is being used against him in a child custody dispute. He also says he’s planning on suing the city, so some of these officers may have to answer questions about Tolbert’s arrest under oath.

I’m not anti-police, but I do question why Tolbert was taken into custody, especially given the fact that at least one of the officers on scene recognized him from his visit to the police academy as part of New Era Cleveland’s outreach. None of the officers seemed to perceive Tolbert as a threat, but it sure looks like some of them wanted to arrest him for something, so that’s what they did.

At the very least the top brass in the Cleveland PD need to issue a reminder to officers about the applicable state laws when they encounter armed citizens like Tolbert so that nothing like this happens again. I’d say they also have some work to do to rebuild the trust of groups like New Era Cleveland, who are allies in the fight for a safer city, not the enemy.