CLEVELAND — Half a dozen family members stood back, away from the loud protests that engulfed this eastside street corner as the sun went down on a recent evening.
The signs, held by neighbors, friends and others, demanded justice for Tanisha Anderson. But it was deep grief, not demanding anger, that sat in the eyes of her loved ones. They just want answers.
“She called for help, and death is what she got,” said Mike Anderson, Tanisha’s uncle. “She called for help, and this is what she got, the Cleveland police.”
A series of high-profile police killings of black men this year has focused the country on the issue of race and policing. It’s also led many families of others killed by officers to publicly seek answers and demand police accountability — refusing to allow the loss of their loved ones to fade into obscurity.
This city was shaken last month when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by officers while playing in a park with a BB gun that authorities mistook for a real weapon. Local protests were further emboldened by a Justice Department report that concluded officers here frequently use force in situations that do not warrant it.
But 10 days before Tamir’s death, Anderson, a 37-year-old mother who battled mental illness, died in police custody after family members requested help transporting her for a psychiatric evaluation.
Her death, family members have said, is evidence that police need new training on how to interact with the mentally ill.
More than a month later, how Tanisha Anderson died remains up for debate. There was no video, just the statements from outraged and grieving family members that contradict the officers’ account.
Officers on Nov. 12 were called twice to Anderson’s home, where family members said she was having an outburst and requested an ambulance so she could be transferred to a nearby facility for medical care.
It was after they arrived to help, police said, that Anderson began struggling with officers as they escorted her to a cruiser. At some point, they said, she went limp and lost consciousness.
“As the officers escorted the female to the police vehicle she began actively resisting the officers,” the police department said in a statement. “Once handcuffed, the woman continued to resist officers’ attempts to place her in the police car. The woman began to kick at officers.”
Then, according to the report, Anderson “appeared to go limp” and, after she was found to have a faint pulse, was transported to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Family members who witnessed the altercation, however, insist that Anderson walked calmly and voluntarily and sat in the back seat of the cruiser before becoming nervous. When she tried to get out of the vehicle, her family said, an officer slammed her to the pavement and pushed his knee into her back.
About 20 minutes later, when she was placed on a medical stretcher, they said her arms fell over the sides and pointed straight toward the ground.
“She was dead way before she ever made it into that ambulance,” said Jasmine Johnson, 26, who is one of Anderson’s sisters and traveled to Cleveland from her home in Los Angeles to be with her family.
“Those officers were called to the scene to help, not to hurt. My sister was violated, and her dead body was left out on the cold street,” Johnson said.
The local medical examiner has yet to complete an examination and determine a cause of death.
The police department, which has vowed to work with federal officials to correct problems outlined in the Justice Department report, was sharply criticized for how it interacts with mentally ill residents.
“CDP officers too often use unreasonable force against individuals with mental illness,” the federal report concluded, later adding: “Officers, especially the majority who are not specially trained on this issue, do not use appropriate techniques or de-escalate encounters with individuals with mental illness or impaired faculties to prevent the use of force and, when force is used, officers do not adjust the application of force to account for the person’s mental illness.”
The federal report concluded: “Officers use force against people in mental health crisis after family members have called the police in a desperate plea for assistance.”
Anderson’s death — and its eclipse by Tamir’s shooting — echoes a somewhat similar case in St. Louis. Eight days after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, another young black man was fatally shot by police.
But the shooting by St. Louis police of Kajieme Powell, who had a history of mental illness, never caught on as a major point of protest — despite the efforts of some activists. Video of the shooting showed Powell move toward officers with the steak knife he had wielded when robbing a corner store moments earlier.
Despite inconsistencies, details, including the names of the officers involved, were never officially released. A makeshift memorial at the site of the shooting was taken down repeatedly, but a small group of residents returned week after week to rebuild it.
Activists in Cleveland are also working to make sure Anderson’s story is included in their organizing efforts. Among their demands is a call for the indictment of the officers involved in Anderson’s death.
“We want Cleveland to be the city that breaks this cycle and becomes a national model,” said Jason Eugine, 36, one of the community organizers instrumental in the Cleveland protests and meetings with community leaders about the Justice Department report. “That starts with getting justice for people like Tanisha and Tamir.”
City officials are set to embark upon a four-week “listening tour” as they prepare to negotiate with the federal agency on local policy changes.
“I want to see the change. I want to see the reform. I do not want children to die at the hands of police officers. I do not want adults to die at the hands of police officers,” Mayor Frank Jackson told City Hall reporters last week. “And if we need to correct behavior, correct policy, or correct whatever, or do things in addition to what we are doing to better ensure that, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Meanwhile, talk of policing reform does not change the situation for Anderson’s family members, who are still waiting for answers.
“It’s been weeks, and they ain’t told us nothing,” said Mike Anderson, the uncle. “It’s been four weeks.”
As is often the case after officer-involved shootings, basic information, such as the officers’ names and police report from the incident, remain closely guarded by the department, often withheld as part of an ongoing investigation.
Both officers involved in Anderson’s death remain on full duty, said Cleveland police spokesman Sgt. Ali Pillow, who could not provide information about whether either officer had previously been involved in any in-custody deaths. An incident report provided by the department contains just one page with no narrative about what happened. It does provide Anderson’s name, the time and the type of 911 call officers were responding to: It is listed as “nonviolent.”
“The only thing I want is justice for my mother. She did not deserve this type of treatment; she deserved better,” said Mauvion Green, Anderson’s 16-year-old daughter, who carried a framed photograph of her smiling mother as she addressed protesters on the bitterly cold night. “She deserves for her spirit to be at peace. . . . All I want today, and from now on, is justice.”