A System Under Siege: How Toledo’s Patterns of Misconduct Have Reached a Tipping Point

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

   …History brims with tragedies built out of incremental missteps.
Alan Kesselheim

A series of alarming incidents involving the Toledo Police Department (TPD) and the broader criminal justice system have revealed a decades-long pattern of misconduct and systemic failures, culminating in an inescapable demand for reform.

The City’s recent decision to settle with 14 of the 16 protesters from the May 30, 2020, George Floyd demonstrations highlights its ongoing struggle with accountability and effective policing.

The case of Willie Knighten Jr. also serves as a stark indictment of Toledo’s justice system. Convicted in 1997 of murder and attempted murder, Knighten’s trial was deeply flawed, marred by possibly coerced testimony and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. For over a decade, Knighten languished in prison, his impassioned calls for justice unanswered.

It wasn’t until 2009 that then-Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency, acknowledging the significant doubts clouding Knighten’s conviction. Yet, a complete exoneration was only fully realized in 2022, when Governor Mike DeWine, finally acting on the advocacy of the late Judge William Skow, issued a full pardon, affirming that crucial evidence had been withheld, which could have vindicated him much earlier. Knighten’s prolonged ordeal exemplifies the catastrophic consequences of a justice system that fails to uphold fairness and transparency.

Simultaneously, Eric Misch’s case further highlights systemic failings. Misch was convicted of murder in 1993, but the concealment of critical evidence also hampered his trial. The Toledo Police Department never turned over several pieces of evidence pointing to alternative suspects to Misch’s defense team at his trial.

However, last week, Judge Gary Cook ruled that The State of Ohio violated due process by suppressing crucial exculpatory evidence, warranting a new trial under Brady v. Maryland. Although Cook’s decision is not an exoneration, it underscores the severe procedural lapses and aggressive policing tactics that have resulted in a longstanding pattern of negligence and misconduct within the Toledo criminal justice system.

Adding to this crescendo of failures is the disturbing incident involving Brandon Upchurch. In April 2024, 38-year-old Upchurch, a Black man, was attacked by a police dog after being mistakenly identified as an automobile thief.

Despite Upchurch’s distressed pleas to clarify his ownership of the vehicle, Toledo police deployed a canine, resulting in severe injuries. This blatant misuse of force led to a lawsuit against TPD, spotlighting issues of racial profiling and a troubling readiness to resort to violence. Upchurch’s case is not an aberration but a clear reflection of the aggressive, sometimes racially biased, policing practices that have eroded public trust in the department.

The situation reached a boiling point with the settlement involving 14 of the 16 protesters from the May 30, 2020, George Floyd demonstrations. The City’s decision to settle, rather than endure a protracted legal battle, is a tacit admission of the overreach by TPD during the protests. The aggressive tactics used, including tear gas and rubber bullets, against largely peaceful demonstrators accentuate a failure to balance much-desired effective law enforcement with respect for civil rights.

This settlement is also a stark acknowledgment that TPD’s approach to handling protests was not just flawed but fundamentally at odds with the principles of justice and democracy. One observer remarked, “The City should own up when they make mistakes. The police were out of control. They shot a woman kneeling down, giving aid to someone.”

So, the public clearly perceives a lack of institutional control within the police department. Furthermore, until TPD prevents such abuses in the future, its mismanagement will undoubtedly continue to cost the City money that could be better used to fund community wellness or empowerment projects.

These financial and reputational consequences underscore yet a deeper problem.

The escalating incidents collectively depict a system in dire need of overhaul. The suppression of exculpatory evidence in both Knighten’s and Misch’s cases, coupled with the aggressive and racially biased actions seen in Upchurch’s and the George Floyd protests, paint a picture of a criminal justice system that is failing its citizens. These patterns are not merely the result of individual failings but indicative of deep-rooted systemic issues. The misuse of force, lack of accountability, and procedural negligence are pervasive, creating a justice system that too often perpetuates injustice rather than preventing it.

Yet, this pattern of misconduct has now reached a critical tipping point. The City’s decision to settle with protesters and the judicial orders for new trials signals that the accumulated pressure is driving Toledo to confront its systemic issues. This climactic moment offers a pivotal opportunity to implement comprehensive reforms, address the underlying flaws, and prevent future tragedies.

Only by acknowledging and addressing both the historical patterns and the current tipping point can Toledo hope to restore public trust and set a new course toward a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system.

A hopeful development amidst these challenges is Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates’s newly-established Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit, dedicated to reviewing cases where new evidence suggests wrongful convictions, represents a significant step toward addressing systemic errors and preventing future injustices.

Created in response to persistent advocacy and recent high-profile cases, it marks a crucial move toward fairness and accountability. By operating independently from the criminal division, the unit aims to provide an impartial review process to help rectify past wrongs and restore trust in the justice system.

However, while establishing the Conviction Integrity Unit is a promising start, more is needed. The systemic problems evident in the mishandling of evidence, excessive use of force, and racial bias cannot be corrected by one initiative alone. Instead, establishing this unit must catalyze broader, more impactful reforms to achieve lasting change.

As Toledo grapples with its systemic issues, the momentum for reform must not only be maintained but intensified. The potential consequences of inaction are stark, and only through continuous and concerted efforts can Toledo hope to build a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system for all residents.

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org