Tanisha Anderson's Mother Reflects on Police, Mental Illness and her Daughter's Death

Feb 12, 2018

Tanisha Anderson died in 2014 at the age of 37 after being taken down and restrained by two Cleveland officers during a mental health episode. The cause of her death was ultimately identified as a "cardiac event," but Anderson's family says she never had heart problems.
Credit Joell Anderson

On Nov. 12, 2014, Tanisha Anderson died while suffering a mental break while in police custody. The two officers who responded that night reportedly took down Anderson in front of her east Cleveland home and restrained her face down. Anderson appeared to stop breathing. Emergency Medical Services didn’t arrive until 45 minutes later.

One year ago, the city of Cleveland reached a $2.25 million settlement with Anderson’s family. Most recently, a grand jury declined to indict the two officers involved in the incident.

'A complicated legal mess'
The Ohio attorney general’s office sums up the case of Tanisha Anderson this way: “Never before has the Special Prosecutions Section been presented with such a complicated legal mess.”

'They just made up the decision that my daughter had heart failure. I'd like to see them prove that.'

The case moved from the Cleveland Police Department to the county sheriff, the county prosecutor’s office, the Ohio Attorney General, and, finally, a grand jury.

“It seems like it shouldn’t have taken this long to come to a decision,” said Anderson's mother, Cassandra Johnson.

According to Johnson, clearing the officers of criminal charges in her daughter’s death was the wrong decision. An independent review of Anderson’s autopsy — which originally determined her death was a homicide — found she likely died of a “cardiac event” related to an antipsychotic she was taking. The family disputes that.

“They just made up the decision that my daughter had heart failure,” Johnson said. “I’d like to see them prove that.”

Johnson said her daughter never had heart problems or took heart medication.

The case was further complicated by the presence of so-called Garrity material in the case file. According to a memo from the attorney general’s office, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office had to recuse itself from the case because the file contained material “which cannot be disseminated to the prosecuting attorney.” The tainted file was handed off to a special prosecutor.

The grand jury decision
Johnson was at home when she heard the news that the Cleveland officers her family says slammed her daughter to the ground would not face criminal charges. She never imagined the officers wouldn’t even lose their jobs.

“I lost it,” Johnson said. “I never thought it would come to that decision.”

Last summer, Cleveland police began special training to learn how to handle situations involving people with mental illness. The latest report from the team overseeing the implementation of the city’s consent decree found officers were getting better at handling such cases. But Johnson says much more needs to be done.

“Speak out. Make some changes,” Johnson said. “And maybe we can change some laws for the mentally ill. Because Tanisha’s never coming back.”

The grand jury’s Feb. 6 decision cannot be appealed, but the family says they plan to go back to court.