Justice Department cites Cleveland police for excessive use of force

Following a US Justice Department investigation reporting a pattern of police shootings and other unnecessary use of force, officials in Cleveland have agreed to an independently monitored overhaul of the police department.

Mark Duncan/AP
Cleveland police watch demonstrators block Public Square in Cleveland Nov. 25, 2014, during a protest over the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

As the US Justice Department becomes more publicly involved in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, where excessive use of police force is alleged, it has focused on Cleveland, Ohio, as its first obvious target for the reform of law enforcement agencies.

Following an investigation that began in March 2013, the Justice Department reported Thursday that it has found “a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP).

“We found incidents of CDP officers firing their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others and using guns in a careless and dangerous manner, including hitting people on the head with their guns, in circumstances where deadly force is not justified,” federal investigators reported. “Officers also use less lethal force that is significantly out of proportion to the resistance encountered and officers too often escalate incidents with citizens instead of using effective and accepted tactics to de-escalate tension.”

In one incident, officers fired 24 rounds in a residential neighborhood with six rounds striking houses and 14 hitting parked cars. In another case, "an officer’s decision to draw his gun while trying to apprehend an unarmed hit-and-run suspect resulted in him accidentally shooting the man in the neck."  A November 2012 police chase ended with two unarmed people killed in a hail of 137 bullets.

The report is based on a review of nearly 600 use-of-force incidents in Cleveland between 2010 and 2013. The essence of its conclusion buttresses the complaint of many critics – especially minorities – who say police violence (sometimes accompanied by racial profiling or the use of military tactics and equipment) has gotten out of hand in many communities.

"Many African-Americans reported that they believe CDP officers are verbally and physically aggressive toward them because of their race,” the report states.

“Critically, officers do not make effective use of de-escalation techniques, too often instead escalating encounters and employing force when it may not be needed and could be avoided,” the 58-page report states. “While these tactical errors may not always result in constitutional violations, they place officers, suspects, and other members of the Cleveland community at risk.”

The report comes as the nation has been rocked by protests and demonstrations following grand jury decisions not to indict white officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men: Michael Brown, shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, whose death resulted at least in part from a chokehold applied by an officer in Staten Island, NY.

In Cleveland recently, 12 year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding an airsoft gun that shoots nonlethal plastic pellets, was shot and killed by a rookie police officer less than two seconds after the officer and his partner arrived at a city recreation center. In this case, too, the officer is white and the shooting victim was black.

Shocking as it was, such incidents came as no surprise to many in Cleveland, where the Plain Dealer newspaper had been reporting on police use-of-force episodes for years. (Those reports are cited in the Justice Department investigation.)

A 2007 analysis by the Plain Dealer found that over a preceding four-year period, police supervisors reviewed 4,427 uses of force and justified the force in every case. A subsequent Plain Dealer report found that the police department’s high command found no fault with 99.5 percent of all Taser incidents in the six years the devices had been used. 

The result of this pattern of excessive use of force is that public confidence in the city’s police department has eroded to the point where “trust between the Cleveland Division of Police and many of the communities it serves is broken.”

City officials and the US Justice Department now will begin negotiating an agreement that will be submitted to a federal judge outlining the scope of reforms, to include the appointment of an independent monitor.

"We understand the progress we seek will not come over night," Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing the findings in Cleveland Thursday.

“The reality is that there are problems," Holder said. "But I also think the people of Cleveland should have a sense of hope … that these problems have been identified and that they can be rectified."

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