Cleveland police reform: Why federal oversight matters

The consent agreement between the US Department of Justice and the Cleveland Police Department is one of the most stringent ever. But a 'jolt from the outside' is needed to reestablish trust with the community, experts say.

John Minchillo/AP
Riot police stand in formation on May 23, as a protest forms against the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects in Cleveland. The city of Cleveland on Tuesday reached a settlement with the US Justice Department over a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations by its police department.

The agreement entered into by the Cleveland Police Department this week, in which the department has promised to enact widespread systemic reforms, especially around the use of force, is one of the most stringent Justice Department settlements yet.

But federal investigations and consent decrees like the one in Cleveland have become increasingly common, and many experts say they’re one of the best chances troubled police departments have for taking on the daunting task of reform, addressing police misconduct, and improving relations with a distrustful community.

“They are an effective and almost necessary remedy for troubled police departments, and I define troubled police departments as those that are incapable of reforming themselves,” says Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska who has written extensively on police accountability. The measures they tend to require – early intervention systems, changes to use-of-force policies, citizens’ complaint boards – are now fairly standard, but in some departments, the necessary changes won’t take place in any meaningful way without outside intervention and oversight, says Professor Walker. “It’s a jolt from the outside.”

It’s a tool for reform that’s relatively recent: It was enabled by a 1994 federal law, enacted after the beating of Rodney King. The first major consent decree to be reached was in Pittsburgh in 1997. And it’s been used sporadically, with few investigations launched during the Bush Administration. But under President Obama, the DOJ has launched nearly two dozen such investigations – including, most recently, ones in high-profile cities like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore that, like Cleveland, have played a big role in the debate about police misconduct and use of force.

And in Cleveland, as in Ferguson and Baltimore, the attempt at reform will be taking place under a very public eye, against the background of controversial investigations. Cleveland’s announced agreement came just days after a judge acquitted a white police officer in the shooting of two unarmed African Americans in 2012. And the city is still waiting to see if officers will be charged in two other high-profile officer-involved fatalities, including the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who also is black.

But while so much of the attention in the past year has focused on whether officers involved in questionable fatalities will be criminally prosecuted, these more systemic Justice Department investigations and consent decrees can be far more important in achieving true reform, says Walker.

How successful they are can vary; the consent decree doesn’t end until compliance can be demonstrated (Los Angeles’s decree lasted for 12 years). But it’s harder to show that reforms and cultural shifts last even after the oversight is gone, and there’s little data.

“Institutionalizing reform in policing is a big issue,” says Walker.

One of the earliest, and by most accounts, most successful examples of a DOJ agreement that produced lasting results was in Cincinnati, where the mayor requested an investigation in 2001, and the decree was finally lifted in 2007.

Part of what made the Cincinnati reforms so successful was a collaborative agreement that that the city entered into at the same time as the DOJ agreement, says Scott Greenwood, a civil rights lawyer and general counsel for the ACLU who was heavily involved in the Cincinnati reforms.

That collaborative agreement involved key community members, the police union, and thousands of Cincinnati residents, Mr. Greenwood says, and has served as a model ever since for other communities as well as for the Justice Department, which now tries to do more community outreach as part of its investigations.

“The early consent decrees were pretty strong on the nuts and bolts of how to change a police department, but they completely lacked any component that was driven either by the people that are policed or the police themselves,” says Greenwood.

As part of the process, Cincinnati completely revised its policies about use of force and how force was reported, emphasized de-escalation techniques and training, set up a citizens’ complaint authority that investigates complaints along with police internal investigations, and shifted the overall philosophy of the police department from one of enforcement to one of problem-solving.

That emphasis on community problem-oriented policing (POP) was a key shift, says Greenwood, and one that took a long time to implement. Officers began partnering with community members, identifying key problem areas together and strategies to address them.

The fact that problem-oriented policing is part of the Cleveland directive – a relatively new area for the DOJ agreements – is a sign of how the Justice Department is evolving and improving in these cases, says Walker. The Cleveland agreement also mandates the creation of a permanent inspector general position, which will last even after the oversight is gone.

“This whole thing has been a learning process since Pittsburgh in 1997,” says Walker.

In Cincinnati, Greenwood says the changes have been pronounced.

Before the agreement was signed, there had been about 18 fatal shootings of African-American men by Cincinnati police officers over about four years. After the agreement, there was one 27-month period in Cincinnati where not a single shot was fired by a police officer, and none of the fatal officer-involved shootings in recent years have been controversial.

“The department has been transformed from one that was completely distrusted in the African-American community to one that works extremely well with the communities it serves,” says Greenwood.

He cites two events in the past few years that could have potentially incited unrest and distrust. In one, an officer shot and killed a 16-year-old boy during a major city cultural event. In the second, an officer shot and killed an African-American woman during a domestic dispute after she threatened him with a knife.

In both cases, says Greenwood, the police department’s response was immediate and transparent, releasing a video in the first instance. “If either of these incidents had occurred prior to the collaborative agreement, the potential for civil unrest who would have been significant,” says Greenwood. “Instead, the community now trusts the integrity of the investigatory process when incidents like these occur.”

Another city that has been a model for success is Los Angeles, says Stephen Rushin, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who has studied the DOJ settlements with police departments.

Initially supposed to be under consent decree for five years, the process ultimately took 12 years before the LAPD was deemed to be under compliance and released, but those years meant some widespread changes, says Professor Rushin.

“Critics said this would impair the ability of police to fight crime,” Rushin notes. “But LA is a great test case, because they not only saw a reduction in misconduct [by every measure], but they also had one of the largest sustained drops in crime in US history.” Those two facts aren’t necessarily connected, he notes, but they showed “that you can have a consent decree that addresses misconduct and can also effectively fight crime.”

On the other hand, Pittsburgh was a disappointment, Rushin says – but that was partly to do with unexpected shifts, including a police chief who supported the reforms being replaced by a chief who was ultimately jailed for corruption.

In many cases, including Cleveland’s, the DOJ investigations are launched at the request of the mayor. In a few, they’ve been requested by the police chief. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey requested such an investigation when he was police chief in Washington DC. After he moved to Philadelphia, he asked for a similar, voluntary, review through the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

The DC police department had tried to implement reforms on its own, after being labeled the deadliest police force in the country, Commissioner Ramsey said during a 2013 conference convened by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on civil rights investigations into police departments. But continued community outrage after even justified shootings told him that the department lacked any credibility. “It didn’t matter what we might do on our own to implement reforms; the community did not have the confidence that we could fix the problems on our own,” Ramsey said, according to the PERF report on the subject. “My thinking was that the Justice Department had an obligation not just to come and tell us what was wrong, but also to help fix it.”

The COPS review is an alternate, more voluntary path that some cities are using, and that can work in certain circumstances, when there’s already a commitment to reform, say experts. And it has some big advantages: It’s voluntary, which means there is no enforcement of compliance, but it also avoids the negative implications of an outside lawsuit and the defensiveness that lawsuit can provoke.

And many of the COPS officers have a background in policing, or at least in studying police policy, as opposed to the lawyers in the Civil Rights division – a fact that can make local police departments much more receptive to their suggestions, says William Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas was one of the first big cities to go through a COPS review, and Professor Sousa says the early indication is that it’s been successful. New policies emphasize better threat assessment and de-escalation techniques, and reality-based training, and have resulted in far fewer officer-involved shootings.

“While there’s always some degree of resistance [to reform], whenever you have a group that’s knowledgeable of police policy and has done it before, then people are more receptive to those outside ideas,” says Sousa.

In Cleveland, the outcome may turn on how collaborative the implementation is, says Greenwood. The recommendations – which include strict new rules for use of force and data collection, bias-free policing policies, new training and an advisory committee on mental health, a new Community Police Commission, and new recruiting policies – are good ones, he says, but there was little involvement from either community members or police officers in the creation of the agreement.

“The real key for success for Cleveland will be to involve the entire community in its implementation,” he says.

And while these investigations may eventually lead to systemic reform in all these cities, observers shouldn’t expect those changes to happen quickly.

“There are a lot of people who are so angry and frustrated already that they’re not going to believe this [can change things],” says Walker. “Others will expect great things immediately, and they’ll become frustrated. City leaders need to make it clear that it’s going to take a while in the best of circumstances, and perfection is not around the corner.”

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