Cleveland agrees to federal police reforms: How often does DOJ intervene?

The Cleveland Police Department, under intense scrutiny for recent police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, has agreed to begin a lengthy reform process under Justice Department oversight.

John Minchillo/AP
Police officers are illuminated by patrol car lights during a protest against the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects, Saturday, in Cleveland. Just days following the announcement, the Cleveland Police Department on Tuesday entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

The Cleveland Police Department has reached a settlement with federal investigators regarding what the Department of Justice calls a pattern of excessive use of force and civil rights violations.

The settlement will include an overhaul of department use-of-force guidelines, increased community engagement, and enhanced training on bias-free policing.

"I look at this agreement and reforms not as a program," Mayor Jackson told reporters, while announcing the agreement Tuesday. "This becomes a way in which we do business in the city of Cleveland. As I said before it becomes part of our DNA."

The settlement comes just days after a white police officer in the department, Michael Brelo, was found not guilty of manslaughter related to a 2012 shooting of two unarmed black civilians, who had fled police after their car backfired in front of a police station. Mistaking the noise for a gunshot, 62 police cruisers pursued the vehicle. Thirteen different police officers ultimately fired 137 shots at the car, killing the two people inside – Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

When it comes to police shootings and excessive force, Cleveland is currently one of the most scrutinized cities in the United States. The Brelo acquittal comes as the city still waits to see if charges will be filed in the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November.

The 2012 incident triggered a US Department of Justice investigation into the department. The investigation concluded last December after 18 months, and the two parties now appear to have reached a settlement on how to improve the department.

In December, the Justice Department released its findings in a scathing report that criticized the Cleveland Division of Police from top to bottom.

The report found "a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force," including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons, excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, and "the employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable."

The investigation concluded that Cleveland officers are not provided adequate training, policy guidance, support, and supervision. The report also identified "institutional weaknesses," and said the department fails to adequately and objectively investigate allegations of misconduct and use of force and identify and respond to patterns of at-risk behavior. The pattern of excessive force "has eroded public confidence in the police," the Justice said in a statement when the findings were released.

The report required the city to work with community leaders and other officials to devise a consent decree to reform the police department.

"The people of this city need to know we will work to make the police department better," Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams told the Associated Press last December.

The plan will need to be approved by a federal judge and would be overseen by an independent monitor.

Consent decrees are one of several methods the Justice Department has used in recent years to oversee the reforms of local law enforcement departments.

In fact, more than 25 police departments across the country have experienced some form of DOJ involvement in the past two decades, according to a 2013 report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Recent DOJ investigations have looked at Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. These investigations are not designed to focus on specific incidents. Instead, they look for systemic issues and propose broad, long-term solutions.

A different branch of the DOJ – the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – has conducted similar reviews in Las Vegas and Philadelphia at the request of city officials. Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey requested the investigation after a spike in police shootings in 2012, and he praised the final Justice Department report, released earlier this year.

Consent decrees, however, involve federal oversight of police departments and can last years.

A 2003 investigation into the Detroit Police Department resulted in 11 years of reform efforts leading to an eventual "successful resolution" in August. The police department in Oakland, Calif., has been under a consent decree for more than a decade, largely because the department has resisted reforms

Similarly, a 1999 consent decree with the Los Angeles Police Department was supposed to last only five years, but a federal judge, dissatisfied with the progress made, extended the decree five more years.

Cities can also shorten consent decrees by showing progress. For example, Pittsburgh negotiated a five-year consent decree with the DOJ in 1997, focusing on identifying and addressing questionable conduct on the part of individual officers. The review ended in 1999 when the city created the Performance Assessment Review System, which became fully operational in 1999, and "became known as a model early intervention system throughout the country," according to the PERF report.

The longer consent decree go on, the costlier they become for cities. A consent decree opened in New Orleans in 2012 is expected to last five years and cost over $11 million.

PERF said some police chiefs believe monitors have an inherent conflict of interest, since they have a financial interest in keeping cases going, but investigations can drag on for several reasons, including insufficient resources, unclear or unfocused mandates, or police resistance to federal oversight. And 

But the cost of failing to implement reforms can be higher, PERF concluded. Some police chiefs have complained that the process is too costly and that rules requiring 95-percent compliance for a two-year period are too strict. Other chiefs, however, argue that improving departments can save money down the road by reducing lawsuits.

Ultimately, the DOJ believes such broad, systemic changes can help improve police departments and reduce incidents like the Brelo case and the Tamir Rice shooting.

"The challenges that caused the problems this decree addressees, did not arise in a day and we’re not going to get rid of them in a night," Steve Dettelbach, US attorney for the northern district of Ohio told reporters Tuesday. "There’s only one way to accomplish this hard work going forward: together."

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