Why did transit cop use pepper spray on black crowd in Cleveland?

A video of a Cleveland transit police officer pepper-spraying a crowd near a 'Black Lives Matter' conference renews concerns about Cleveland law enforcement's interactions with African-American civilians.

A Cleveland transit police officer has been filmed pepper-spraying a crowd protesting the arrest of a teenager at a Black Lives Matter conference in the city on Sunday.

The incident – which took place near Cleveland State University, where the first ever Black Lives Matter conference was being held to discuss a range of social justice issues – has once more brought attention to Cleveland law enforcement, which has been under public pressure to enact reforms following the deaths of several black youths in police custody.

In a statement, the city’s Rapid Transit Authority said officers “peacefully removed” an intoxicated teen from a bus and took him to a bus shelter. A crowd began gathering and the teen was placed in a cruiser. When the crowd, trying to get the youth out of the vehicle, wouldn’t allow the police car to leave, one officer began using pepper spray, transit officials said.

Destinee Henton, one of about 1,200 people who attended the conference, told WKYC-TV that people formed a barricade around the police cruiser and began chanting. That was when one officer began pepper spraying people, she said.

The boy has since been released to his mother, and no arrests were made.

The incident comes as Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, the city’s top law enforcement officers, and Cuyahoga county prosecutor Timothy McGinty face mounting pressure from activists dissatisfied with how authorities handled the cases of Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, and Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

Cleveland patrolman Timothy Loehmann fatally shot 12-year-old Rice in November after mistaking the boy’s airsoft-type gun for the real thing. Neither Mr. Loehmann nor his partner, Frank Garmback, have been charged.

That same month, Ms. Anderson died after police restrained her during a mental health episode. Mr. Russell and Mr. Williams were killed in November 2012, after a high-speed chase prompted by a backfiring car that police mistook for a gunshot. The officer charged, Michael Brelo, was acquitted of manslaughter.

Local response to those cases was part of why organizers decided to hold the Black Lives Matter conference in the city.

“Cleveland looks just like Ferguson, looks just like Baltimore, looks just like all of these places that have high oppression,” local organizer Malaya Davis told the Northeast Ohio Media Group referring to the cities which have seen unrest in the wake of black men at the hands of police, according to The Guardian. “We wanted to highlight that and bring some attention to what’s going on in this city and the state of Ohio as well.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has since come to an agreement with the Cleveland Police Department, with the DOJ mandating 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, The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson reported in May.

While the settlement has been hailed by some as progress, others have said that the recommendations were decided on with little intervention from the community or local police, according to Ms. Paulson.

“The real key for success for Cleveland will be to involve the entire community in its implementation,” Scott Greenwood, a civil rights lawyer and general counsel for the ACLU who was heavily involved in reforming law enforcement in Cincinnati, told the Monitor.

[Editor's note: This story originally said Tamir Rice carried a toy gun.]

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