Cleveland, U.S. Justice Department agree overhaul needed on use of police force

The Associated Press

The U.S. Justice Department and Cleveland reached an agreement Thursday to overhaul the city’s Police Department after federal investigators concluded that officers use excessive force far too often and have endangered the public and their fellow officers with their recklessness.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the department signed an agreement that says both sides will work toward the appointment of a court-appointed monitor to oversee reform.

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

The Justice Department found a systemic pattern of reckless and inappropriate use of force by officers and cited concerns about search-and-seizure practices. It also said officers frequently violated people’s civil rights because of faulty tactics, inadequate training and a lack of supervision and accountability.

Officers’ excessive use of force has created deep mistrust in Cleveland, especially in the black community, the report concluded.

“We saw too many incidents in which officers accidentally shot someone either because they fired their guns accidentally or because they shot the wrong person,” the report said.

The federal investigation was prompted by several highly publicized police encounters, chiefly the deaths of two unarmed people who were fatally wounded when police officers fired 137 shots into their car at the end of a high-speed pursuit in November 2012. Jackson was among those who asked the department to conduct the inquiry.

The report comes amid inflamed tensions between police and residents in several cities where white officers have killed young blacks, including in New York City and Ferguson, Mo. All those events have raised urgent national questions about the sense of trust between police and communities, Holder said.

Last week, hundreds of people blocked a Cleveland freeway at rush hour to protest those killings and the fatal shooting of a black 12-year-old boy by a white officer outside a Cleveland recreation center. Police said the officer thought the boy was holding a firearm, but he actually had an airsoft gun that shoots nonlethal plastic pellets.

The Justice Department has opened civil rights investigations into the practices of some 20 police departments in the past five years, and it is reviewing both the Ferguson police department and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in New York City. It’s also enforcing more than a dozen agreements to overhaul police department practices nationwide.

“We have seen in city after city where we have engaged that meaningful change is possible,” Holder said.

Cleveland and the Justice Department 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. A joint statement signed by city and federal officials said Cleveland’s mayor, safety director and police chief “will always retain full authority” to run the police department.

Jackson said Thursday that the city disagreed with some of the facts and conclusion in the report, but he did not dispute the overall findings.

The report notes that the Justice Department first looked at Cleveland officers’ use of deadly force in 2002 and that an agreement was reached two years later on how such policies would be changed. There was no court order or independent monitor assigned then.

The Justice Department began its investigation in March 2013 and reviewed nearly 600 use-of-force incidents — both lethal and not — that occurred between 2010 and 2013. The report notes that Cleveland police officials did not provide many of the documents sought by federal investigators.

The Justice Department found that officers are poorly trained on how to control people during arrests and that some officers don’t know how to safely handle firearms.

The report highlighted one encounter in which a sergeant fired two shots at a man wearing only boxer shorts after he escaped from a home where he was being held against his will. The sergeant told investigators he shot because the man raised an arm and pointed his hand toward the officer, but no other officers at the scene could verify the account, the report said.

The 58-page report was especially critical of how the Cleveland Police Department investigates when officers use force.

The report said specially trained officers assigned to investigate those cases “admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible.”

The investigation also found that officers are suspended for use of force “at an unreasonably low frequency.” The Justice Department said only six officers had been suspended for improper uses of force in three years.

Part of the problem, the report concluded, is the lack of support, training and equipment provided to city police officers.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said the details were difficult to hear. “People of this city need to know we will work to make the police department better,” he said.

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