DOJ Reaches Agreement to Reform Cleveland Police Brutality

Illustration credit: DonkeyHotey/flickr

The Justice Department and the city of Cleveland announced on Tuesday that they have entered into a court enforceable agreement to reduce systemic police abuse and repeated violations of the Fourth Amendment. Although the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) has not admitted any wrongdoing, the Department of Justice found that a significant amount of CPD officers utilize deadly and excessive force. With a lack of proper training and transparency, CPD officers now face a myriad of reforms and independent auditors in order to reinstate the broken trust between the police and their community.

At the request of Mayor Frank Jackson on March 14, 2013, the Justice Department began investigating allegations of excessive force and violations of the Fourth Amendment being committed by the CPD. The investigation included a comprehensive assessment of officers’ use of force, and CPD’s policies, procedures, training, systems of accountability, and community engagement. On December 4, 2014, the Justice Department announced that a significant amount of CPD officers used excessive force and constituted an ongoing risk to the public and their fellow officers.

“The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that every American benefits from a police force that protects and serves all members of the community,” stated Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “The agreement we have reached with the city of Cleveland is the result of the hard work and dedication of the entire Cleveland community, and looks to address serious concerns, rebuild trust, and maintain the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. I am pleased to have the full cooperation of law enforcement and city officials in this effort. And I look forward to working with the entire community to build a stronger, safer Cleveland for residents and officers alike.”

According to the agreement, the CPD expects its officers to treat all members of the Cleveland community with courtesy, professionalism, and respect, and not to use harassing, intimidating, or derogatory language. CPD officers will no longer employ neck holds, assault handcuffed suspects, strike individuals in the head with their Taser or service weapon, use force against people verbally confronting them, pepper-spray compliant persons, or engage in retaliatory force. Officers will also use de-escalation techniques and allow suspects the opportunity to submit to arrest before using force against them.

The Justice Department found that systemic deficiencies, including accountability systems, policies, community policing efforts, officer training, and supervision, contribute to the pattern or practice of excessive force within the CPD. Through cooperation with Internal Affairs, monitoring civilian complaints, and establishing independent review boards, the DOJ hopes CPD officers will be able to report misconduct without fear of reprisal from their fellow officers.

Body cameras were not a requirement of the agreement.

The city of Cleveland agreed to no more violations of the Fourth Amendment by allowing CPD officers to commit illegal searches and seizures without consent based on an individual’s gender or race. After officers fired 137 bullets and killed two unarmed suspects in November 2012, the CPD also agreed to limit the number of pursuit vehicles involved in a police chase. On Saturday, Officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of manslaughter for jumping on the hood of their car and fatally shooting Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams when officers mistook a backfiring car for gunshots.

Not properly trained to handle encounters with people suffering from mental illnesses, CPD officers often do not practice de-escalation techniques to avoid the use of force. On November 13, 2014, a mentally ill woman named Tanisha Anderson suffocated after a CPD officer physically restrained her in a prone position on the ground and handcuffed her. Anderson’s death was ruled a homicide.

On November 22, 2014, CPD officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback responded to a 911 call about a possible juvenile scaring people with a “probably fake” gun. Police dispatchers failed to inform the officers of the caller’s doubts. As the patrol car approached 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Officer Loehmann jumped out and immediately fired two shots with the fatal bullet hitting Rice in the abdomen. The officers later realized Rice had been playing with an airsoft pistol with the orange safety indicator removed. Rice’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Loehmann, Garmback, and the city of Cleveland.

The agreement calls for the CPD to reform its use of force policies and to utilize de-escalation techniques whenever possible. While enforcing mandatory reporting of incidents involving the use of force and prohibiting retaliatory attacks, the CPD has also agreed to providing medical care for the recipients of physical force.

The Justice Department investigation found that this pattern of excessive force has eroded public confidence in the police. As a result, public safety suffers and the job of each police officer becomes more difficult and dangerous with every passing day. By instituting independent auditors, improved officer training, and public accountability, the city of Cleveland has taken a step towards repairing the distrust between the community and the people sworn to protect them.


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