Can the Feds Clean Up Cleveland's Police Force?

The city and the Justice Department unveiled a consent decree on Tuesday afternoon aimed at reforming the troubled law-enforcement agency.

John Minchillo / AP

Updated May 26, 2015, at 2:45 p.m.

It’s a sign of how troubled the Cleveland Police Department really is that amid protests over the acquittal of a police officer in one case, and as anger and anxiety linger over the death of Tamir Rice, the city is at the same time completing a consent decree with the Justice Department over allegations that police have a systemic problem with excessive force.

The settlement, announced Tuesday afternoon, will require Cleveland cops to reform their behavior, and it will demand that they better document encounters, to ensure that they’re living up to the standards laid out. Officers will be barred from using retaliatory violence, and they will be trained in tactics for de-escalation. The department will collect new data and make an effort to attract a force that better reflects the demographics of the city. The full agreement is here.

Perhaps the news will help soothe an edgy Forest City. On Saturday, a judge ruled that Officer Michael Brelo was not guilty of manslaughter in the 2012 deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, who were gunned down by police who mistook a backfiring engine for gunshots. Officers fired an astonishing 137 shots into the car. Investigators said neither Williams nor Russell had a gun. But the judge said prosecutors hadn’t proven the case against Brelo.

In response, Clevelanders took to the streets over the weekend. The protests were significant—with a reported 71 arrests—but fell short of the fury in Ferguson or Baltimore. While legal experts said prosecutors may have overreached in charging Brelo, one reason for the more tempered response was that the outcome of the trial was a forgone conclusion for many residents.

“Leading up to the verdict, there was already conversation about preventing rioting because the assumption was, in fact, that he was going to get off,” Jacqueline Gillon told the Times. “That’s troubled me from the beginning, that there was never a general belief that justice would be done. It’s another smack in the face for our humanity.”

That’s where the Justice Department settlement comes in. The department delivered its report into use of force by Cleveland cops in December, at another fragile time—just a little more than a week after a police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park. Like the Justice probe into policing in Ferguson, it provided a painful and painstaking image of a department that had lost its hold on standards of conduct, strained its relationship with the community to a breaking point, and routinely violated citizens’ rights:

Our investigation concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That pattern manifested in a range of ways, including:

• The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons;
• The unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including tasers, chemical spray and fists;
• Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and
• The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk.

The report (you can read the whole thing here) spanned the period from 2010 to 2013. Race has been a major factor in several high-profile Cleveland cases. Williams and Russell were black, while Brelo is white; Tamir Rice was black, while Officer Timothy Loehmann, who killed him, is white. The Justice Department noted, in passing, that “many African-Americans reported that they believe CDP officers are verbally and physically aggressive toward them because of their race.” As in Baltimore, another city with a broken relationship between black citizens and the police, Cleveland’s mayor and chief of police are both African Americans.

The Justice report also briefly addressed the deaths of Williams and Russell, although not that of Rice, but its general findings spoke to the way police may have botched both incidents.

“We found incidents of CDP officers firing their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others and using guns in a careless and dangerous manner, including hitting people on the head with their guns, in circumstances where deadly force is not justified,” it said. “Officers also use less lethal force that is significantly out of proportion to the resistance encountered and officers too often escalate incidents with citizens instead of using effective and accepted tactics to de-escalate tension.”

De-escalating tension overall would be a welcome outcome of the consent decree. Whether or not it does much in the short term, there are reasons to be pessimistic about the effect of consent decrees such as this one. As The Marshall Project reported in a long investigation in April, the reality of such agreements often falls short of the reform promised.

”In Cleveland, where Attorney General Eric Holder appeared in December to decry a longstanding pattern of ‘unreasonable and unnecessary use of force’ by the police, he neglected to mention that the Justice Department had investigated the city’s police a decade before,” Simone Weichselbaum wrote. “Justice officials settled that earlier case after the city promised to revise its policing methods.”

The Justice Department unit that deals with police abuses is also overwhelmed by investigations.

Though they contested the report’s findings in December, saying issues were not systemic, Cleveland officials have major incentives to make the controversy go away—either by quietly sweeping it under the rug, or perhaps by implementing sweeping changes. The Cavaliers play Tuesday night in Cleveland, with a win securing a trip to the NBA finals. (No Cleveland sports team has won a championship since 1964.) Cavs star LeBron James—who has spoken out about police brutality, notably donning an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt in tribute to Eric Garner earlier this season—called for calm after the verdict. In 2016, the city will host the Republican National Convention, and city leaders are hoping to use the occasion both to revamp parts of the city and to revamp its image nationally, moving from faded Rust Belt giant to a technologically adept city of the future.

Journalist Connie Schultz wrote of the peculiar division between how city officials describe the city and the condition the federal government found.

”Are the apparent divisions more a matter of rhetoric from men trying to save face? Or are the differences rooted in entrenched beliefs that the other side is dead wrong and an unwillingness to confront one’s failings?” she asked in February. “As tedious as the back-and-forth bickering can be at times, we should hope for the former. The last thing Cleveland needs now is another round of trench warfare, hidden from view.”

For now, it’s hard to predict how effective the agreement will be or how the city might respond. But the Justice Department agreement and the Brelo verdict feel a bit like a sideshow. Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney said earlier this month that he has nearly completed his investigation into Loehmann’s shooting of Tamir Rice. That case has been a focus of attention in Cleveland and nationwide. Whether prosecutors choose to charge Loehmann, and what charges they bring, could offer a hint about how seriously local authorities take the problem of excessive force by police.