Amidst New Protests, DOJ Seeks to Rein in Deadly Cleveland Police

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Amidst New Protests, DOJ Seeks to Rein in Deadly Cleveland Police

Consent decree announced Tuesday includes measures to curtail racial profiling and forces Cleveland officers to provide emergency first aid

In the days before the DOJ settlement was announced, protests swept Cleveland over a 2012 police shooting incident. (Photo: Getty)

On the same day that clergy from about 40 churches marched through downtown Cleveland to protest the acquittal of a white police officer charged in the deaths of two unarmed black motorists in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with the city and its police department, following a deeply critical investigation that found an unconstitutional "pattern or practice of the use of excessive force."

The 105-page settlement avoids a potential lawsuit by the Justice Department after its two-year investigation found Cleveland police were too quick to pull their guns, often escalating situations; failed to thoroughly investigate and discipline officers accused of using excessive force; and had caused an erosion of community trust.

"This is a step forward, but this is truly only the beginning. To change the culture of the police force, which has been engaged in unfair and unjust treatment of people of color for so long, will not happen overnight."
—Christine Link, ACLU of Ohio

Announced at a news conference on Tuesday, the deal was hailed by Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, as "a historic agreement that will transform the way the city of Cleveland is policed for years and years to come."

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the agreement—which must now be approved by a federal judge—"goes beyond correcting the Justice Department's complaints and includes extensive data collection meant to curtail racial profiling. The Justice Department and the city reached the agreement after five months of negotiations, with input from rank-and-file police, union officials and citizen groups."

The Plain Dealer additionally reports:

Officers will be held to higher standards on unholstering and firing their weapons and no longer will be allowed to use their guns to strike suspects as they would with a baton.

They will be required to take immediate steps to provide or secure first aid for suspects they injure, addressing an issue raised in many lawsuits that cost the city money.

And retaliatory force—such as tussling with a suspect at the end of a chase—will be explicitly prohibited under terms of the so-called consent decree announced Tuesday.

Furthermore, "a fundamental goal of the revised use of force policy will be to account for, review, and investigate every reportable use of force," the agreement reads.

Whereas "Cleveland officers tend to be awfully sparse with the details they provide," as the Plain Dealer reports, "[t]he consent decree aims to change this ingrained part of police culture."

According to the news outlet, "the new policy will explicitly prohibit the use of ... 'boilerplate' or 'canned' language. Clichés such as 'furtive movement' or 'fighting stance' are singled out in ignominy."

Together, the DOJ and the city will reportedly hire an independent monitor to oversee the implementation of reforms.

The New York Times points out that "many of the elements in the Cleveland settlement—improved training, better internal oversight and an independent monitor — have become standard," as the DOJ, under the Obama administration, has opened nearly two dozen civil rights investigations into the practices of police departments.

Civil rights investigators recently announced that they would open a similar investigation in Baltimore after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died of injuries he suffered while in police custody. The Justice Department is also negotiating a settlement with city officials in Ferguson, Mo., which erupted in protests over the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.

The DOJ's investigation began in March 2013, months after Cleveland police officers fired 137 bullets at two unarmed individuals—Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell—in November 2012. A judge on Saturday found Officer Michael Brelo not guilty of manslaughter in that case, though evidence showed that he climbed on the hood of the victims' car after a chase and repeatedly fired at the unarmed occupants.

Protests, including one involving clergy members on Tuesday, swept the city in the wake of that decision.

As per the consent decree announced Tuesday, officers would not be permitted to fire their guns at a moving vehicle "unless use of lethal force is justified by something other than the threat from the moving vehicle."

The shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park in November 2014 also drew nationwide attention. Cleveland police reportedly waited four minutes to deliver first aid to Rice, another issue that the agreement seeks to address with its provision on emergency aid.

The Ohio ACLU, which had previously made recommendations to the DOJ and city officials on policies it should include in the consent decree, described the agreement as a starting point for meaningful reform.

"This is a step forward, but this is truly only the beginning," said Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio. "To change the culture of the police force, which has been engaged in unfair and unjust treatment of people of color for so long, will not happen overnight. It will take a strong and vibrant partnership with community members based on respect and trust, as well as the resolve of officials to not allow discrimination and unconstitutional practices fester within the Cleveland Police Department any longer."

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), tentatively praised the decree, saying: "What this means to the people of Cleveland is that the city and the DOJ understood the urgent need to come to this agreement. Sweeping, systemic changes can now be implemented, and together we can start to rebuild trust and a positive relationship between the Cleveland Department of Police and the community."

"While there is still work to be done," she said, "this is a giant step in the right direction."

However, David Graham writes for The Atlantic, the real-life implications of Tuesday's announcement remain to be seen:

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.

An ABC News video of the press conference is below:

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