Last month, amid mounting nationwide outrage at deadly law enforcement violence against black people, Tamir Rice—12 years old, African-American, and unarmed—was shot and killed by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann while in a city park. Just days later, Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old African-American woman who lived with mental illness, died while in police custody in the city, with family testifying they saw her slammed into the pavement by law enforcement.
Now, a nearly two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice is confirming what many residents of Cleveland—who have protested the killing of Rice and others—have long charged: the Cleveland Police Department has a "pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force" and violates the civil rights of local residents.
However, there is a key point of investigation missing from the report: racism in the police department.
The report states "we are making no finding regarding racial profiling," despite acknowledging that "many African-Americans reported that they believe CDP officers are verbally and physically aggressive towards them because of their race."
The population of Cleveland is 53 percent black and 37 percent white, but its police department is just 25 percent black and 65 percent white.
"Unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force"
The report does, however, condemn the CDP for a host of systemic abuses, such as "unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons." The DOJ writes: "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."
The DOJ says this excessive force is not limited to guns, but also includes "tasers, chemical spray, and fists." According to the report, violent force targets "persons who are mentally ill or in crisis," ultimately leading to situations that are "chaotic and dangerous." However, the report notes a "deeply troubling" trend in which investigators of police misconduct have the goal of "casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible," which "cuts at the heart of accountability."
In an incident that was the impetus for the investigation and is detailed in the DOJ report, Marissa Williams and Timothy Russel—both African-American and unarmed—were killed in 2012 when police fired at least 137 shots into their car. The duo's car allegedly made a noise, possibly a backfiring sound, which police say they took to be gunfire. This was followed by a high-speed chase by more than 100 officers. The report does not take a position on whether the killing broke the law.
"These problems are rooted in "structural and systemic deficiencies and practices—including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community," the report states.
Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Cleveland on Thursday to announce the findings. The city has agreed to a "consent decree": a settlement that will be negotiated with the Justice Department and implement certain reforms, including oversight by an independent monitor.
"This report is just telling," said Joe Worthy, of the Ohio New Abolitionist Association of the Children's Defense Fund, in an interview with Common Dreams. "The young folks we are working with aren't crazy, they aren't making this stuff up like a lot of people want to say they are as young black people."
"We want to see change right away," Worthy added. "Two people are killed by police in as many weeks, so how long can the people of Cleveland wait for these reforms? We want this negotiation process to be public. We don't want back-room dealing. We want immediate things to be happening."
Jason Boarde, also of the New Abolitionist Association, told Common Dreams that Holder's press conference delivered information "we already knew." He said he was left with disturbing questions: "How many people's lives have been adversely affected? What are the real ramifications of this? You have families who will no longer see their loved ones. You have people who are incarcerated: their lives will never be the same."
Local media spoke with Walter Jackson, the uncle of Marissa Williams, who said that it will take more than just words to change the problems with the city's police department. Jackson was asked, were Williams alive today, how she would respond to Holder's comments. "I believe she would be very upset, probably pissed off that the cops are still reckless, doing what they want to do all because they have a badge and a gun," said Jackson. "What they are doing right now is totally uncalled for."
"Here to speak truth and demand accountability"
The report was released just a day after a grand jury in Staten Island announced it would not indict a white New York police officer for the deadly choking of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old unarmed black man. Furthermore, it came less than two weeks after a Missouri grand jury announced it will not indict another white police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury will soon weigh evidence over the killing of Rice.
A groundswell of protests and organizing sweeping the country is demanding an end to deadly and violent attacks on black bodies and lives by police, as well as institutional racism in society. From New York to Ferguson to Cleveland, crowds are echoing the dying words of Eric Garner: "I can't breathe."
Boarde said that people in Cleveland are organizing and holding regular actions, including a black and brown youth-led demonstration on Monday that disrupted a city council meeting with poetry and calls for "justice." Among a list of demands from organizers, which include the New Abolitionist Association, is a call for the firing of officials responsible for overseeing the city's police department, as well as an indictment of the officers behind the slaying of Rice and Anderson.
"We are residents of this city who are here to speak truth and demand accountability," reads the statement from Monday's direct action. "We're here because the city of Cleveland has lost its legitimacy to govern while our people are being murdered in the streets by your police department."