A 59-page report released by the United States Department of Justice on Thursday reveals widespread, excessive use of force by police officers in Cleveland. Cleveland is the city where cops recently killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was carrying a toy gun on a playground, and just before that, Tanesha Anderson died in police hands when cops were supposed to be transporting her for mental health treatment.
In one incident from the Justice Department’s new report, a 300-pound officer sat on a 13 year-old boy who weighed half as much and punched the boy in the face repeatedly while the boy was handcuffed in the back of a police car. In another incident, police used their stun gun on a juvenile suspect, despite the fact that the boy was being held on the ground by two officers. In a third incident, an officer fired upon a man who fled after repeatedly asking the officer to produce his badge in order to prove that he was, in fact, a cop. The cop did not do so.
The overarching conclusion of the report is that Cleveland police “too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution,” and that “[s]upervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it.” The report points to a “pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” including the “unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force,” similar use of non-deadly force, and “[e]xcessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis.”
Some of the incidents laid out in the report reflect such questionable judgment that they would almost be comic if they did not end so tragically. In one incident, a police sergeant fired upon a hostage who fled a house where he was being held against his will by armed assailants. Although the man fled the building wearing nothing but his boxer shorts, the sergeant fired upon the man because he believed that the man had a weapon when he pointed arm towards the sergeant. According to the report, “[n]o other officers at the scene reported seeing [the man] point anything at the sergeant.”
Another section of the report, which details a high-speed chase involving dozens of officers, is worth quoting at length:
On November 29, 2012, over 100 Cleveland police officers engaged in a high speed chase, in violation of CDP policies, and fatally shot two unarmed civilians. . . . The incident began when Timothy Russell and his passenger Malissa Williams drove past the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, at which point officers and witnesses outside the Justice Center heard what they believed to be a shot fired from the car. It now appears that what they actually heard was the car backfiring. A massive chase ensued, involving at least 62 police vehicles, some of which were unmarked, and more than 100 patrol officers, supervisors, and dispatchers—about 37 percent of the CDP personnel on duty in the City. The pursuit lasted about 25 minutes, at times reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. During the chase, some of the confusing and contradictory radio traffic incorrectly indicated that the occupants of the car may be armed and may be firing from the car. Other radio traffic did not support that conclusion. No supervisor asserted control over the chase, and some even participated. CDP now admits that the manner in which the chase occurred was not in accordance with established CDP policies. The chase finally ended outside the City’s borders, in an East Cleveland school parking lot, with CDP vehicles located in front of and behind Mr. Russell’s car. In circumstances that are still being disputed in court, thirteen CDP officers ultimately fired 137 shots at the car, killing both its occupants. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams each suffered more than 20 gunshot wounds. The officers, who were firing on the car from all sides, reported believing that they were being fired at by the suspects. It now appears that those shots were being fired by fellow officers.
Just last week, nine officers involved in this incident filed a lawsuit claiming they were punished more harshly for their participation because they were not African American. Their punishment? Three days of administrative leave, followed by restricted duty for about 45 days, during which they say they were asked to do “menial and unpleasant tasks” and denied overtime pay.
The Justice Department’s report, however, found that these incidents of excessive force may have flourished because the police department’s mechanisms for investigating and disciplining officers who engaged in excessive force were entirely inadequate. Some officers who are “charged with conducting unbiased reviews of officers’ use of deadly force admitted to [the Justice Department] that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible.” Indeed, the report found that “[d]iscipline is so rare that no more than 51 officers out of a sworn force of 1,500 were disciplined in any fashion in connection with a use of force incident over a three-and-a half-year period.” When DOJ dug deeper into that 51 incidents, they found that “in most of those 51 cases the actual discipline imposed was for procedural violations such as failing to file a report, charges were dismissed or deemed unfounded, or the disciplinary process was suspended due to pending civil claims.”
A press release accompanying the report announces that “the Justice Department and the city of Cleveland have signed a statement of principles committing them to develop a court enforceable consent decree that will include a requirement for an independent monitor who will oversee and ensure necessary reforms.” A consent decree is an agreement negotiated between DOJ and the city that can be overseen and potentially enforced by a federal court once it is finalized.