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Ohio to launch reforms after Cleveland police slammed by feds

Ohio plans reforms after Justice Department investigation into Cleveland police

A day after federal officials slammed the Cleveland Police Department for the “unreasonable and unnecessary” use of force, Ohio officials on Friday announced the creation of a task force to promote better relations between police and communities.

Gov. John Kasich announced the task force at a news conference. The move was prompted by several cases of lethal force by police, including the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot last month after displaying what turned out to be a toy gun.

The announcement came after U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Department of Justice reported that the use of force by Cleveland police showed a pattern of violating citizens' rights. The report was prompted by a half-hour police chase involving 100 officers that left two unarmed African Americans dead when police mistook the car backfiring for gunshots and shot each of them more than 20 times.

“The investigation concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that Cleveland police engage in a pattern or practice of unreasonable force in violation of the 4th Amendment,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Thursday. “Our investigation revealed that the causes of these patterns or practices were systemic and resulted from organizational deficiencies.”

The probe, part of an ongoing series of “pattern or practice” investigations into the nation’s police departments, also found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.

Taken together, the incidents in Ohio’s second-largest city, the Justice Department concluded, have led to a situation where “avoidable force becomes inevitable.”

Faced with the federal probe's findings, Cleveland police and city officials have signed a statement of principles committing them to mending police-community relations. Holder said the plan will lead to a consent decree that would be “court-enforceable,” with an independent monitor to oversee improvements and ensure that reforms are made.

Similar agreements have been reached after Justice Department investigations into other police departments in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.

The most egregious Cleveland incident cited by the Justice Department occurred on Nov. 29, 2012, when more than 100 officers launched the high speed-chase that killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The pair had driven by the local Justice Center in downtown Cleveland when officers heard a noise they took to be gunfire.

The chase, involving at least 62 police vehicles, some of them unmarked, lasted 25 minutes at speeds as high as 100 mph. When Russell and Williams were finally cornered outside the city limits, 13 officers fired 137 shots at the car, killing both of them.

In all, about 37% of the on-duty force was involved in the incident. It turned out the initial “gunshots” were actually from the car’s muffler backfiring.

“The incident inflamed community perceptions, particularly in the African American community,” and convinced the public that the Cleveland Police Department was “out of control and that its officers routinely engaged in brutality,” the Justice report said.

One officer who jumped on the hood of the car and fired 15 shots was indicted earlier this year by local authorities for voluntary manslaughter in connection with that incident. Awaiting trial, he has denied the charges.

At Cleveland police headquarters, the department “now admits that the manner in which the chase occurred was not in accordance with established policies,” the Justice report said.

Muskal reported from Los Angeles; Serrano from Washington.

Follow @latMuskal and  @RickSerranoLAT on Twitter for national news.

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