Federal monitors will begin closely watching the activities of Cleveland’s beleaguered police department under a settlement announced Tuesday in response to a string of high-profile, racially inflamed incidents that have rattled the community.
The agreement reached between the Justice Department and the city of Cleveland mandates that police amend their use-of-force policy to ensure it is “proper and lawful,” establish a citywide community police commission, and guarantee that police misconduct is “fully, fairly and promptly investigated.”
Steven M. Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, said officers must no longer see the public as the “enemy,” and instead realize residents “are a part of the community that the police serve and to whom they should listen.”
At City Hall, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said the agreement would provide greater accountability and transparency of police officers. “It will define who we are as a people and who we are as a city,” Jackson said.
Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the arrangement would also send a warning message to rogue police departments nationwide at a time when public criticism is rising over questionable deaths at the hands of police officers, particularly in African American communities.
“There is much work to be done, across the nation and in Cleveland, to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve where it has eroded, but it can be done,” she said. “Today’s agreement may serve as a model for those seeking to address similar issues in their communities.”
The agreement mandates that every time an officer uses force, it will be “properly and fully reported and reviewed.” The department will create neighborhood policing committees “to provide meaningful input into police matters.”
The agreement also requires Cleveland to beef up law enforcement watchdog offices to handle more citizen complaints and to appoint for the first time a civilian director to lead the department’s Internal Affairs Unit. A special Mental Health Advisory Committee will be created to train police to deal safely with special needs or illnesses.
In addition, standards will be set on when an officer can use force, and the city will be required to document each time an officer even unholsters his or her weapon. Arrests will no longer be made for simply talking back to an officer or running away. Warning shots will not be allowed and pistol whipping will be banned.
If reforms are not made, a federal judge can step in and order the improvements.
Cleveland city officials were first put on notice in December that federal investigators were reviewing their department. At that time, Justice Department officials said there were deep-rooted problems in Cleveland related to record keeping, accountability and investigations of use-of-force incidents.
Jackson said Tuesday that he hoped the agreement would calm tensions, especially as the community awaited a Justice Department decision on whether to file criminal charges against a white officer in the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by police last year while holding a toy gun, and against other officers who physically restrained and forced a 37-year-old black woman, Tanisha Anderson, to lie face down. She subsequently died and her death was ruled a homicide.
Tensions have been high since Saturday’s acquittal of a white Cleveland police officer for manslaughter in the shooting death of an African American couple during a 2012 police chase. The chase began when police opened fire after mistaking the sound of a car backfiring for gunshots. When the car came to a halt, most officers stopped firing. Officer Michael Brelo, however, jumped on the car hood and continued firing into the windshield. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were both killed.
The decision by a Cleveland judge to acquit Brelo ignited protests over the weekend, leading to the arrest of 56 people.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, a Democrat and African American whose district includes part of Cleveland, hailed the Justice Department announcement as “a turning point for the city of Cleveland, its police department and its citizens.”
Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, an African American leader, praised the requirement for police to gather and publish data on race and gender when they encounter the public. “I think we hit the ball out of the ballpark today,” Reed said.
Councilman Matt Zone, who is white and serves as chairman of the city’s safety committee, said that after the Justice Department launched its investigation in December, the City Council held five meetings to hear residents’ frustrations with police. Most people wanted more police training and a tougher civilian review board, both now in the consent agreement.
“Those are two things that I think the community is going to be excited about,” Zone said.
Though most of the work on the case was done while Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. ran the Justice Department, Tuesday's announcement is the first from his successor, Loretta Lynch.
This month she announced the opening of a separate investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, after riots erupted over the death of an African American man in police custody there. State officials have brought criminal charges against six police officers.
Serrano reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles.