U.S. Department of Justice Demands Wholesale Reforms of City of Cleveland's Police Department

In a fifty-eight page report, the United States Department of Justice has demanded sweeping reforms of the City of Cleveland Division of Police’s (“CDP”) uses of force. While officers may use force during the course of their duties, the United States Constitution requires that officers use only that amount of force that is reasonable under the circumstances. The Department of Justice “found that CDP officers too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution.” The Department of Justice also found that supervisors “tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it.”

Following the completion of its “civil pattern or practice investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police,” the U.S. Department of Justice “concluded that we have reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” See United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police (Dec. 4, 2014), available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-reaches-agreement-city-cleveland-reform-cleveland-division-police

The investigation was led by six Justice Department lawyers and independent police procedures experts who reviewed nearly 600 use-of-force incidents from 2010-2013, in addition to hundreds of interviews and thousands of related documents. The investigation concluded that the City of Cleveland engages in a pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which is manifested in the following ways:

1. “The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons;

2. The unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including tasers, chemical sprays and fists;

3. Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and

4. The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk.”

The Department of Justice further concluded that “CDP’s systemic failures are such that the Division [of Police] is not able to timely, properly, and effectively determine how much force its officers are using, and under what circumstances, whether the force was reasonable and, if not, what discipline, change in policy or training or other action is appropriate.”

The report comes after the Office of the Ohio Attorney General and its Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification investigated a November 29, 2012 incident involving at least 62 CDP patrol vehicles that culminated in 13 officers firing 137 rounds into a vehicle killing two unarmed occupants. The investigation raised serious concerns about CDP’s policies, training, supervision, communication, and technology.See Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation, Prosecutor’s Summary (Feb. 5, 2013), available at http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/bcishootingreport

In an accompanying statement, the Ohio Attorney General, Mike DeWine, said that the shooting deaths resulted from a “systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department.” http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Files/Briefing-Room/News-Releases/Cleveland-Officer-Involved-Shooting-Investigation/Officer-Involved-Shooting-Statement-Morning-02-05.aspx.

The Department of Justice stated, “[w]e also note that many of the concerns regarding policies, training, supervision, accountability, and equipment that were implicated by [the November 29, 2012] incident were confirmed during our investigation . . . . Thus, our investigation revealed a clear pattern or practice of use of excessive force by officers without specific consideration of the November 29, 2012 incident.”

The Department of Justice’s findings come on the heels of many high profile incidents involving law enforcement that have eroded community confidence, both within the City of Cleveland and nationwide.

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