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Cleveland settles with Justice Department over police practices

The Department of Justice has reached a settlement with the city of Cleveland over the city's police practices.

The Department of Justice has reached a settlement with the city of Cleveland over what federal authorities have described as a pattern of excessive use of force and unconstitutional, biased policing.

The settlement, known as a federal consent decree, was announced on Tuesday and will include a host of mandated reforms — including an independent city monitor assigned to the Cleveland police department, a civilian head appointed to lead the department’s internal affairs unit, and community policing training.

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Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson offered details from the 105-page agreement at Cleveland City Hall on Tuesday.

Jackson called the reforms “a defining moment for the city of Cleveland.” He added, “This is not for us a program. This will become a new way in which we do business in the city of Cleveland. It becomes part of our DNA.”

The agreement includes new policies on training for use of force and on bias-free policing. As part of the settlement, the city has also agreed to offer extended mental health services and a new Mental Health Advisory Committee to train its officers on dealing safely with people in crisis.

“Compliance with this agreement — which means taking on systemic change — will be hard work,” said Dettelbach. “And just as the commercial says, there is only one way to accomplish this work going forward — together. That does not just mean the people and groups at this podium.”

Jackson said the implementation of reforms will cost millions, which will prevent immediate implementation since the city doesn't currently have the funds needed. He said he’d be in talks with philanthropists and the city’s private business partners to help shoulder the cost of the reforms.

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The announcement comes on the heels of several days of protests in the city after a judge found a Cleveland police officer not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting deaths of an unarmed African-American man and woman in a 2012. In that incident, several officers fired 137 shots at the pair after the car backfired outside police headquarters, leading police to mistake the sound for a gunshot and engage in a car chase.

Officer Michael Brelo’s actions the day of the shooting stood out as particularly troublesome. At the end of the chase, Brelo climbed onto the hood of the car and fired 15 shots through the windshield. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were killed. The city has paid $3 million to Russell’s and Williams’ families to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Last year, the Justice Department released a scathing report in which it detailed a wide pattern of abuse and found that Cleveland police often used guns in a “careless and dangerous manner.”

The DOJ found what it described as structural and systemic deficiencies and practices including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective polices and inadequate community engagement. The department concluded that there is “reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment” and detailed a the ways in which that pattern manifested — including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons, retaliatory use of force including with Tasers, chemical sprays and fists, as well as excessive force against people who were mentally ill or in crisis.

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“There is much work to be done, across the nation and in Cleveland, to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve where it has eroded, but it can be done,” Gupta said.  “And today's agreement should serve as a model for those seeking to address similar issues in their communities.” 

There are currently about 20 cities under federal consent decrees, and include New Orleans; Seattle; Newark, New Jersey; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Justice Department is currently negotiating a consent decree in Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a white former police officer last summer. Brown’s killing and the officer’s eventual clearing by a grand jury sparked nationwide protest, unrest, and calls for society to examine the value it places on black life.

Protests following the judge’s ruling in the Brelo case culminated on Saturday night when 71 protesters were arrested. The city’s protests came as the Cuyahoga County sheriff’s office continues to investigate the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, also of Cleveland, who was shot and killed by police last November — just a month before the DOJ issued it’s report on the city’s police department. Rice had a pellet gun tucked in his waistband when police opened fire on him in a local park.