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Cleveland Agrees To Federal Monitor, Court Supervision Of Police

Eighteen months ago, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson vehemently rejected state claims that the city’s police department has “systemic” problems. 

Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department used the same term, but the mayor embraced a plan to overhaul the department. For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on the results of a nearly two-year review that includes a federal monitor.

The U.S. Justice Department studied nearly 600 incidents dating back to 2010. Investigators rode with officers, waded through paperwork and interviewed everyone from city leaders to homeless people.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said what they found was not just a few bad police cops.

“We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Public Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force, and as a result of systemic deficiencies including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community.”

Vanita Gupta heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which began the investigation after some 100 officers joined a massive chase two years ago that ended with an unarmed couple being shot to death.

But Gupta said the documented problems in Cleveland are more extensive than that.

“The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force including shootings and headstrikes with impact weapons,” as well as use of Tasers and fists, excessive force on people who are mentally ill, “and the employment of poor and dangerous tactics that placed officers in situations where avoidable force became inevitable.”

Gupta it’s crucial for police officers’ sakes, as well as the public, that things change.

“Public safety requires more than a reduction in crime. It is contingent on trust between law enforcement and the community and a shared sense that our criminal justice system operates fairly and legitimately.”

Gupta acknowledged criticism of Cleveland parallels that of police in Ferguson and New York City. But she and her boss, Attorney General Holder maintained any sustained change will need local buy-in.

“It will demand engagement and input from the brave law enforcement officers who serve on the front lines, Cleveland residents, civic leaders and other community stakeholders. It will require a sustained and collaborative effort toward clear, concrete objectives to build trust, close gaps and to forge stronger relationships.

Holder has that buy-in from Mayor Frank Jackson, who was praised by Holder for inviting the federal investigation. Standing with Holder, Jackson called this an opportunity “to create a template of how to do real community policing while recognizing the challenges of an urban environment.”

But he bristled when asked whether he has contributed to the problems – which happened on the watch of Police Chief Mike McGrath, whom Jackson has now promoted to safety director.

“I explain it by thinking he was the right person at that time and I think it now and I do not regret it.

The federal investigation preceded the police shooting two weeks ago of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. 
That killing – which occurred within two seconds of police arriving— is under internal investigation. The U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio, Steven Dettelbach, was asked if he trusts that investigation – given that one of the criticisms in the federal report is that internal affairs often favors officers.

“I think that it is appropriate to allow the local investigation and process to go on with us monitoring it and a commitment to review whatever is done after that and then make a determination.”

The new Cleveland chief, Calvin Williams, has looked increasingly haggard since the Tamir Rice shooting. And he acknowledged the Justice Department report is tough to deal with.

“ It’s not easy. If you spend 20-plus years in a profession you love, it’s not easy to hear news like this. But what I want the people of this city to know is that the men and women of the division stand committed to having a better police department.”

Attorney General Holder said that kind of commitment is evident reforming departments in cities as small as Warren and big as New Orleans. 
And Holder said the people of Cleveland should have “a sense of hope” that change is on the way.