Handcuffed teenagers beaten bloody with guns. Unarmed people shot and killed in their cars. Cops firing guns carelessly into busy streets. Mentally ill people tasered in ambulances. Supervisors refusing to challenge a brutal status quo.
These examples didn’t come from the New York City Police Department or Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing of unarmed black men by white cops has created a national outcry over institutional racism and excessive force. They were from Ohio, where the U.S. Department of Justice just finished an investigation and report on abusive and often unconstitutional policing by Cleveland Division of Police between 2010 and 2013. They were compiled before November 22, when a rookie officer shot and killed a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, for waving a toy gun around on a playground.
The DOJ’s findings raise big questions. It’s not just how widespread is the problem of excessive force and a corresponding lack of accountability. The harder questions include what can be done to change police culture, reverse many out-of-control tactics, and instill a belief across entire forces that restraint and accountability protect cops and civilians.
“We found that field supervisors are failing in some of the most fundamental aspects of their responsibilities—reviewing and investigating the uses of force of the officers under their command, and correcting dangerous tactical choices that place the officer and others at risk,” Mayor Frank Jackson said of the report, underscoring systemic problems.
When releasing the report, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the DOJ would work with Cleveland under a consent decree and a federal court will oversee reforms. But a decade ago, the DOJ also investigated police abuses in Cleveland and found similar patterns surrounding excessive force. The city’s police pledged reforms would come—yet the department’s nasty status quo obviously has resurfaced.
“The voluntary reforms undertaken at that time did not create the systems of accountability necessary to ensure a long-term remedy to these issues,” the DOJ’s new report said. “More work is necessary to ensure that officers have the proper guidance, training, support, supervision, and oversight to carry out their law enforcement responsibilities safely and in accordance with individuals’ constitutional rights.”
That summation describing needed reforms typifies today’s political rhetoric surrounding the crisis in militarized American policing. The DOJ report didn’t say what explicit steps needed to be taken. But it did describe how deeply embedded excessive force was among Cleveland’s police, what was wrong and broken in their culture and police procedures, and what was missing and needed to change.
That unvarnished look reveals how hard it will be to reform out-of-control departments, whether in Cleveland, Staten Island, Ferguson, or elsewhere. Here are 15 excerpts from the DOJ’s Cleveland report showing how deeply embedded police brutality is, and why recent political rhetoric promising solutions barely scratches the surface.
1. The Street Cops Are On Their Own: “We found that CDP officers too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution. Supervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it. Officers report that they receive little supervision, guidance, and support from the Division, essentially leaving them to determine for themselves how to perform their difficult and dangerous jobs.”
2. Excessive Force Is Expected And Covered Up: “These incidents of excessive force are rooted in common structural deficiencies. CDP’s pattern or practice of excessive force is both reflected by and stems from its failure to adequately review and investigate officers’ uses of force; fully and objectively investigate all allegations of misconduct; identify and respond to patterns of at-risk behavior; provide its officers with the support, training, supervision, and equipment needed to allow them to do their jobs safely and effectively; adopt and enforce appropriate policies; and implement effective community policing strategies at all levels of CDP.”
3. Using Maximum Force Has Become Routine: “For example, we found incidents of CDP officers firing their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others and using guns in a careless and dangerous manner, including hitting people on the head with their guns, in circumstances where deadly force is not justified. Officers also use less lethal force that is significantly out of proportion to the resistance encountered and officers too often escalate incidents with citizens instead of using effective and accepted tactics to de-escalate tension.
“We reviewed incidents where officers used Tasers, oleoresin capsicum spray (“OC Spray”), or punched people who were already subdued, including people in handcuffs. Many of these people could have been controlled with a lesser application of force. At times, this force appears to have been applied as punishment for the person’s earlier verbal or physical resistance to an officer’s command, and is not based on a current threat posed by the person. This retaliatory use of force is not legally justified. Our review also revealed that officers use excessive force against individuals who are in mental health crisis or who may be unable to understand or comply with officers’ commands, including when the individual is not suspected of having committed any crime at all.”
4. Police Don’t Know How To De-escalate: Officers “too often fire their weapons in a manner and in circumstances that place innocent bystanders in danger; and accidentally fire them, sometimes fortuitously hitting nothing and other times shooting people and seriously injuring them. CDP officers too often use dangerous and poor tactics to try to gain control of suspects, which results in the application of additional force or places others in danger. Critically, officers do not make effective use of de-escalation techniques, too often instead escalating encounters and employing force when it may not be needed and could be avoided.”
5. Top Cops Don’t Want To Hear About It: “Force incidents often are not properly reported, documented, investigated, or addressed with corrective measures. Supervisors throughout the chain of command endorse questionable and sometimes unlawful conduct by officers. We reviewed supervisory investigations of officers’ use of force that appear to be designed from the outset to justify the officers’ actions. Deeply troubling to us was that some of the specially-trained investigators who are charged with conducting unbiased reviews of officers’ use of deadly force admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light.”
6. Top Cops Will Ignore Worst Abuses: “Many of the investigators in CDP’s Internal Affairs Unit advised us that they will only find that an officer violated Division policy if the evidence against the officer proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an officer engaged in misconduct—an unreasonably high standard reserved for criminal prosecutions and inappropriate in this context. This standard apparently has been applied, formally or informally, for years.”
7. Most Cops Face No Disciplinary Threats: “Discipline is so rare that no more than 51 officers out of a sworn force of 1,500 were disciplined in any fashion in connection with a use of force incident over a three-and-a half-year period. However, when we examined CDP’s discipline numbers further, it was apparent that in most of those 51 cases the actual discipline imposed was for procedural violations such as failing to file a report, charges were dismissed or deemed unfounded, or the disciplinary process was suspended due to pending civil claims. A finding of excessive force by CDP’s internal disciplinary system is exceedingly rare.”
8. The DOJ Found These Problems Before. “CDP’s systemic failures are such that the Division 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 current pattern or practice of constitutional violations is even more troubling because we identified many of these structural deficiencies more than ten years ago during our previous investigation of CDP’s use of force.”
9. Police View Their Beats As War Zones:“Instead of working with Cleveland’s communities to understand their needs and concerns and to set crime-fighting priorities and strategies consistent with those needs, CDP too often polices in a way that contributes to community distrust and a lack of respect for officers – even the many officers who are doing their jobs effectively. For example, we observed a large sign hanging in the vehicle bay of a district station identifying it as a “forward operating base,” a military term for a small, secured outpost used to support tactical operations in a war zone. This characterization reinforces the view held by some—both inside and outside the Division—that CDP is an occupying force.”
10. Harassment, Unprovoked Searches Routine: “Some CDP officers violate individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting them to stops, frisks, and full searches without the requisite level of suspicion. Individuals were detained on suspicion of having committed a crime, with no articulation or an inadequate articulation in CDP’s own records of the basis for the officer’s suspicion. Individuals were searched “for officer safety” without any articulation of a reason to fear for officer safety. Where bases for detentions and searches were articulated, officers used canned or boilerplate language. Supervisors routinely approved these inadequate reports.”
11. Using Tasers Routine And Never Questioned: “The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer [newspaper] also reported that, between October 2005 and March 2011, CDP officers used Tasers 969 times, all but five of which the Division deemed justified and appropriate (a 99.5% clearance rate which one police expert said “strains credibility”). The Plain Dealer analyzed similar CDP force data in 2007 and found that supervisors reviewed 4,427 uses of force over four years and justified the force in every single case.”
12. The CDP Stonewalled DOJ Investigators: “We note that CDP’s inability to produce key documents raises serious concerns regarding deficiencies in the Division’s systems for tracking and reviewing use of force and accountability-related documents… CDP did not, for example, produce deadly force investigations that occurred after April of 2013 despite multiple requests. CDP was not able to produce some 2012 use of less lethal force reports until more than a year after our initial request for documents and failed to provide a justification for this delay.”
13. CDP Didn’t Want To Be Accountable: “CDP’s inability to track the location of critical force-related documents is itself evidence of fundamental breakdowns in its systems and suggests that any internal analysis or calculation of CDP’s use of force is likely incomplete and inaccurate. It also suggests that CDP does not accept that they are accountable for documenting and explaining their decisions in such matters to civilian leadership, the City, and the community as a whole.”
14. Arrest Reports Cover Up Use Of Force: “Our review of a sample of 2012 arrest records for persons charged with resisting arrest suggests that some uses of force are not being reported. For the months of February, June and August 2012, there were 111 resisting arrest incidents, and for seven of these – over six percent – CDP acknowledges that no use of force report can be located… The inability to produce Taser firing histories compounds our concerns about the reliability of the data and undermines the assertion that Taser uses have declined.”
15. There Are No Clear Policies On Using Force. “Police departments must ensure appropriate training in how and when to use force, and provide the supervision necessary for sufficient oversight of officers’ use of force. Departments must also provide their officers clear, consistent policies on when and how to use and report force. Departments must implement systems to ensure that force is consistently reported and investigated thoroughly and fairly, using consistent standards…
“CDP fails in all of these areas, and this has created an environment that permits constitutional violations. It has also created an atmosphere within CDP in which there is little confidence in the fairness of the disciplinary process—a lack of confidence which extends from the rank and file all the way to the highest levels of the Division and City leadership.”
No Quick Or Easy Solutions
The DOJ report on excessive force by Cleveland’s police is very revealing. It shows how deeply embedded the culture of abusive policing is, how resistant police departments are to changing, and how the problem is not just what weapons are used by police, but how many officers want to operate with impunity and a military mindset.
These aren’t the conclusions of community activists protesting about police brutality and the institutional racism of white officers shooting unarmed black men. These conclusions come from the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officials, who had to use their political power to force the Cleveland Department to open up its records and files.
The DOJ’s observation that many of the same problems of excessive force are back more than 10 years after a similar federal investigation and settlement suggests that reforming America’s runaway police departments is going to be incredibly difficult. Despite public protests, there’s little evidence that police themselves want to change from within.