DOJ Releases Report On Cleveland Police Department Investigation And It's Bad News All The Way Down

from the no-restraint-and-no-accountability dept

The DOJ has just released the conclusions of its civil rights investigation of the Cleveland Police Department [pdf link]. What it’s uncovered is sadly unshocking. It’s the same sort of behavior that’s endemic in law enforcement agencies all over the nation: routine use of excessive force and discriminatory policing.

The Cleveland PD gained recent national notoriety after a police pursuit devolved into a department-wide free-for-all — a 23-minute chase involving nearly 100 officers and supervisors and over 50 vehicles. The pursuit began when two officers thought they heard a gunshot coming from a vehicle. It concluded in a middle school parking lot, with more than a dozen officers unloading 137 bullets into the stopped vehicle, most of them in a 20-second period. A single officer was responsible for 49 of those bullets, some of which were fired into the two “suspects” from the hood of their vehicle. In all, 47 bullets found their way into the victims’ bodies. No weapons or empty casings were found in the vehicle.

The PD is back in the news again, thanks to an officer’s killing of a 12-year-old boy, supposedly as he reached for his “weapon,” a toy gun with the orange tip removed. This claim held until video was released, which showed officers cutting across a park and stopping within feet of the boy. The officer on the passenger’s side — a reject from another police department — shot and killed the 12-year-old within two seconds of the officers’ arrival on the scene.

The DOJ’s report opens with the de rigueur statements about how dangerous policing is and how grateful the nation is that there are men and women willing to do this difficult job. But this is mercifully brief. The token belly rub doesn’t even last a full paragraph. The generic praise that makes up the two first sentences is swiftly tempered by these curt sentences.

The use of force by police should be guided by a respect for human life and human dignity, the need to protect public safety, and the duty to protect individuals from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. A significant amount of the force used by CDP officers falls short of these standards.

The next page briefly summarizes how the CPD falls short.

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

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

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

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.

That the CPD has shown a pattern of excessive force isn’t even open for debate, according to the DOJ. The agency points its fingers at several deficiencies, fortunately highlighting the fact that the department’s internal systems for reporting and investigating excessive force allegations are a large contributor to the problem.

If you like your police news depressing, the DOJ’s report is full of handy pull quotes. Some are mere sentences while others are multi-paragraph damnations. I’m tempted to post huge chunks of the report and let them speak for themselves, but I won’t. Read it for yourselves. But I don’t want to let these particular paragraphs slip by without highlighting them.

First, the problems:

The pattern or practice of unreasonable force we identified is reflected in use of both deadly and less lethal force. For example, we found incidents of GDP 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, 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.

In addition to the pattern or practice of excessive force, we found that CDP officers commit tactical errors that endanger both themselves and others in the Cleveland community and, in some instances, may result in constitutional violations. They 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. While these tactical errors may not always result in constitutional violations, they place officers, suspects, and other members of the Cleveland community at risk.

In short (the report spends 59 pages detailing what’s briefly summed up here), these are the symptoms. The next paragraphs address the disease.

Principal among the systemic deficiencies that have resulted in the pattern or practice we found is the Division’s failure to implement effective and rigorous accountability systems. The fact that we find that there are systemic failures in CDP, however, should not be interpreted as inconsistent with holding officers accountable in any particular incident. Individual CDP officers also bear responsibility for their own actions once afforded due process of law. Any effort to force a decision between systemic problems and individual accountability is nothing more than an effort to set up a false choice between two important aspects of the same broader issues that exist at CDP. 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 possible. This admitted bias appears deeply rooted, cuts at the heart of the accountability system at CDP…

Another critical flaw we discovered is that many of the investigators in 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 to these investigations and further supports the finding that the accountability systems regarding use of force at CDP are structurally flawed. In actuality, we found that during the time period we reviewed that officers were only suspended for any period of time on approximately six occasions for using improper force. 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 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 internal disciplinary system is exceedingly rare.

The DOJ’s report notes that it previously investigated the department in 2002. Remedies were set into motion at that point, but apparently lasted only long enough to remove the DOJ’s oversight in 2005. With the DOJ no longer looking over its shoulder, the CPD lapsed back into its bad habits.

In the intervening years, the CPD has allowed the problem to snowball by actively ignoring its own duty to ensure its police force is indeed “Cleveland’s finest,” rather than a loose consortium of passable officers and outright thugs — both granted the veneer of respectability (and a healthy dose of power) with the donning of a uniform and badge.

Other points of interest in the report:

  • The investigation began after helicopter video caught police kicking a handcuffed suspect in the head. No reports filed mentioned this use of force.
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer performed its own investigation, uncovering the fact that officers deployed Tasers nearly 1,000 times in a 4-year period with only 5 instances being deemed “inappropriate” — a rate a use of force expert said “strained credibility.”
  • In 2013, an officer fired at a hostage fleeing a hostage situation, later claiming that he thought the man pointed a weapon at him. No reports corroborated this version of the incident. Fortunately, the officer missed both shots.
  • Despite being expressly forbidden to do so by multiple revisions to the Use of Force policy dating back to 2007, CPD officers have continued to fire weapons at suspects or vehicles moving away from them.
  • In 2012, an officer’s weapon discharged (yes, this time the passive voice is appropriate) when he struck a suspect’s head with it. The suspect escaped while “bleeding from the face,” and reports filed by the officer left it unclear as to whether the suspect had been hit with the bullet as well.
  • A 6’4″, 300-lb. officer sat on the legs of 5’8″, 150-lb. shoplifting suspect and “punched him three or four times in the face,” presumably as punishment for 13-year-old’s kicking of an officer and the cruiser door while being placed in the vehicle.
  • Officers tasered a man strapped to a gurney in the back of an emergency vehicle for “threatening officers.”
  • Five officers responding to a call concerning a suicidal man with a gun fired off 24 rounds during the incident. Four struck the suicidal man. Thirteen hit a nearby parked vehicles. And six bullets hit surrounding homes.

That the DOJ has handed down such a damning report could be viewed as encouraging, but considering it tangled with the CPD nine years ago, it’s not nearly as encouraging as it should be. Bad habits are tough to break, and the CPD’s habits are some of the worst. It is now on its second DOJ investigation in twelve years, and if the fixes didn’t take last time, there’s no logical reason to believe this time will be any different.

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Comments on “DOJ Releases Report On Cleveland Police Department Investigation And It's Bad News All The Way Down”

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tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know what else to do.

I’d start by firing the lot of them, bringing charges of intentional professional negligence against those in command, and calling in the National Guard, for starters. This is appalling lunacy ongoing, with no end in sight. They place their lives and those of all around them in danger by calling 911! This is way beyond the powers of the ACLU.

I’ve hung around some fairly unsavory characters in my time (petty thieves, bikers, drug dealers, etc.), but they pale in comparison to CDP.

Perhaps this is the unofficial plan to deal with the illegal alien problem. Nobody in their right mind is going to want to set foot in the US if this is what can be expected. I’m glad I saw the US when I was younger. There’s no chance of that happening now.

Anonymous Coward says:

My favorite (Saturday’s Guardian):

Holder said the US government would use powers it received after the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police to obtain a court order legally compelling Cleveland to change its ways.

Apparently, PDs can just randomly kill innocent people unless the DoJ gets a special court order instructing them to “tone it down a little.” Excessive force is the accepted norm, and being denied its use is viewed as a (temporary) restriction on allowable behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

To hear liberals bitch about it, they are under the mistake belief that gun control works. We need gun control, all right. But we need gun control applied to law enforcement, not the American People.

The most dangerous people in this country are not the people. The most dangerous people in this country are not drug dealers or gangbangers. The most dangerous people in this country are the fucking cops.

They have killed more people in this country than a gamer kills in a year of playing Call of Duty. That’s all due to the special thanks of fucking liberals passing shit like The Patriot Act and hiding behind the skirts of the rubber-stamping FISA court system.

Ben (profile) says:


I presume the TLA’s are all referring to the same organization, but I was starting to wonder what “CDP officers” and “GDP officers” were. I see that CDP is Cleveland Division of Police, but was the GDP reference (in the first paragraph “highlighted”) a typo?

Tim: if the report is referring to them as CDP, I think you should have stuck with that rather than throwing in “CPD.”

… but I think just referring to them as “Police Out On Patrol Emergency Responders” (POOPERs) might have been more appropriate.

That One Guy (profile) says:

A start, now about that follow-up...

So we’ve got a very damning report on massive abuse of authority, excessive force to the point of death of suspects or civilians for little more than contempt of cop, the entire force, top to bottom doing everything it can to avoid holding any badge wearing thug accountable for their actions…

Now, for the million dollar question:

How many of those listed in the report still have their jobs?

Because from experience, even with a report this bad, I’m guessing the answer to that question is ‘Almost every last damn one of them’. The reports nice and all, but it’s only the first step, and a completely and utterly useless one at that, if the follow-up of charges, outside investigations, and punishments aren’t also applied.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A start, now about that follow-up...

How many of those listed in the report still have their jobs?

The Local salary database linked to from the state treasurer isn’t that useful, as it only provides data up to 2010 (not to mention that it seems like submission of the data by jurisdictions wasn’t exactly mandatory). The results from the State salary database is rather non-specific and just kinda odd. I haven’t played with it much yet, though…

Does it really take a FOIA just to get a current list of police officers?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

wanted to amend this post, people need to start killing corrupt cops, the courts refuse to prosecute dirty cops the police refuse to police themselves and the DoJ for the most part turns a blind eye.

All the while the average citizen is treated as a target for murdering thugs with badges and guns

RD says:

Whose safety is most important???

“The use of force by police should be guided by a respect for human life and human dignity, the need to protect public safety, and the duty to protect individuals from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. A significant amount of the force used by CDP officers falls short of these standards.”

I see nothing in this statement that shows that officer safety comes BEFORE the safety of the citizen. Perhaps this is where we should be looking for correcting the problems.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Whose safety is most important???

That one’s easy: The safety of non-officers takes precedence if there’s a choice to be made.

When you get paid to put your safety on the line, to then turn around and whine about how dangerous the job is shows a decided lack of understanding of just what you’re being paid to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Whose safety is most important???

I tended bar for years after college. One night a man pulled a gun and started waving it around and ranting. The other bartender called 911 and the armed man ripped the phone out of the wall mid-call (obviously this was some number of years ago–pre-cell phones). The situation was resolved by the customers without injury, and the armed man fled. The police came in maybe 45 minutes later. I asked them what took so long and they said, “We don’t just run into places where people are armed and dangerous”.

Fair enough and good to know. But it also puts into perspective the cops’ favorite retort when people protest how violent and aggressive they are. If the public wants to punish cops for being too violent, then cops claim they will stop placing themselves in harm’s way when the citizens are in trouble. “We’ll drive nice and slow when we get a call that someone’s in danger,” they say. From what I’ve seen, that’s been police policy for some time.

If you’re not going to protect me, and if your rules of engagement call for you to leave people in danger until you have overwhelming deadly force (coupled with your appallingly bad aim) then I’d rather throw in my lot with the hard-working Budweiser drinkers at the local watering hole. Any day.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘The officer on the passenger’s side — a reject from another police department — shot and killed the 12-year-old within two seconds of the officers’ arrival on the scene’

it makes no difference if it was within 2hours, he’ll be let off because the jury that will be selsected wont want him indicted for any crime, let alone murder!
as stated, this is typical now of how policing is carried out nationwide! the bigger problem is when there are no penalties imposed for wrong doing! how can a member of the public trust the police force today, when there is every possibility that person will receive some sort of aggressive reaction, if lucky, and killed if unlucky? this is no way to hold a badge that is supposed to empower police officers to ‘Protect and Serve’!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Say what you want, but we don’t want to just disband police forces.

Same thing with teachers, we don’t think all teachers are bad, most are very good.

The problem is that it is very hard to get rid of a bad cop or teacher. Neither good teachers or cops will really support getting rid of the bad apples.

I know a few cops and they are very good people, but even they won’t go public in getting rid of bad cops.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Neither good teachers or cops will really support getting rid of the bad apples.

I’ve been a teacher for some time, and this hasn’t been my experience. Good teachers have enormous–and vocal–contempt for bad teachers. Don’t confuse the union leadership with its membership.

Ask a teacher about bad teachers and you’ll get an earful. Chances are that your idea of a bad teacher will pretty closely match what you hear. Ask a cop about bad cops and I don’t think that would be the case.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

I’ve seen it claimed here that police work is safer than it’s ever been. But police are constantly whining about the danger they’re in, as an excuse for the use of excessive force.

And yet this report points out that the police are causing themselves greater danger by escalating violence unnecessarily.

So… police work is not safer than it’s ever been.

Apparently the police are escalating violence to increase the danger to themselves in order to justify escalating the violence.

It makes one weep for humanity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Apparently the police are escalating violence to increase the danger to themselves in order to justify escalating the violence.

Works for the Federal government as far as terrorism and foreign policy goes, so why shouldn’t our domestic LEAs be allowed to get in on the action? In fact, I think PDs must’ve gotten their current behavior from the Self-Perpetuating Excuses 1033 Program.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Cops that bad

I think the only reasonable thing to do now is to fire the entire department.

Or else put them on the same conditions the LAPD was (not that did any good..they’re still pretty bad) for 10 years or so.

Now the cops are just killing/treating everyone who seems to be a threat or even vaguely dangerous. Everyone who has ever lived, as a matter of fact.

Or else remove all their weapons. Let them fight it out with clubs, knives or their fists. I’m sure most of them could do just as well. Chokeholds, anyone?

limbodog (profile) says:

Some things

I think that, as with the 2-minute-rule in the NFL, where all calls are automatically reviewed as the clock runs down, the police in the USA need an automatic review. Someone dies in police custody? Straight to trial with a special prosecutor. Evidence disappeared in police custody? Straight to trial with a special prosecutor. Armored vehicle and assault weapons broken out of storage? Straight to trial with a special prosecutor.

None of those things should ever be allowed to be seen as ‘routine’.

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