Courts & Crime

Cleveland police use excessive force, Justice Department says

Three protesters block the road at Public Square Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in downtown Cleveland.
Three protesters block the road at Public Square Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in downtown Cleveland. AP

As a national spotlight focuses on police violence against black suspects, Attorney General Eric Holder said in Cleveland on Thursday that the city’s police force has been prone to using excessive force.

The Justice Department just concluded a nearly two-year civil rights investigation that scrutinized nearly 600 use-of-force incidents that occurred in the city between 2010 and 2013. Holder described some of the encounters, which included shootings and the aggressive use of Tasers, batons and fists, as particularly troubling.

The end of the probe comes one week after a surveillance video became public that showed a Cleveland police officer fatally shooting Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American youth holding a pellet gun. The incident occurred Nov. 22 and was not part of the Justice Department’s review.

“The city has acknowledged that the department’s findings raise issues of importance to people throughout this community,” Holder said at a news conference accompanied by Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson.

But the investigation and the boy’s shooting have contributed to a crescendo of concern and anger in recent weeks, especially in the black community, about the treatment of African-Americans by the police.

A New York City grand jury on Wednesday chose not to indict a police officer whose chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, during an altercation over selling cigarettes illegally led to Garner’s death. Last week, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Protests and street demonstrations across the country have followed in their wake.

“When it comes, as we’ve seen, unfortunately, in recent days, to our criminal justice system, too many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis,” President Barack Obama said Thursday.

Speaking to an audience of educators at a college opportunity summit, the president also said that he had spoken with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio about “taking some concrete steps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.”

The investigation of the Cleveland Police Department showcased one of several ways in which the Justice Department can follow up on allegations about troubles with local law enforcement. But some federal follow-ups are more likely to be fruitful than others.

Federal civil rights investigations into individual incidents, like the fatal shootings of Brown in August and of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, in Sanford, Fla., in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, face long odds. To bring criminal charges, federal prosecutors must prove the attacker intended to violate the victim’s rights.

“Federal civil rights law imposes a high legal bar in these types of cases,” Holder cautioned in comments last month.

No official announcement has been made concluding either the Brown or Martin investigations. Media accounts, attributed to anonymous sources, have indicated no federal charges are expected in either case. On Wednesday, Holder announced a separate federal civil rights inquiry into Garner’s death in New York.

On rare occasions, the usual sequence is reversed and local prosecutions may occur after federal authorities hold off. In March 2013, for instance, the Justice Department announced it would not pursue civil rights charges against Eutawville, S.C., Police Chief Richard Combs for the fatal shooting in May 2011 of an unarmed retired correctional officer named Bernard Bailey. Combs is white, and Bailey was African-American

Local prosecutors stepped in, and on Wednesday an Orangeburg County grand jury indicted Combs, who has since left the police department, on murder charges.

Besides the hard-to-prosecute civil rights investigations into individual cases, the Justice Department can initiate broader inquiries into patterns of behavior by law enforcement agencies. The Obama administration has been particularly aggressive, opening more than 20 of these so-called “pattern or practice” investigations.

These investigations, such as those into the Cleveland and Ferguson departments, are undertaken by the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section. The section builds portraits of troubled institutions, piece by piece.

The new 58-page report on the Cleveland police, for instance, identified a pattern or practice of unconstitutional violations based on disturbing incidents, like the fate of a 13-year-old juvenile named Harold.

After he was arrested for shoplifting, Harold was handcuffed and placed in a police car. He began to kick the door and kicked a police officer in the leg. The 300-pound, 6’4” officer entered the car and sat on Harold’s legs. Harold, the Justice Department recounted, posed no threat.

“Nevertheless,” the Justice Department added, “the officer continued to sit on Harold and punched him in the face three to four times until he was ‘stunned/dazed’ and had a bloody nose.”

City and federal officials announced Thursday they had agreed on a “statement of principles” that will eventually lead to a court-enforced consent decree, complete with appointment of an independent monitor to oversee Cleveland Police Department reforms.

The Justice Department has previously negotiated 15 similar reform agreements, including nine consent decrees with police departments in cities including Seattle, New Orleans, Detroit and Portland, Ore.

At his daily briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized that police work was “a noble profession” and that “the vast majority of people in this country who take on that job serve honorably, and they do so with the gratitude of the people in their community and the gratitude of the president of the United States.”