By MITCH SMITH and MATT APUZZOMAY 25, 2015
CLEVELAND — Cleveland has reached a settlement with the Justice Department over what federal authorities said was a pattern of unconstitutional policing and excessive use of force, people briefed on the case said Monday.
The settlement, which could be announced as early as Tuesday, comes days after a judge declared a Cleveland police officer not guilty of manslaughter for climbing onto the hood of a car and firing repeatedly at its unarmed occupants, both of them black. The verdict prompted a day and night of protests and reignited discussions about how police officers treat the city’s African-American residents.
The details of the settlement were not immediately clear, but in similar negotiations in recent years, the Justice Department has required cities to allow independent monitors to oversee changes inside police departments. Settlements are typically backed by court orders and often call for improved training and revised use-of-force policies.
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Division of Police referred questions to the mayor’s office, which said it would not comment on Monday. Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, also had no comment.
A Cleveland police officer who climbed onto the hood of a car after a chase and fired repeatedly at its unarmed occupants in 2012 was acquitted of manslaughter on Saturday by an Ohio judge.
By Reuters on Publish Date May 23, 2015. Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press.
The Justice Department opened an inquiry into the Cleveland Division of Police months after the 2012 shooting of the unarmed occupants in a car, and issued its report in December. Cleveland is one of several cities, including Ferguson, Mo., New York and Baltimore, that have become the focal points of a national debate over policing and race.
The Justice Department has opened nearly two dozen investigations into police departments during the Obama administration. Federal investigators found patterns of unconstitutional policing in cities including Seattle, Newark, Albuquerque and Ferguson. Federal authorities recently announced they would investigate the Baltimore Police Department after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died of injuries he suffered while in police custody.
In Seattle, the Justice Department inquiry led local officials to overhaul training and focus on how officers can calm tense situations without using force. In Albuquerque, the city agreed to change the way police are trained, outfit officers with body cameras and improve how the department investigates police shootings.
Officials in Ferguson are negotiating a possible settlement over accusations that officers routinely violated the Constitution.
The Justice Department’s report on the Cleveland police was among its most scathing, finding that they engaged in a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.”
Investigators said police officers unnecessarily used deadly force; used excessive force against mentally ill people; and inappropriately used stun guns, chemical sprays and punches. It detailed tactical blunders by the police, and said officers too often imperiled bystanders when they used force.
The Justice Department also criticized a “structurally flawed” discipline policy that it said made it too difficult to punish officers for improperly using force.
The report highlighted one case in which officers kicked an African-American man in the head while he was handcuffed and on the ground, then did not report using force in the arrest.
“Supervisors throughout the chain of command endorse questionable and sometimes unlawful conduct by officers,” Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, said in December. “Officers are not provided with adequate training, policy guidance, and supervision to do their jobs safely and effectively.”
The report was compiled too late to cover the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a replica gun in a park in November when the police shot him. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to charge Cleveland officers in his death or in the case of Tanisha Anderson, 37, who died after she was restrained face down on the pavement.
For Cleveland, a settlement averts a long and costly court fight and the appearance that city leaders are resisting change. Mayor Frank Jackson faces a recall petition from city activists who say, among other grievances, that he has not done enough to prevent police abuses. The Justice Department has called him a full partner in its effort to improve the police department.
On Saturday, demonstrators spent hours marching through Cleveland after a judge acquitted Officer Michael Brelo of manslaughter for his role in the 2012 shooting, which began with a car chase. Though several officers fired a combined 137 shots in the episode, Officer Brelo was singled out for manslaughter charges because he climbed onto the hood of the car after the pursuit ended and fired 15 shots inside the vehicle.
The car’s unarmed occupants, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, died from gunshot wounds. The judge ruled that the actions of Officer Brelo, who is white, were lawful.
Cleveland’s streets have stayed calm since Saturday, when the police reported 71 arrests, some on felony charges.
Dozens of protesters appeared in court here Monday on misdemeanor charges, some still wearing T-shirts with messages like “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the words Eric Garner in New York said as he died, or “Black Lives Matter.”
Most of the protesters arraigned Monday were charged with refusal to disperse, and 35 pleaded no contest to an amended charge of disorderly conduct, which carries no jail time. Twenty people pleaded not guilty and will contest the charges. One man pleaded guilty. More protesters are expected to appear in court on Tuesday.
Talis Gage, 31, a Cleveland native now living in a different part of Ohio, was among those who pleaded no contest and was released Monday morning. As with others who pleaded no contest, the judge sentenced him to time served and did not issue a fine. Mr. Gage said he joined Saturday’s protest because he believed that Officer Brelo was guilty of a crime.
“What happened was not justice,” Mr. Gage said outside the courthouse shortly after his release. “It was unfair for this man to walk away with no jail time at all.”
Mitch Smith reported from Cleveland, and Matt Apuzzo from Washington.