The Obama administration on Thursday issued a report accusing the Cleveland Police Department of using excessive and deadly force against citizens in violation of their constitutional rights. The finding was the latest development in a growing national debate over the fairness of local police tactics, especially in minority communities.
According to the Justice Department report, Cleveland police engaged in a "pattern or practice" of unnecessary force - including shooting residents, striking them in the head, and spraying them with chemicals. The Justice Department and the city agreed to establish an independent monitor to oversee reforms in the police department, including better training and supervision of officers. And the Justice Department urged Cleveland civic leaders to hold police accountable for their improper actions, when necessary.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to Cleveland to announce the reforms. He set them against the backdrop of the recent deaths of three African Americans at the hands of police, including last month's fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Holder's announcement came a day after a New York grand jury declined to bring charges in the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man who died in July after police placed him in an apparent chokehold.
"In recent days, millions of people throughout the nation have come together - bound by grief and anguish - in response to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, in New York City," Holder said. "The tragic losses of these and far too many other Americans . . . have raised urgent, national questions. And they have sparked an important conversation about the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect."
Holder spoke amid growing public anger over the decision that no criminal charges would be filed against the officer in the Garner case, which itself rapidly followed another grand jury's decision not to charge white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death. Both decisions triggered nationwide protests.
The escalating developments reflected a decades-old history of tension between police and the communities they serve, especially those in minority areas, experts in policing said.
The Justice Department report released Thursday in Cleveland cited a series of examples of what the department called "unreasonable and unnecessary" use of police force.
137 shots fired at car
In one incident, the report said, 13 Cleveland police officers fired 137 shots at a car, killing both of its occupants.
In another, it said, an officer "tased a suicidal, deaf man who committed no crime, posed minimal risk to officers, and may not have understood officers' commands."
Officers were also accused of repeatedly punching a handcuffed 13-year-old boy in the face several times.
"Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve," said Holder, who voiced optimism that "meaningful change is possible" in Cleveland.
He said the department's Civil Rights Division has, in the last five years, opened more than 20 similar investigations into police departments nationwide, more than twice as many as were begun in the half-decade before that.