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Cleveland, Justice Department Reach Agreement Over Police Conduct

Police officers are illuminated by patrol car lights during a protest against the acquittal of Michael Brelo on Saturday in Cleveland.
John Minchillo
Police officers are illuminated by patrol car lights during a protest against the acquittal of Michael Brelo on Saturday in Cleveland.

Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET

The city of Cleveland has reached an agreement with the Justice Department over allegations that the city's police department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force, violating the civil rights of its residents.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio said the agreement, once approved, "will not only serve as a roadmap for reform in Cleveland but as a national model for any police department ready to escort a great city to the forefront of the 21st Century."

The deal, which the Justice Department has reached with many other cities across the country including New Orleans, Seattle and Detroit, are known as consent decrees.

Among other things, the agreement will cover use of force by the Cleveland Division of Police, community engagement and policing, support equipment and resources, accountability, bias-free policing and crisis intervention.

"Under the agreement, all of these reforms will be completed under the watch of an independent monitor," Dettelbach said. "The Decree will only terminate after the City can demonstrate to a federal judge sustained and substantial compliance with its terms – and there are certain specific metrics set forth for that."

NPR's Carrie Johnson, who is reporting on the story, tell us the Justice Department and Cleveland authorities are presenting the consent decree to a federal judge for approval.

"Justice Department investigators found that Cleveland police had used force – not just their fists – but also Tasers, guns and other tools like pepper spray – against suspects who were mentally ill, unarmed and, in some cases, had already been handcuffed and were not presenting a threat," Carrie says.

She tells us the changes would include how officers deal with people who are mentally ill, and notes that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said body cameras have already been deployed in at least one district, and they will be expanded to all officers by the end of the year.

The deal announced today also would dramatically change the way the city's police department investigates complaints against itself. Carrie tells us that it calls for a new inspector general of police as well as a civilian head for the internal affairs unit.

"Few complaints were actually filed formally – and the ones that were filed, the Justice Department found, were rarely, if ever, investigated or substantiated," Carrie says. "There were major, major deficiencies in how the police investigated allegations against itself."

The new hires, authorities in the federal government hope, will change that.

Vanita Gupta, who heads the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said under the agreement, the city and its police department "agree to implement comprehensive reforms in the way that CDP recruits, selects, guides, trains, supervises, investigates and disciplines officers to ensure that officers are practicing constitutional, community-oriented policing, and that officers who fall short of this standard are held accountable."

As we reported back in December, the Justice Department released a report that detailed a pattern of abuse. Investigators reviewed about 600 use-of-force incidents between 2010 and 2013 and they found that Cleveland police often used guns in a "careless and dangerous manner."

That report came just days after a 12-year-old boy playing with an air gun was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer.

Over the weekend, demonstratorstook the streets to protest the acquittal of Michael Brelo, who was "charged in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — unarmed suspects who were caught in a 137-shot hail of police gunfire following a high-speed chase."

Carrie adds that the Obama Justice Department has opened more than 20 such investigations of police forces "based on a possible pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, excessive use of force, unconstitutional stops and searches.

"This agreement with Cleveland closely aligns with some of the ones we've seen in the past in Seattle, New Orleans and elsewhere," she says.

Carrie adds: "In the past, the Justice Department had issued written findings ... but DOJ authorities found that that led to some backsliding among police forces around the country. So now, since the Obama administration has taken over, they try to negotiate court-enforceable agreements that require the appointment or hiring of an independent monitor to make sure that police don't backslide in the way they saw it happen in the '90s."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.