Crime & Justice

Cleveland police reckless, use excessive force too often, DOJ finds

Cleveland police deputy chief Ed Tomba answers questions at a news conference in this file photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, after the release of surveillance video of the police shooting of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer Saturday after he reportedly pulled a fake gun at the city park. Separately, a Department of Justice report presented Thursday was critical of how the Cleveland police department investigates when officers use force.
Cleveland police deputy chief Ed Tomba answers questions at a news conference in this file photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, after the release of surveillance video of the police shooting of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer Saturday after he reportedly pulled a fake gun at the city park. Separately, a Department of Justice report presented Thursday was critical of how the Cleveland police department investigates when officers use force.
Mark Duncan/AP

Cleveland police officers use excessive and unnecessary force far too often, are poorly trained in tactics and firearm use and endanger the public and their fellow officers with their recklessness, the U.S. Justice Department said in a report presented Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Justice Department and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson signed an agreement Tuesday that says both sides will work toward the appointment of a court-appointed monitor to oversee reform.

The department found a systemic pattern of reckless and inappropriate use of force by officers and concerns about search-and-seizure practices. It also said officers frequently violated people's civil rights because of faulty tactics, inadequate training and a lack of supervision and accountability.

Officers' excessive use of force has created deep mistrust in Cleveland, especially in the black community, the report concluded.

"We saw too many incidents in which officers accidentally shot someone either because they fired their guns accidentally or because they shot the wrong person," the report said.

The federal investigation was prompted by several highly publicized police encounters, chiefly the deaths of two unarmed suspects who were fatally wounded when police officers fired 137 shots into a car at the end of a high-speed pursuit in November 2012. Jackson was among those who asked the department to conduct the inquiry.

The report comes amid inflamed tensions between police and residents in several cities where white officers have killed young blacks, including in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri.

Last week, hundreds of people blocked a Cleveland freeway at rush hour to protest those killings and the fatal shooting of a black 12-year-old boy by a white officer outside a Cleveland recreation center. Police said the officer thought the boy was holding a firearm, but he actually had an airsoft gun that shoots nonlethal plastic pellets.

The city and Justice Department will begin negotiating an agreement that will be submitted to a federal judge outlining the scope of reforms, to include the appointment of an independent monitor. A joint statement signed by Jackson, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio Steven Dettelbach says Jackson, the city safety director and police chief "will always retain full authority" to run the police department.

The report notes that the Justice Department first looked at Cleveland officers' use of deadly force in 2002 and that an agreement was reached two years later on how such policies would be changed. There was no court order or independent monitor assigned then.

The Justice Department began its investigation in March 2013 and reviewed nearly 600 use-of-force incidents — both lethal and not — that occurred between 2010 and 2013. The report notes that Cleveland police officials did not provide many of the documents sought by federal investigators.

The Justice Department found that officers are poorly trained on how to control people during arrests and that some officers don't know how to safely handle firearms.

The report highlights one encounter in which a sergeant fired two shots at a man wearing only boxer shorts after he escaped from a home where he and others were being held against their will. The sergeant told police investigators he shot at the man because he had raised an arm and pointed his hand toward the officer.

"No other officers at the scene reported seeing (the man) point anything at the sergeant," the report said.

The 58-page report is especially critical of how the Cleveland police department investigates when officers use force.

The report says specially trained officers assigned to investigate those cases "admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible."

The department's internal affairs unit concludes an officer violated department policies only when misconduct can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the report said. The investigators called that burden of proof "an unreasonably high standard."

The investigation also found that officers are suspended for use of force "at an unreasonably low frequency." The Justice Department found that only six officers had been suspended for improper uses of force in three years.

Part of the problem, the report concluded, is the lack of support, training and equipment provided to city police officers.

DOJ findings

In the report, the U.S. Justice Department concluded Cleveland police officers too often violate people's civil rights because of inadequate training and a lack of supervision and accountability. Some of the findings:

Police confrontations

Among the Cleveland police confrontations cited Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice as unreasonable or excessive use of force:

RESTRAINED AND KICKED

After leading officers on a brief chase, a man got out of his van and walked into a group of trees. An officer approached the man with his weapon drawn, and the man followed commands to lie down on the ground and spread his arms and legs. After the man was restrained and on his stomach, officers began kicking and striking the man. He was later taken to the hospital with a broken bone near his eye.

13-YEAR-OLD PUNCHED

After officers arrested a 13-year-old boy for shoplifting, he was handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle, where he began kicking the door and an officer in the leg. The officer then sat on the legs of the handcuffed boy and punched him three to four times until the boy was "stunned" and had a bloody nose.

STUNNED WHILE STRAPPED TO GURNEY

Officers assisted a man who had suffered several seizures into an ambulance, where he was strapped onto a gurney. The man became angry and tried to unstrap himself, balling his fist. An officer threatened to use a stun gun on him, but the man continued to try to stand up and threatened to hurt the officer. The officer then stunned him while he was still strapped to the gurney.

PEPPER SPRAYED IN CUFFS

Officers placed a mentally ill man in handcuffs for making threats to "blow up the government." Because the man was spitting on officers, they placed a hood — called a spit sock — over the man's head. When the man was placed in the police vehicle, he kicked at the windows and continued to spit. An officer ordered him to stop, and then shot pepper spray over the spit sock. The man was required to wear the spit sock and was not decontaminated until he arrived at a hospital later.

SHOT INSIDE CAR

After a driver cut off another car while attempting to make a right turn from a center lane, an officer approached the driver with his gun drawn. The officer later said he felt "uneasy" because he couldn't see the driver's hands. The officer ordered the driver to turn off the car and show his hands, but the driver said he was afraid to move because of the officer's gun. When the officer attempted to lean in and turn off the vehicle himself, his gun discharged, striking the driver in the chest. The driver survived.

AP reporters Jennifer Smola in Cleveland and John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.