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Cleveland Police Pummeled By Feds' Report

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, Mayor Frank Jackson, Attorney General Eric Holder, Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio Steven Dettelbach were all present at a press conference Thursday announcing the DOJ's f
M.L. Schultze

Eighteen months ago, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson vehemently rejected state claims that the city’s police department has “systemic” problems. But on Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department used the same term, and the mayor embraced a plan to overhaul the department after a nearly two-year review.

The U.S. Justice Department studied nearly 600 incidents dating back to 2010. Investigators rode with officers, waded through paperwork and interviewed everyone from city leaders to homeless people. What they found indicated the problem goes beyond just a few bad cops.

“We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Public Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force, and as a result of systemic deficiencies including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Vanita Gupta heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which began the investigation after some 100 officers joined a massive chase two years ago that ended with an unarmed couple being shot to death.

But Gupta said the documented problems in Cleveland are more extensive than that.

“The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force including shootings and headstrikes with impact weapons,” were documented, as well as use of Tasers and fists, excessive force on people who are mentally ill, and “poor and dangerous tactics that placed officers in situations where avoidable force became inevitable.”

Gupta said it’s crucial for police officers’ sakes, as well as the public, that things change.

“Public safety requires more than a reduction in crime. It is contingent on trust between law enforcement and the community and a shared sense that our criminal justice system operates fairly and legitimately,” she said. She acknowledged criticism of Cleveland parallels that of police in Ferguson and New York City. But she and her boss, Attorney General Holder, maintained any sustained change will need local buy-in.

“It will demand engagement and input from the brave law enforcement officers who serve on the front lines, Cleveland residents, civic leaders and other community stakeholders. It will require a sustained and collaborative effort toward clear, concrete objectives to build trust, close gaps and to forge stronger relationships,” Gupta said.

Holder has that buy-in from Mayor Frank Jackson, who was praised by Holder for inviting the federal investigation. Standing with Holder, Jackson called this an opportunity “to create a template of how to do real community policing while recognizing the challenges of an urban environment.”

But he bristled when asked whether he has contributed to the problems—which happened on the watch of Police Chief Mike McGrath, whom Jackson has now promoted to safety director.

“I explain it by thinking he was the right person at that time and I think it now and I do not regret it,” said Jackson.

The federal investigation preceded the police shooting two weeks ago of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

That killing, which occurred within two seconds of police arriving on the scene, is under internal investigation. The U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio, Steven Dettelbach, was asked if he trusts that investigation, given that one of the criticisms in the federal report is that internal affairs often favors officers.

“I think that it is appropriate to allow the local investigation and process to go on with us monitoring it and a commitment to review whatever is done after that and then make a determination,” Dettelbach said.

The new Cleveland chief, Calvin Williams, has looked increasingly haggard since the Tamir Rice shooting, and he acknowledged the Justice Department report is tough to deal with.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “If you spend 20-plus years in a profession you love, it’s not easy to hear news like this. But what I want the people of this city to know is that the men and women of the division stand committed to having a better police department.”

Attorney General Holder said that kind of commitment is evident in reforming departments in cities as small as Warren and big as New Orleans, and added that the people of Cleveland should have “a sense of hope” that change is on the way.