Early Tuesday afternoon, the feds announced a massive overhaul of the Cleveland Police Department. The Department of Justice released a report back in December finding that police misconduct and civil rights violations were widespread in the city, so then–Attorney General Eric Holder announced an independent monitor would oversee reforms as part of a settlement with the city.
Now we know exactly what that settlement looks like, with Cleveland's new use-of-force rules poised to set the bar for how to deter police brutality in American cities where cops and citizens can't seem to coexist without tragedy.
First, the settlement requires that every instance of police force in Cleveland be documented and investigated. Cops will undergo training on how to deal with the mentally ill, as well as racial sensitivity classes. And the new rules will forbid local police from using violence against people who are running or driving away, or "talking back," the New York Times reported. Officers won't be allowed to hit people on the head with guns, either. US Assistant Attorney Steven Dettlebach said in a statement that the new rules will serve as "a national model for any police department ready to escort a great city to the forefront of the 21st century."
The deal comes just three days after an Ohio judge acquitted officer Michael Brelo on manslaughter charges. Brelo was one of 13 Cleveland PD officers involved in the 2012 shooting death of two mentally ill black people who led cops on a high-speed chase. The decision to acquit the officer who seemed to be most directly involved in their deaths—Brelo jumped up on their stopped car and fired 15 shots through the windshield—led to protests Saturday in which 71 people were arrested.
The August shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson cop Darren Wilson set off a national conversation about police brutality, and subsequent incidents in South Carolina and Baltimore have kept the dialogue about race relations between cops and communities in the headlines ever since.
But policing had yet to seize the national spotlight when, on November 19, 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams entered a Chevy Malibu that would soon become a coffin.
Just outside of a well-known drug spot, an officer tried to over Russell for a turn signal violation. He took off. After cops mistook the sound of the car backfiring for a gunshot, more than 60 cars and some 100 officers took chase. Eventually, the Malibu was littered with 137 bullets, 49 of which came from Brelo's Glock. A fellow cop later testified that, at one point, Brelo was standing on top of the car and firing straight down at the couple.
Cleveland police made headlines again last November when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in a playground after brandishing a toy gun. Later, it came out that the officer who did the shooting, Timothy Loehmann, is a terrible shot with a history of emotional problems. There also appeared to be some issues with the department's technology; although the person who called 911 on Rice told a dispatcher the kid's gun was "probably fake," that message didn't make its way over to Loehmann due at least in part to dated technology.
In December, the DOJ report said CDP officers were using guns in a "careless and dangerous manner" and "too often use dangerous and poor tactics to try and gain control of suspects." The federal investigation also found the Cleveland cops used excessive force against people who were mentally ill.
So it only makes sense that locals were shocked and upset when Officer Brelo was let off the hook this weekend. Given the judge's rationale—essentially that there were too many cops involved to discern who fired the fatal shots—it doesn't seem likely that any of the five police supervisors still awaiting trial for dereliction of duty will be found guilty. It's also unclear what will happen to Loehmann, the officer who killed 12-year-old Rice.
But Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights prosecutor for the DOJ, offered a hopeful message Tuesday. Although she she said Cleveland's plan wasn't "cookie-cutter" and was designed specifically for that city, she made it clear that this is a roadmap for other departments.
"There is much work to be done, across the nation and in Cleveland, to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve where it has eroded, but it can be done," Gupta said. "Today's agreement may serve as a model for those seeking to address similar issues in their communities.
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