Cleveland’s Second Chance at Police Reform

The car driven by Timothy Russell is shown Friday, April 10, 2015, in Cleveland. Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, were killed by police after a high-speed chase. (AP Photo/Aaron Josefczyk, Pool)

The car driven by Timothy Russell is shown Friday, April 10, 2015, in Cleveland. Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, were killed by police after a high-speed chase. (AP Photo/Aaron Josefczyk, Pool)

May 27, 2015

Cleveland city officials this week signed an agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to impose widespread reforms of the city’s police — marking the second time federal officials have pushed for reforms in the department.

The Cleveland police department has been under investigation by the Justice Department for allegations that its officers have a pattern of using excessive force against civilians, in particular against people who are mentally ill. In December, the DOJ found major structural problems in the department, including the use of “poor and dangerous tactics” that put officers in situations where they must use force, unnecessarily endangering themselves and the civilians they are tasked to protect.

The agreement in Cleveland, a city with a documented history of overly aggressive policing, raises questions about how effective federal intervention will be, and what’s needed to impose lasting reforms.

Over the last two decades, Cleveland’s police department is one of only five law enforcement agencies that has been subject to two separate federal investigations, underscoring how entrenched the city’s problems have become. In late 1999, the Justice Department first began investigating the department’s use-of-force policies; the city entered an agreement to resolve those issues in 2004.

Since the first investigation, there have been multiple use-of-force incidents that have raised concerns in the community. The Cleveland Plain Dealer found that from 2000 to 2014, the city’s officers were involved in 61 shootings, resulting in 32 fatalities, all of which were found to be justified, either by prosecutors, police or a grand jury.

The most violent period, the paper found, was from January 2002 to February 2004 — when the city was already under the supervision of the Justice Department.

This time, local officials say they’re hoping to see lasting reform.

“As I’ve said in the past, our goal has been to have real reform that will be sustainable,” Frank Jackson, the mayor since 2006, said Tuesday at a press conference announcing the deal. “This agreement is a major step in getting us to this point.”

The deal is the kind of broad agreement favored by the Obama administration’s previous attorney general, Eric Holder. He sought to broadly overhaul law enforcement agencies rather than focus on one or two issues in a department. With this agreement, it appears his successor, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, is taking a similar approach.

Hammered out over five months, the deal lays out broad changes to the department’s policies for use of force, incident investigations, and stops, searches and seizures. It calls for a civilian to lead the internal affairs division — a rare move — and for the creation of a police inspector general, to be appointed by the mayor. It will also train more officers to respond to people in mental health crisis and introduce training on structural racism and implicit bias.

It also calls for oversight. The process, which will be tracked by an independent monitor chosen jointly by the DOJ and the city, is legally binding and will conclude only when the city has demonstrated “sustained and substantial compliance” to a federal judge.

“There are some really good things that open up the potential for change … but it will come down to the nuts and bolts of how it’s implemented and carried out,” said Rhonda Y. Williams, a historian at Case Western Reserve University and chair of the Collaborative for a Safe, Fair and Just Cleveland. The group recommended some points that were included in the agreement, such as training on bias-free policing, and more community engagement.

She added: “This is just the beginning of what will be a very long process.”

There are already some major hurdles ahead.

To be effective, the deal will need support from local officials — including local police unions, which in the past have challenged and sometimes weakened such agreements. While Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams have signed on, the police unions seem more wary.

Brian Betley, the president of Cleveland’s Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment beyond saying that he needed to report on the deal to his union members. “We still have a lot to digest,” he said.

Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, said he had already spotted several troubling points in the agreement. Among them: allowing anonymous complaints, appointing a civilian to lead internal affairs, prohibitions on head strikes with service weapons, and the requirement that officers document each time they draw their guns.

“That’s offensive, that they’re trying to dictate our tactics,” he said, adding that head strikes might sound “barbaric,” but are occasionally necessary. “We’re a professional group of people, and I strenuously object to the notion that we’re not — that we’re somehow out of control.”

Loomis said he’s asked union attorneys to review the deal and come up with some options, which could include legal action. “I’m not trying to derail the consent decree,” he said, adding that he would keep an “open mind” about the process and continue talks with city officials. But “I do not want this to deter [officers] from keeping themselves safe and keeping others around them safe.”

Money will be another hurdle. The Cleveland police force is already understaffed and under-equipped, officials acknowledge. It will need to spend millions on new equipment, training and staff to meet the terms of the agreement.

Then there’s the independent monitor, which can command six figures annually. Jackson said up front that the city doesn’t have that kind of money: “Having the city bear that entire cost will not work for us, and we will be looking for external help in that regard.”


In 1999, when the Justice Department first came to Cleveland, the city’s police department had been involved in numerous use-of-force incidents. The DOJ found that the department didn’t address head strikes with “hard objects” — like flashlights and portable radios — in its written policy. And it found that when it came to investigating its own officers, police didn’t always interview witnesses or gather forensic evidence.

By 2004, the DOJ recognized that the department had instituted enough changes, and decided against bringing a lawsuit to force compliance. It entered into a yearlong memorandum of agreement narrowly focused on officers’ use of force — deadly force in particular.

The deal wasn’t meant to bring structural change. It imposed no federal monitor to hold the department accountable, and there was little community involvement. Cleveland was released from the DOJ’s supervision in March 2005.

Before the end of that year, police would be involved in four more fatal shootings, including the death of a 15-year-old boy, Brandon McCloud. Police had arrived before dawn to question McCloud at home about his alleged role in a robbery. They went upstairs into his bedroom, found him holding a knife, and fired at least 10 shots, killing him.

“Unfortunately it was more of a check-all-the-boxes type of consent decree, where there wasn’t necessarily the same interest in that real transformative, systemic change,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio. “At least the way the DOJ is talking this time, that is not their attitude this time around. They are in this for the long haul.”


In 2012, seven years after the Justice Department left Cleveland, 30 squad cars joined a high-speed chase through the city after an officer mistook a car backfiring for gunshots. The driver, Timothy Russell, and his passenger, Malissa Williams, both African-American, were unarmed.

The chase ended when officers fired on their car 137 times, killing them both. An investigation by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the chase showed that “we are dealing with a systemic failure” in the Cleveland police department. “Command failed. Communications failed. The system failed,” he said.

Mayor Jackson and multiple organizations, including the ACLU and the NAACP, asked the Justice Department to come back. In December 2014, the DOJ released its findings from the new investigation, noting that the concerns raised by community members and city officials had been “well-founded.”

Officers had a pattern of using excessive force, unnecessarily shooting and hitting people in the head, the DOJ found. It also found that officers sometimes Tased, punched or used chemical spray on residents unnecessarily — sometimes just to retaliate against them. Officers also used excessive force against people who were mentally ill, including when they were called just to check on them.

The DOJ found that the department has structural and systemic deficiencies, including with training, policies, accountability and community engagement.


Change won’t come to Cleveland overnight.

It takes an average of five years for police departments to fulfill their agreements with the Justice Department, according to a FRONTLINE analysis. And before the clock starts for Cleveland, the city and the DOJ will need to first hire the independent monitor.

At the same time, Jackson said he believed the city needed to move as quickly as possible, citing protests that erupted this weekend after the acquittal of Michael Brelo, the officer charged with manslaughter in the deaths of Russell and Williams. The judge ruled that while Brelo had fired some of the lethal shots as he stood on the hood of their car, it wasn’t clear whether he had fired all of them. The judge also found that Brelo’s use of force was justified.

Residents are still waiting for developments in two more cases of black people who died at the hands of Cleveland police. In November 2014, Tanisha Anderson died a day after police handcuffed her and held her to the ground. Officers had responded to a call that Anderson, who was mentally ill, was being disruptive. Her death has been ruled a homicide, and the case has been referred to the county prosecutor for review.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot dead by police 10 days later, on Nov. 22, when they mistook his toy gun for a real one. The county sheriff is currently investigating that case.

“We need substantive change, and we need to get it done rapidly,” Jackson said. “As long as [community members] keep that foot on the pedal it will help us — including me — to be more cognizant of what is really going on on the street and what the people are demanding.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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