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Will Cleveland’s police reform offer blueprint for other cities?

After recurring instances of excessive force by Cleveland’s police force, the Department of Justice and city officials announced a sweeping legal agreement that rewrites the rules for the police department. Gwen Ifill learns more about the efforts to rebuild relations between police and the city from Ronnie Dunn of Cleveland State University.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Department of Justice and the city of Cleveland announced a sweeping legal settlement today that rewrites the rules for the city's police department after recurring instances of the use of excessive force.

    The U.S. attorney, the city police chief and Cleveland's mayor all praised the agreement at a joint news conference.

    STEVEN DETTELBACH, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Ohio: Compliance with this agreement, which means taking on truly systemic change, is going to be — and I say this as a Clevelander — it's going to be hard work.

    CALVIN WILLIAMS, Chief, Cleveland Division of Police: We talked a lot about the nuts and bolts of this, but what it really comes down to is, we have to, I have to, as chief, make sure that that community policing philosophy is part of the DNA of the Cleveland Division of Police. And that's what I intend to do.

  • MAYOR FRANK JACKSON, Cleveland:

    I have expressed throughout this my major issue was twofold, one, that it didn't go far enough, and, two, that we wanted to have substantive, real reform that was sustainable, not just, as the U.S. attorney said, some pretense of reform. So this gives us the tools.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more on what it took to get to this agreement, and what happens next, I'm joined by Ronnie Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University. He also serves on the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations.

    Thank you for joining us.

    In the wake of the Brelo — the Brelo guilty — not guilty verdict this weekend, the officer who was part of the more than 100 shots fired at two people in the car, and as we wait on Tamir Rice verdict, at least one other big high-profile verdict, what is the significance of what the Justice Department and the city agreed to today?

  • RONNIE DUNN, Cleveland State University:

    Well, Gwen, I think it's a first step along this long road that we need to transform the relationship between the community and the police department sworn to serve them. This is a very robust and comprehensive reform package.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One of the things that the assistant attorney general for civil rights from the Justice Department mentioned today was, this would restore constitutional policing.

    Most Americans would be surprised to realize that that wasn't something that was already happening. Can you explain what the definition of constitutional policing is?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Well, it's policing in line with the U.S. Constitution, particularly equal protection under the law and regarding protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and just the protection of citizens' constitutional rights, regardless of their background, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation or otherwise.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That seems pretty straightforward, but it doesn't seem like that would need a department — Justice Department settlement to accomplish.

    What is in this finding, this agreement, this settlement, that would transform, as the mayor said, would transform the city police department and the city?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Well, there are quite a few components, particularly the revamping and revision of the use of force policies, which were the particular finding of the DOJ investigation, excessive use of deadly and excessive force.

    And, as you know, we have had a number of tragic instances which you made reference to. So, it directly addresses that, as well as what is really unique and novel about this is, it places civilian involvement, and the head of the internal affairs unit for the police department will be headed by a civilian. That is novel. That is unique. Nowhere in the nation is that currently in place.

    So, this can truly be a model for policing in the 21st century, if implemented as designed.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    If implemented as designed. We heard the judge say this weekend that part of the reason why the police officer wasn't found guilty of voluntary manslaughter is that he did perceive a threat.

    So, what does this agreement do to speak to this idea that some people, some officers, some civilians perceive threats which it turns out may not exist?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Yes, I'm glad you asked that question.

    It specifically addresses training. There's a lot of emphasis on training, resources for equipment and training. And specifically to your question, there's threat perception training, and de-escalation tactics that will be implemented. And that, along with cultural competency and bias-free policing as well, will all be part of this — this reform package.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When the — when the Justice Department first came out with this finding against the city of Cleveland, it never really mentioned race. But you're saying that this agreement will speak to things like implicit bias?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Yes, absolutely.

    That was insistent and a very salient theme throughout the community forums that were held, both throughout the city relative to this, this investigation, and throughout the state, actually. So, bias-free policing and data collection are definitely incorporated, embedded in the — in this package.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I know you understand, and you live in and you paid very close attention to what's happened in Cleveland and Ohio, but part of what the — all the levels of government were saying today is, this would be a blueprint for cities around the country.

    You have written far more widely on this than just Cleveland, so maybe you can tell us, how would it be a blueprint for other cities?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Well, as I said, when you consider the fact that it now embeds civilians over the internal affairs division, for example, that is how you would begin to change the culture in — within the police institution.

    We hear so much about the thin blue line and that blue wall of silence, and trying to impact that. Well, this is how — in part, how you begin to shift and change that insular culture within the police agency.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you anticipate any resistance from unions, police unions, or the police officers themselves about the idea that a civilian would be in charge of their internal affairs investigations?

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Well, I'm sure there will be some resistance initially, but, hopefully, everyone will see through the process, through the implementation process that this is essential for the better. This not only benefits the community. It benefits police officers as well. It makes them able to perform their jobs more effectively, more safely, and provides them with the necessary tools, training, and equipment that they need to do so.

    So, I think that, ultimately, when we look at cities across the country, Cincinnati, for example, where they have come under DOJ guidance with a consent decree, we see that, over time, there has been a transformation in the relationship between the police and the community, where now they have a partnership and true collaborative policing, co-policing, to make the community safer overall.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Ronnie Dunn of Cleveland State University, thank you very much.

  • RONNIE DUNN:

    Thank you.

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