Do cops really need to be told not to pistol-whip people? Not to brutalize someone for talking back? Or shoot them for the “crime” of running away?
The ones in Cleveland apparently do.
Under the terms of the court-administered agreement with the Justice Department called a “consent decree,” the Cleveland police will submit to oversight of numerous aspects of policing from the use of force to police accountability to the utilization of equipment and resources.
But on the heels of another legal verdict exonerating a Cleveland cop for the murder of unarmed African Americans, the question is whether these regulations will change the toxic levels of violence that Cleveland police currently wield with impunity? And what, if anything, will they mean for the ability to win justice for victims of police brutality?
The consent decree, which is being submitted to a federal judge for approval, is the result of a Justice Department investigation into Cleveland police practices from 2010 to 2013. The report from that investigation was released in December—just a week after the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an African American child gunned down by white officer Tim Loehmann. Loehmann opened fire on Tamir just two seconds after he arrived on the scene—not nearly long enough to realize the 12-year-old was holding a toy gun, not a real one.
Last year also saw the death of Tanisha Anderson, who died in police custody after being handcuffed and forced face down onto the pavement. No officer has been held accountable for either death to this date.
The Justice Department report found, among other things, that there was “reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” According to the report:
That pattern manifested in a range of ways, including:
— The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons;
— The unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including Tasers, chemical spray and fists;
— Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and
—The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk.
Under the terms of the consent decree, police will have to document each time a gun is unholstered or they use force, including stun guns and pepper spray.
Of course, it’s incredible that some of the terms even have to be spelled out at all—like rules specifying that police can’t beat up people for “talking back” or a ban on pistol-whipping suspects.
According to the New York Times, “Cleveland also agreed to hire a civilian to lead its internal affairs unit and to appoint an inspector general to investigate police misconduct and analyze policies and trends. The federal authorities believe that those changes, along with an internal panel assigned to review use-of-force cases, will ensure that police keep accurate records and conduct genuine investigations.”
The department will be required to recruit more minority officers to make the force more closely reflect Cleveland’s demographics. Officers will be given crisis intervention training and outfitted with body cameras. In all, the 110-page consent decree details dozens of steps that the Cleveland police must take.
But all the training and body cameras in the world won’t change the fact that the role of police in a capitalist society isn’t to protect and serve everyone equally, but to protect and serve the interests of the tiny few at the top.
That lesson was driven home to Cleveland residents once again last month when, on May 23, Officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of manslaughter in the 2012 deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell—two Black Cleveland residents who died in a hail of 137 shots fired by Brelo and other officers who mistook a backfiring engine for gunshots following a high-speed chase.
During Williams’ and Russell’s killing, Brelo reportedly stood on the hood of the couple’s car to fire at least 15 shots at them from above. Both were riddled with more than 20 bullets by the time the shooting spree was over.
Four of 13 officers eventually placed on leave as a result of the shooting were involved in previous violent confrontations. In 2009, detectives Michael Demchak and Erin O’Donnell “were part of a plainclothes vice squad that approached uniformed corrections officers guarding a hole in a fence surrounding the Northeast Pre-Release Center,” according to Cleveland.com. “One of the guards, Martin Robinson, later sued the city, claiming that four police officers attacked him and falsely arrested him outside the state facility.” The city ultimately settled with Robinson for $900,000—though officials deemed the use of force to be “justified” and took no disciplinary action against the officers. In fact, Jeffrey Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, claimed, “Our officers did a great job.”
After Brelo’s acquittal last weekend, hundreds of people took to the streets, chanting and blocking traffic. A total of 71 people were arrested. “Leading up to the verdict, there was already conversation about preventing rioting because the assumption was, in fact, that [Brelo] was going to get off,” Jacqueline Gillon, a member of Cleveland’s Elizabeth Baptist Church and a lifelong Cleveland resident, told the New York Times. “That’s troubled me from the beginning—that there was never a general belief that justice would be done. It’s another smack in the face for our humanity.”
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that Cleveland’s police force will change the way they operate, despite being singled out by the Justice Department and subject to a consent decree. For one thing, officers will be required to self-report some types of use of force, like drawing their service weapons.
Plus, the track record of similar consent decrees in other cities is hardly impressive. As Simone Weichselbaum, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, wrote:
In Cleveland, where Attorney General Eric Holder appeared in December to decry a longstanding pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by the police, he neglected to mention that the Justice Department had investigated the city’s police a decade before. Justice officials settled that earlier case after the city promised to revise its policing methods.
Plus, the Justice Department unit that deals with police abuses is also overwhelmed by investigations. “The woes of the nation’s 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies have been placed on the shoulders of around 50 lawyers,” Politico reported.
As a result in part, writes Weichselbaum, the Justice Department has developed a kind of pattern following high-profile incidents of police brutality—releasing reports about a city’s policing outrages or announcing agreements for change in the wake of another failure of the system to hold a killer cop accountable, but doing little to enforce actual accountability:
Such announcements have become almost a national ritual in this moment of heightened sensitivity to police conduct, a ready federal response to the charges of bias and abuse that have risen against law enforcement agencies across the country. From Albuquerque to Ferguson, the arrival of the department’s Civil Rights Division has been meant to signal that Washington understands there is a problem and is committed to solving it.
But as the Obama administration has ratcheted up its oversight of state and local law-enforcement agencies, using a 21-year-old law to impose reforms on police forces that show a pattern of civil rights violations, questions about the effectiveness of those interventions have also been on the rise.
In cities like Detroit and New Orleans, officials have railed at the high cost of the Justice Department’s reform plans, including the multimillion-dollar fees paid to the monitors who make sure local officials comply with federal mandates. Elsewhere, some local officials have simply refused to accept what they view as meddlesome dictates, preferring to fight the demands for change in federal court.
Then there is the challenge of making the policing reforms last. Even where local leaders have embraced Washington’s prescriptions, Justice Department officials have increasingly found themselves returning to grapple a second time with problems they thought they had fixed.
Beyond the failures of past attempts at police oversight, of course, is the lived experience of Cleveland residents—especially those who are African American and poor—in their interactions with cops.
That’s why so many people took to the streets following Brelo’s acquittal—chanting, among other things, the name “Tamir Rice.” It was a reminder and a promise that the death of this child at the hands of one of Cleveland’s “finest” won’t go unanswered.
In one of the final indignities they have suffered, Tamir Rice’s family only this month—some six months after he was killed—had his remains cremated. They have been waiting half a year and paying to preserve his remains in the hopes that this would preserve evidence that would help bring his killer to justice.
But while the city is expected to release the results of its investigation—including its decision about whether the killer cop will be held responsible—some time in the next several weeks, the waiting has taken a terrible toll on Tamir’s family. While the investigation was “ongoing,” Tamir’s mother had to move into a homeless shelter—to escape the constant sight of the place where her son was murdered. As Benjamin Crump, an attorney working with Rice’s family, told reporters:
It is so sad that the face of police brutality in America is going to be the 12-year-old face of Tamir Rice. We come here to Cleveland, Ohio, brothers and sisters, where we had video capture the whole entire episode of what happened to claim this baby’s life. And yet, after five months and counting, no one has been charged, no one has been held accountable for the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
No matter what measures the Justice Department has in store for Cleveland police, real justice won’t be served until the killers of Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson and all the other victims of police violence are held accountable.