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Cleveland Police Who Commit Brutality Benefit from Investigators Who Cast Conduct in ‘Most Positive Light Possible’

The civil rights division of the Justice Department released its findings from an investigation into the Cleveland Police Department’s pattern of use of deadly and “less lethal force” by officers. It uncovered incidents of officers striking suspects in the head with “impact weapons,” using tasers, chemical spray and fists in acts of retaliation, “excessive force” against persons suffering from mental illness. The investigation concluded that supervisors tolerate this conduct and sometimes even endorse conduct that amounts to routine violations of Fourth Amendment rights.

The use of force was blamed on “systemic deficiencies,” such as a “failure to adequately review and and investigate officers’ uses of force” and “fully investigate all allegations of misconduct.” What made the findings even more troubling was the fact that ten years ago the Justice Department conducted a similar review that uncovered similar systemic deficiencies.

The Justice Department decided a “consent decree,” a legally binding settlement, and an “independent monitor” were necessary to help ensure change in the police department happens this time around.

The culture of corruption in the department may be prevalent in various police departments in the United States. That does not make the description of how instances of brutality typically go improperly reported, undocumented, uninvestigated and unpunished any less remarkable.

“Supervisors throughout the chain of command endorse questionable and sometimes unlawful conduct by officers,” according to the Justice Department. “We reviewed supervisory investigations of officers’ use of force that appear to be designed from the outset to justify the officers’ actions. Deeply troubling to us was that some of the specially-trained investigators who are charged with conducting unbiased reviews of officers’ use of deadly force admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible.”

The Internal Affairs Unit apparently advised the Justice Department that “they will only find that an officer violated division policy if theevidence against the officer proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an officer engaged in misconduct—an unreasonably high standard reserved for criminal prosecutions and inappropriate in this context. This standard apparently has been applied, formally or informally, for years to these investigations and further supports the finding that the accountability systems
regarding use of force at CDP are structurally flawed.”

“A finding of excessive force” by the Cleveland Police Department’s “internal disciplinary system is exceedingly rare. A member of the Office of Professional Standards (or “OPS”), which, among other duties, has been charged with investigating use of deadly force incidents, stated that the office has not reviewed a deadly force incident since 2012.”

Multiple examples of police brutality are recounted in the Justice Department’s report on its investigation.

In one incident, a Cleveland officer used a taser on a man who was “suffering a medical emergency and was strapped onto a gurney in the back of an ambulance, because he was verbally threatening officers.”

…Two officers had been flagged down because the man was having seizures and, at the time, was lying on the sidewalk. When the officers spoke with “Mark,” he told them that he suffers from grand mal seizures and that he had been drinking. Officers called EMS and, while waiting for EMS to arrive, observed Mark have at least four more seizures. When EMS arrived, officers assisted him into the ambulance, where he was strapped onto a gurney. Once strapped down, Mark became angry and threatened to punch one of the officers and one of the medics. He then tried to unstrap himself from the gurney and balled his fist, stating that he would prefer to walk home. One of the officers then unholstered his Taser, told Mark to calm down, and threatened three times to tase him. Mark continued to try to stand up while threatening to beat the officer. The officer then drive stunned Mark on his top left shoulder. Mark had committed no crime, was strapped down and was in the midst of a medical crisis. His repeated seizures may also have left him confused and disoriented. Indeed, there is no indication that Mark could carry out his threat against the officers, particularly when he was strapped to the gurney…

“Drive stunned” is a method of taser use that involves using the weapon in order to inflict pain “as a compliance measure without incapacitating the subject.”

Another “particularly troubling incident” took place in February 2013. Cleveland officer placed a “spit sock” on a mentally ill suspect named “Kent” and pepper sprayed the “spit sock” while he was in handcuffs in the back of a “zone car.” “Kent” was forced to keep wearing the “spit sock” after it had been sprayed.

…The incident began when officers responded to a male who called 911 and threatened to ‘blow up the government,’ among other threats. Numerous zone cars responded to Kent’s home. Officers placed Kent in handcuffs and, because he was spitting on them, they placed a spit sock, a hood which helps prevent the transfer of diseases from spitting, over his head. They then placed him in a zone car. Kent began to kick at the rear windows of the zone car, and a sergeant opened the door and ordered Kent to stop. Kent tried to spit on the sergeant and began kicking the window again. The sergeant then sprayed OC spray in the man’s face, over the spit sock. CDP records reflect that Kent was not immediately decontaminated, but rather was transported and not decontaminated until he arrived at the hospital…

The Justice Department called this conduct “cruel” and noted that the chain of command had not questioned the pepper spraying at all.

In 2013, a sergeant shot at a victim who was fleeing a house where he had been held against his will. There was no reason to believe that “Anthony” posed any immediate danger. He was “wearing only boxer shorts” when he escaped a house where he had been held hostage. Yet, the sergeant fired his weapon and almost killed the victim of a crime.

“A reasonable officer in these circumstances should not have shot at Anthony,” the report stated. “When officers arrived on scene, they had information that two armed assailants were holding several people inside the home.

“In a situation where people are being held against their will in a home, a reasonable police officer ought to expect that someone fleeing the home may be a victim. Police also ought to expect that a scared, fleeing victim may run towards the police and, in his confusion and fear, not immediately respond to officer commands.”

The Justice Department also examined documents that suggested officers were violating the Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting suspects to “stops, frisks and full searches” without reasonable suspicion. “Individuals were searched ‘for officer safety’ without any articulation of a reason to fear for officer safety.”

The investigation was launched in March 2013 after several incidents of police brutality became public.

In January 2011, officers beat up an African-African man named Edward Henderson after he “fled from the police in a vehicle, leading officers on a chase that lasted about six minutes.” Officers were eventually able to apprehend him and he complied with commands by police to “lay prone on the ground and spread his arms and legs.”

Infrared video from a Cleveland police helicopter that had been used to pursue Henderson showed Henderson being kicked and struck by multiple officers. He was brought to a hospital “with a broken orbital bone.”

On November 29, 2012, “over 100 Cleveland police officers engaged in a high speed chase,” violating Cleveland police department policies and “fatally shot two unarmed civilians.”

Officers heard a car backfire as it drove past the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. The officers thought this was a gun being shot from the car. Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams were chased by “at least 62 police vehicles, some of which were unmarked, and more than 100 patrol officers, supervisors and dispatchers—about 37 percent” of police personnel on duty in Cleveland.

The pursuit lasted twenty-five minutes.

“The chase finally ended outside the city’s borders, in an East Cleveland school parking lot,” with police vehicles in front of and behind Russell’s car, according to the Justice Department.

“In circumstances that are still being disputed in court, thirteen CDP officers ultimately fired 137 shots at the car, killing both its occupants. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams each suffered more than 20 gunshot wounds. The officers, who were firing on the car from all sides, reported believing that they were being fired at by the suspects. It now appears that those shots were being fired by fellow officers.”

While the Justice Department did not report Cleveland police engage in racial profiling, the investigation acknowledged that “many African-Americans” assert that officers are “verbally and physically aggressive toward them because of their race.” And, “when community members attempt to file complaints about mistreatment at the hands of [Cleveland] officers, they are met with barriers and resistance.”

The results of the Justice Department’s investigation were released weeks after a Cleveland officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun.

The investigation was one of at least 17 investigations into city police departments that have been launched by the Justice Department under President Barack Obama.

For more on the investigation, here’s the findings released by the Justice Department: PDF.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Dickelbers

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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