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DOJ Probe: Cleveland Police Engaged In Unreasonable Force


We have not run out of cities coming under scrutiny for the police use of force. Beyond Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, there is Cleveland. That's where a service came this week for a 12-year-old boy shot to death by police. Tamir Rice was carrying a toy gun at the time. We could describe that as an isolated tragedy except for a federal report suggesting it was not. The Justice Department examined incidents between 2010 and 2013. And the department found a pattern of excessive force by Cleveland police. The 18-month federal civil rights investigation also found police supervisors failed to document and investigate claims of brutality. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For the third time this week, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the cameras to talk about mistrust of law enforcement.


ERIC HOLDER: One of the first things I said when I came back to the Justice Department as attorney general was that the civil rights division was open for business again, and I meant that.

JOHNSON: His civil rights investigators found plenty to criticize in Cleveland. One of them is Assistant Attorney General, Vanita Gupta.


VANITA GUPTA: The investigation concluded that there is a reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland police engage in a pattern and practice of unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

JOHNSON: Federal authorities mentioned a 2012 incident where police fired off 137 rounds at a car, killing two unarmed black people. They described another episode where police kicked a man in the head even though he was handcuffed and on the ground at the time. Their report also cited overuse of Tasers and sprays against people who posed little or no threat to public safety.


STEVE DETTELBACH: In order for this community to thrive, we must not sweep issues under the rug. And that goes especially for the most difficult issues.

JOHNSON: Steve Dettelbach is the U.S. attorney - the top federal prosecutor in Cleveland.


DETTELBACH: When you ignore those kinds of tough questions and tough problems, they grow out of sight into crisis. And they threaten success, basic rights and even safety.

JOHNSON: Justice Department investigators said they were especially troubled by the discipline system. Many incidents never got reported, and others were skewed by police supervisors protecting their own.


DETTELBACH: Individuals who were involved with investigating these claims - these force incidents - actually told us that sometimes they attempt to slant the way they do their reports to try and put things in a favorable light to the officer.

JOHNSON: Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson said he disagreed with some of the Justice Department findings. But Jackson committed to working with justice to make changes to police training and bring in an independent monitor.


FRANK JACKSON: There are problems in the division of the Cleveland police. And this review has demonstrated some of those problems.

JOHNSON: Attorney General Holder said those problems are by no means confined to Cleveland, where an earlier agreement to overhaul the police force during the Bush administration didn't stick. But Holder said meaningful change is possible.


HOLDER: Reform is underway in New Orleans, Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, East Haven, Connecticut, Puerto Rico and Warren, Ohio.

JOHNSON: Vanita Gupta, who leads the Justice Department Civil Rights Unit, said those communities understand there's a lot at stake in restoring confidence in police.


GUPTA: Public safety requires more than a reduction in crime. It is contingent on trust between law enforcement and the community and a shared sense that our criminal justice system operates fairly and legitimately.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department has seven open investigations into police forces across the country. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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