Cleveland consent decree being watched in Baltimore

The Rev. Jimmy Gates, Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, allowed federal investigators with the Department of Justice to use the church to gather information from residents about encounters with Cleveland police. (Mark Puente/Baltimore Sun video)

WASHINGTON— Following a lengthy investigation that mirrors one taking shape in Baltimore, the U.S. Department of Justice and Cleveland officials unveiled dozens of reforms Tuesday as part of a consent decree to curb the amount of force used when police arrest suspects.

Federal monitors will begin closely watching the activities of Cleveland's police under the settlement, which mandates that police amend their use-of-force policy to ensure it is "proper and lawful," establish a city-wide community police commission, and guarantee that misconduct is "fully, fairly and promptly investigated."


A similar federal "pattern or practice" investigation is in its early stages in Baltimore and the 105-page consent decree illustrates changes that federal officials could demand in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

Once a federal judge approves the Cleveland agreement, that city will be legally bound to enact the reforms to protect the constitutional rights of residents. Baltimore officials are watching what transpires in Cleveland.

"We're reviewing the consent decree to see what lessons can be applied here as we work with the Department of Justice," said Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Some of the biggest reforms in Cleveland include more use-of-force training; a requirement to collect data on police stops, searches and seizures and analyze them for bias; and the addition of crisis-intervention training to help officers when confronting mentally ill people. The consent decree also calls for hiring a police inspector general who will report to the mayor; placing deadlines on the completion and review of use-of-force investigations; and addressing police hiring and recruiting procedures to make the 1,500-officer force more representative of the city.

Some of the reforms proposed in Cleveland have already been addressed in Baltimore. For example, Baltimore's police department already has a civilian director to oversee the Internal Affairs Department, which investigates officer misconduct. Baltimore officers participate in so-called "reality-based" training, in which role-playing is used to practice arrests and other potentially volatile actions. And several hundred Baltimore officers have already been trained for "fair and impartial policing" in the hope that it will improve relations with residents.

But the Baltimore and Cleveland police also share similarities when it comes to excessive force. In describing incidents in reports, officers in both cities often use boilerplate language, stating that suspects became aggressive. Such language will no longer be allowed, and officers will have to better detail incidents when writing reports.

Baltimore and Cleveland have many similarities on the issue of police misconduct — including paying millions of dollars in recent years to settle lawsuits alleging police brutality. In each city, the mayor asked the Justice Department for help after police encounters that sparked local protests and drew international scrutiny.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the consent decree will send a warning message to police departments nationwide at a time when public criticism is rising over questionable deaths at the hands of police officers, particularly in African American communities.

"There is much work to be done, across the nation and in Cleveland, to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve where it has eroded, but it can be done," she said. "Today's agreement may serve as a model for those seeking to address similar issues in their communities."

Steven M. Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, said officers in that city must no longer see the public as the "enemy," and instead realize residents "are a part of the community that the police serve and to whom they should listen."

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said the consent agreement will provide greater accountability and transparency of police officers. "It will define who we are as a people and who we are as a city," Jackson said.

The agreement mandates that every time an officer uses forces, it will be "properly and fully reported and reviewed." The department will create neighborhood policing committees "to provide meaningful input into police matters."

In addition, standards will be set on when an officer can use force, and the city will be required to document each time an officer even unholsters his weapon. Arrests will no longer be made for simply talking back to an officer or running away. Warnings shots will not be allowed and pistol whipping will be banned.

Jackson said Tuesday he hopes the agreement will calm tensions, especially as the community awaits a Justice Department decision on whether to file criminal charges against a white officer in the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by police last year while holding a toy gun, and against other officers who physically restrained and forced a 37-year-old black woman, Tanisha Anderson, to lie face down. She subsequently died and her death was ruled a homicide.


Tensions in the city have been high since a local judge's acquittal on Saturday of a white police officer for manslaughter in the shooting death of an African-American couple in a 2012 police chase. The chase began when police opened fire after mistaking the sound of a car back-firing for gun shots. After the car came to a halt, most officers stopped firing. Officer Michael Brelo jumped on their car hood and continued firing into their windshield. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were both killed.

The court decision ignited protests over the weekend, leading to the arrest of 56 people.

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, a Democrat and African American whose district includes part of Cleveland, hailed the Justice Department announcement as "a turning point for the city of Cleveland, its police department and its citizens."

Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, an African-American leader, praised the requirement for police to gather and publish data on race and gender when they encounter the public. "I think we hit the ball out of the ballpark today," Reed said.

Councilman Matt Zone, a white councilman and chairman of the city's safety committee, said that after the Justice Department launched its investigation in December, the city council held five meetings to hear residents' frustrations with police. Most people wanted more police training and a tougher civilian review board, both now in the consent agreement.

"Those are two things that I think the community is going to be excited about," Zone said.

Though most of the work on the case was done while Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. ran the Justice Department, Tuesday's announcement is the first from his successor, Loretta Lynch.


Earlier this month, after Gray died and riots erupted in Baltimore, she announced the opening of the investigation into the Baltimore Police Department. The Baltimore state's attorney has brought criminal charges against six police officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport.

Serrano reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles.

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