Federal probe of Cleveland police a preview for Baltimore

Federal probe in Cleveland shows its could take years to reform Baltimore police.

In a scene reminscent of the recent demonstrations in Baltimore, hundreds of protesters flooded Cleveland's streets Saturday to denounce police brutality after a white officer was acquitted of fatally shooting two blacks motorists in 2012.

The judge's verdict, delivered on a weekend morning, put top city and police officials on edge as they called on protesters to refrain from the violence that erupted last month in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death. Federal authorities, including the FBI, pledged to review the case and explore legal options, as Mayor Frank Jackson urged calm.

"This is a defining moment for Cleveland," the mayor said, while reminding residents that city and federal officials are negotiating terms of a consent decree aimed at reforming the police department.

But the angry protests highlighted the rift between residents and city leaders nearly six months after a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation concluded that Cleveland Division of Police officers engaged "in a pattern or practice of unreasonable and in some cases unnecessary force" on residents. Cleveland's experience provides a preview of what Baltimoreans can expect from a similar investigation being launched here in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

An examination of the process in Cleveland shows it could take several years before court-mandated reforms are enacted to curb alleged abuses in the Baltimore Police Department. The Justice Department's work in Cleveland began in early 2013 and culminated in a scathing 58-page report in December.

Even after the federal agency completes a report outlining any problems in Baltimore, months of negotiations could follow to settle on potential solutions — and their cost. And as a recent heated meeting in a Cleveland gym showed, it could take more time to restore trust among officials, police and residents.

Baltimore and Cleveland have many similarities on the issue of police misconduct. Both blue-collar cities have paid millions of dollars in recent years to settle brutality lawsuits against officers. In each city, the mayor asked the Justice Department for help after police encounters that sparked local protests and drew international scrutiny.

In Baltimore, it was the death of Gray, 25, from spinal injuries sustained in police custody. In Cleveland, it was a chase that ended with officers kicking a handcuffed man on the ground and a shootout in which a car was riddled with 137 bullets; more recently, many residents were incensed by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot by police while holding a toy gun in November.

Now, as Baltimore prosecutors prepare the criminal cases against six officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport, Cleveland is working to head off potential unrest that could follow rulings in two high-profile incidents.

Cleveland leaders are worried about the reaction from residents after Officer Michael Brelo's acquittal Saturday. He had been charged with voluntary manslaughter for firing 49 of the 137 bullets into a car at the end of the 2012 chase; the driver and passenger died.

Meanwhile, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor will soon decide whether to file charges against officers in Tamir's death. The county sheriff is expected to give its investigative findings to the prosecutor in the coming weeks.

After violence erupted in Baltimore, Cleveland officials asked activists, ministers and neighborhood leaders to identify hot spots for possible unrest in that city's five police districts. The teams have been talking daily to discuss chatter heard on the streets.

"We will not accept any damage to personal property," Blaine Griffin, head of the Community Relations Board, told residents at a recent community meeting. "We don't want a riot in Cleveland."

Tactical errors, excess force

The 2012 car chase started because an officer thought someone had fired a gun from a vehicle passing the Justice Center, a building that houses police headquarters and courts. More than 100 officers and 60 police vehicles participated in the pursuit.

Gunfire erupted when the chase ended in East Cleveland. Driver Timothy Russell, 43, was shot 23 times, and passenger Malissa Williams, 30, was shot 24 times.

Investigators concluded that Russell's 1979 Chevrolet Malibu had backfired as it passed an officer. An investigation by the state attorney general concluded that the incident was the result of a "systemic failure" of police leaders.

In the Justice Department's review of Cleveland police, investigators cited abuses such as excessive use of force with weapons, including chemical spray, Tasers and fists. The report said the police had used excessive force against the mentally ill and often turned nonviolent encounters into dangerous situations.

Investigators said Cleveland officers sometimes commit tactical errors that endanger themselves and residents, and often fire their weapons in situations that place innocent bystanders at risk. One of the biggest deficiencies that investigators found was the department's "failure to implement effective and rigorous accountability systems."

In total, federal officials reviewed more than 1,000 reports of incidents in which Cleveland officers used force or less-than-lethal force on suspects. They examined another 60 reports of officers using deadly force between 2010 and 2013.

The 58-page federal report on Cleveland mirrors The Baltimore Sun's findings last year on brutality allegations here. The Sun revealed that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct, and that dozens of black residents received battered faces and broken bones during questionable arrests.

From 2004 to 2014, Cleveland paid out at least $8 million in 60 lawsuits related to police misconduct, according to The Plain Dealer newspaper.

Cleveland and Baltimore share similarities when it comes to excessive force. In describing incidents involving the use of force, officers in both cities often use boilerplate language, stating that suspects became aggressive. Neither city had an adequate early warning system to detect problem officers. And neither city comprehensively tracked civil lawsuits against officers.

Federal investigators found that officers in Cleveland frequently drew their guns on people who posed no danger or were stopped for minor crimes — a frequent complaint from Baltimore residents.

Steven M. Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said a series of incidents sparked the federal probe, not any single event. Federal officials took no joy in the findings, he added.

"In order for this community to thrive, we must not sweep issues and problems under the rug," Dettelbach said in announcing the report. "And that goes especially for the most difficult problems. When communities ignore tough problems, they grow into crises that threaten our success, our basic rights and even our safety. We have to address them head on."

In December, Jackson agreed to a "statement of principles" on the findings and stood with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other federal officials at the announcement. While speaking to reporters, the mayor disputed some of the data and examples used to reach conclusions. He pledged, however, to reach a consent decree and to work with a federal monitor to implement reforms.

"The concern I have is, I don't think it goes far enough, to be honest with you," Jackson said at the announcement, adding that federal officials should examine the entire justice system, not just the police. "But in terms of systemic failure, I maintain that there is no systemic failure. There [are] significant problems that we have to address."

Dettelbach and Jackson declined interview requests last week because of the continuing negotiations to reach a consent decree. But leaders of Cleveland's two police unions, who are often at odds with City Hall, support Jackson's challenge to the findings.

Steve Loomis, head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, said about federal attorneys, "Those people sit behind mahogany desks and aren't out here in the trenches. Let me poach through 600 reports, and I can make the Cleveland police department look like Mayberry."

Capt. Brian Betley, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, said the unions cannot sit idle if local or federal officials try to erode the rights of officers and supervisors through the consent decree.

Betley said officers are "looking over their shoulders. It's going to take years to fix."

'A lot of work' ahead

If the Justice Department investigation in Baltimore follows the pattern in Cleveland, over the next 18 months federal attorneys and investigators will interview hundreds of residents, officers from across the force, elected officials, police union leaders and religious leaders. Thousands of documents will be examined, including Police Department policies, procedures and training materials.

A dedicated phone line and email account will be created so residents can provide information. In conjunction with civil rights attorneys in Washington, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, and his staff will likely take the lead role in negotiating a consent decree once the attorney general announces findings.

In Cleveland, federal investigators and attorneys met with residents at churches, community centers and other public places to gather examples of police using force in arrests. They then attempted to corroborate those allegations with police records.

But some information did not come easily.

The Rev. Jimmy Gates of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church said some congregants feared talking to federal investigators in a large gathering because they are viewed as members of law enforcement. Residents eventually provided information in more intimate settings, he said.

Gates expects better days after reforms are enacted.

"The residents of the city of Cleveland are deeply wounded right now," he said. "We have a lot of work cut out for us in Cleveland. The covers have been pulled off on a long history of police misconduct."

The Rev. Jawanza Colvin, pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, said the biggest issue in Cleveland involves the lack of jobs and education for the poorest residents. Still, he said, Clevelanders expect to be treated equally by police officers, regardless of their skin color.

The coming changes provide hope for residents, Colvin added.

"You need the public outcry," he said. "You need people calling for change. You need the public accountability."

'We lost an entire generation'

In the days after the Justice Department released its report, Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone, chair of the Public Safety Committee, convened a series of Listening Tours to hear from residents.

At the citywide meetings, which were attended by a majority of council members, Zone said more than 600 residents expressed anger and distrust toward police. Many were frustrated by the lack of community policing. Others called for more training to eliminate bias and make police more sensitive to community concerns.

Zone said it will take several decades for police to regain the trust of residents.

Residents "simply want bias-free policing, regardless of race, color and creed," Zone said. "Policing is more about responding and defusing situations, not escalating situations."

Still, he noted that as the nation is mired in a debate over police-community relations, some residents want officers to be more courteous while others want police to tamp down crime. "The police can't win in either scenario," he said.

Some City Council members, ministers and police union leaders believe the police department's relationship with residents suffered in 2004 when the city laid off 400 officers amid a budget crisis. The cuts eliminated a popular community policing program and closed small, neighborhood police stations where officers filed reports and interacted with residents.

Loomis, the patrol union president, wants the city to dedicate patrol cars to certain zones in each district so officers get to know residents and business owners. Other recommendations include adding five weeks to the police academy to teach communications skills, and bringing back foot and bike patrols.

He also wants the city to dedicate empty offices in recreation centers, pools, libraries and community centers for officers to file reports and meet residents. The young men committing most of the crimes in recent years never had the chance to interact with officers in the former program, he said.

"Let them meet Officer Friendly," Loomis said in the Zone Car lounge inside union headquarters. "We're not there to arrest anybody. We need to get back out in the community. We have to start with the young kids. We lost an entire generation."

Gates agreed.

"We need to get accustomed to shaking hands and greeting officers every day," the pastor said. "You develop relationships and tend to have a higher level of respect for each other. Those relationships could deter some criminal acts."

Zack Reed, the City Council's biggest critic of the police force, said the downfall of the community-policing program hurt the city. Still, Cleveland will move forward once the consent decree is finalized, he said after a council meeting.

"We're going to have someone watching over our shoulders constantly now " Reed said about the independent monitor called for in the consent decree. "It's no more of this independent bureaucracy of us against police officers. It's going to be the police, the community and the feds."

'A right to be angry'

While officials offer suggestions for reforming the Cleveland Division of Police, residents' emotions remain raw. And those emotions were on display at a recent meeting in a rundown recreation center in Cleveland's Fairfax community.

With a "Justice for Tamir" poster raised above her head, Michelle Thomas, Tamir Nelson's aunt, delivered a message to Mayor Jackson. "It's nothing it seems like to the city of Cleveland that a child is dead due to your policies, your officers and the stuff that you have set in place as the mayor," said Thomas, sobbing. "It seems to be OK for them to do anything they want. You sit back and you do nothing."

"Ma'am, I can't argue with you. There's nothing that I can say. You lost a family member," the third-term mayor said, displaying a calm demeanor at the meeting in a neighborhood bordered by Interstate 77 and old factories. University Circle, home to Case Western Reserve University and the city's prestigious museums, sits to the north.

For more than two hours, Jackson heard residents talk about perceived mistreatment from officers. While dozens of residents struck different tones toward Jackson, their message was clear: They want more accountability from police.

And they were incensed about Tamir's death.

In November 2014, a police dispatcher received a phone call about a male sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people in a city park. Two officers responded. A 26-year-old rookie officer fired two shots when, he said, the suspect reached for a gun in his waistband. Police later learned that Tamir's gun was a toy replica.

Some questioned why the probe into his death has taken six months. They noted that the shooting was captured on surveillance video at a recreation center — and that in Baltimore, charges against six officers came within weeks of Gray's death.

One resident accused Jackson of worrying more about Cleveland hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention than reforming the police force.

"Be angry, Mayor Jackson. Represent us," a man yelled.

"You have a right to be angry," Jackson later told residents. "You have a right to be frustrated."

He reminded residents that he enacted reforms to curb the use of force in 1993 when he was on the City Council. He also said that he requested the federal probe to bring more accountability to the police force and that arbitrators sometimes overrule the city's decision to terminate officers.

Those explanations did not sway the crowd.

As residents continued to raise their hands for a microphone, Jackson told them it is easy to criticize someone while sitting on the sidelines. To bring about change, he told them, become police officers, lawyers or judges, or take other jobs in the criminal justice system.

"The criticism, relevant or not, I accept," Jackson said. "But I'm going to ask you: 'What are you doing?'"

Police Chief Calvin Williams said more accountability is on the way. The agency began rolling out body cameras two months ago, and all officers — including him — could be wearing them by November, he said.

Thomas, Tamir's aunt, repeatedly implored Jackson to release more information on the case. He said the case is out of the city's hands because the sheriff's department is conducting the investigation.

"I don't want to be angry, but I'm mad," Thomas said. "Don't expect us to go away until you do the right thing."

"I intend to," Jackson replied.

Thomas slumped in her seat and continued to cry. Williams walked over and bent down to console her. He whispered to her and held her hand.

Jackson later thanked residents for attending the meeting. He shook hands with many as they left.

Thomas, standing four feet away, apologized to the mayor for shouting at him. Jackson told Thomas she didn't need to apologize. He said he understood her family's frustration.

Jackson and Thomas then embraced for about five seconds before walking away in different directions.

mpuente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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