Imagine what federal investigations could uncover about your local police force.
It’s been less than two weeks since a Cleveland police officer gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was playing with a toy gun in a park. In that time, protests have exploded across the nation over the grand jury decisions in the police brutality cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Cleveland yesterday with another wake-up call about the severity of the police misconduct problem.
Holder was in town to deliver the findings [PDF] from a two-year Department of Justice investigation of the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force. And the results, well, they won’t do much to alleviate the public’s concerns about police. The DOJ found that Cleveland Police “engage in a pattern of excessive use of force,” are “poorly trained” and “reckless,” and that the department “frequently deprives individuals of their constitutional rights.”
The DOJ’s investigation was prompted by a horrifying 2012 case of police violence, in which officers from that department and others were involved in a high-speed chase that ended with 137 bullets being fired into the car of a fleeing couple. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were found dead and unarmed.
Now, the Cleveland Police Department will be forced to operate under a consent decree, with supervision from the feds. Here are some of the more shocking details they uncovered:
1. Officers Pistol Whipped People
Officers were “hitting people in the head with their guns” in other words, pistol whipping them.
2. They Punched People Already in Handcuffs
There were instances where officers punched, pepper sprayed, or otherwise assaulted suspects already in handcuffs. The DOJ found the officers acted violently toward cuffed individuals “as punishment” for mouthing off or disobeying a command before they were restrained “not based on a current threat posed by the person.”
3. The Cleveland Police Used Force Against Mentally Ill People
Officers used force in some cases where they were simply called to do welfare checks on individuals who were mentally ill or going through a crisis.
4. They Fired Weapons Carelessly, Sometimes Threatening Innocent Bystanders
Cleveland police officers accidentally discharged weapons, sometimes shooting and seriously injuring people. They “often” fire their guns, the report found, in ways that threaten innocent bystanders.
5. Officers Habitually “Escalated” Tense Situations
Officers failed to use “de-escalation techniques” and instead often made volatile situations worse, “employing force when it may not be needed and could have been avoided.”
6. Superiors Condoned Inappropriate and Illegal Actions by Officers
Officers were almost never punished for use of excessive force, and internal accountability systems seemed designed to excuse bad behavior. In the past three years, only 51 of the 1,500 Cleveland officers were disciplined for use-of-force issues, and the vast majority of those were related to technical or administrative lapses like improper reporting. Furthermore, misconduct investigations, the DOJ concluded, appeared to be “designed from the outset to justify the officers’ actions.” Some of the officers responsible for leading these types of investigations admitted to DOJ officials that they sought to portray the involved officers as positively as possible.
7. The Police Department Viewed Itself as an “Occupying Force”
The DOJ found police officers have an “us-versus-them” mentality toward the community they serve. For example, officials noticed a sign at one of the stations that said “forward operating base,” a term used in the military to denote bases of operation in a war zone. “This characterization reinforces the view held by some—both inside and outside the Division—that CDP is an occupying force instead of a true partner and resource in the community it serves,” the report concluded.
8. The DOJ Investigated the Department 10 Years Ago and Found Mostly the Same Thing
The DOJ concluded a similar investigation in 2004. The findings were “starkly similar,” but the voluntary reforms taken by the department did not correct the “systemic” problems.
9. The Same Two Men Led the Department as the Last Time DOJ Investigated
As The Plain Dealer newspaper pointed out, frustratingly, the top two men at the police department—Martin Flask and Michael McGrath—were both in leadership positions the last time the DOJ investigated and uncovered major problems.
10. The Officer Who Shot Tamir Rice had a Shaky Employment History
This doesn’t come from the DOJ report, but local media has uncovered that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir Rice, had a less than exemplary history at his previous police officer job in a nearby suburb. A personnel file released after the shooting reported he was “distracted and weepy” during firearms training. He also had difficulty following directions, a history of lying, and his superior officers questioned whether he had “the maturity” to perform his job. Cleveland police have said they did not review the file before hiring Loehmann, who had been on the job just six months at the time of the shooting.