An Ohio judge acquitted a police officer Saturday in connection with the 2012 deaths of two unarmed African Americans. The case most notably included at least 137 rounds fired by police after a car chase, and while it happened long before the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray or Walter Scottt, the ruling Saturday in Cleveland prompted the now-almost-customary protests and arrests of demonstrators. It also came with the now-standard calls for a careful examination of the police.
Three years after the Ohio case began, though, a real resolution -- political or otherwise -- seems as distant as ever. And that's especially when you consider a related-but-unresolved federal civil rights suit filed last year by a group of nine Cleveland police officers involved in the same shooting. In the suit, the group of eight white officers and one Latino claim it is they who have been wronged.
The case, perhaps more than anything, highlights the vast gulf between how police and residents see such cases -- and how hard it will be for them to reach accord.
The police officers who filed suit and many of the unions and conservative politicians who say that they speak for officers increasingly view scrutiny of their actions as unjust persecution -- a form of unnecessary peril unto itself. Those claims are being aired even as the lone officer prosecuted for manslaughter in Cleveland was acquitted and after those involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have also not been punished in other communities -- to the dismay of demonstrators. In Cleveland, the incident involving the 137 shots isn't even the city's only controversial police incident in recent years.
In November, a police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, while he was in a park playing with a toy gun. Late last year, the U.S. Justice Department released the results of its inquiry into the Cleveland Police Department. Justice found evidence that Cleveland officers fired their weapons in several cases when they had no justification to do so, sometimes beat suspects after they were already in handcuffs, often failed to report incidents in which force was used and weren't truthful about events when such reports were filed. And on Tuesday, Cleveland officials agreed to apply strict use of force guidelines to its police force and to accept close federal oversight of police activities.
The problems in Cleveland and several other big cities were no doubt part of the impetus for a pair of White House initiatives – presidential priorities that live in the murky space between high-level attention and concrete policy – announced earlier this month. The first aims to increase the number of police officers outfitted with body cameras. The second collects use of force data from a group of 21 police departments that volunteered to participate in a test project. White House officials say the test could encourage more transparent relationships between police departments and the communities they patrol and resolve disputes up to and including ones that involve death.
Cleveland is not among the 21 cities that volunteered to participate. And that fact, many activists say, is precisely why a mandatory police use of force reporting system should be created. Right now, that reporting is, at best, incomplete.
Still, lawyers representing the group of Cleveland police officers behind the civil rights suit are interested in some of the very same data. Earlier this month, they fought and won a federal court order that will require Cleveland officials to turn over five years worth of data related to officer-involved shootings in that city and the punishments that followed. They say it will reveal clear and pervasive differences in the way that black and non-black officers are treated after an on-the-job shooting occurs.
When that data is delivered, though, it will also almost certainly lead to two vastly different interpretations about precisely what it proves.