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Appalling stories from the DOJ’s investigation of the Cleveland Police Department

On Thursday, the Department of Justice released a scathing investigation of the Cleveland Police Department that found that officers there have engaged in a pattern of excessive and deadly force against residents — using guns, tasers, chemical spray and fists — in violation of their rights.

Investigators uncovered officers firing their guns at people who posed them no threat, using lethal force out of proportion to the resistance they met, and escalating incidents that might have been disarmed instead. The department, meanwhile, systemically failed to hold officers accountable, or even to document many of these incidents. The report is particularly stinging given that it comes a decade after the DOJ's last investigation of the Cleveland PD, when it uncovered charges "starkly similar to the findings" today.

The document is a painful, often shocking read. But it's also a good primer for anyone unconvinced of the need for police reform. Below are some of the most distressing stories documented in the report.

The DOJ found Cleveland police officers shooting at people who presented neither serious nor imminent threats. In this 2013 incident, a sergeant fired at a victim, "Anthony," fleeing a home where he was being held against his will by armed suspects:

When officers arrived on scene, they had information that two armed assailants were holding several people inside the home. After officers surrounded the house, Anthony escaped from his captors and ran from the house, wearing only boxer shorts. An officer ordered Anthony to stop, but Anthony continued to run toward the officers. One sergeant fired two shots at him, missing. According to the sergeant, when Anthony escaped from the house, the sergeant believed Anthony had a weapon because he elevated his arm and pointed his hand toward the sergeant. No other officers at the scene reported seeing Anthony point anything at the sergeant.
The sergeant’s use of deadly force was unreasonable. It is only by fortune that he did not kill the crime victim in this incident.

The report found officers striking suspects even after they had been handcuffed:

In another incident, an officer punched a handcuffed 13 year-old boy in the face several times. Officers had arrested the juvenile for shoplifting. While “Harold” was handcuffed in the zone car, he began to kick the door and kicked an officer in the leg. In response, the 300 pound, 6’4” tall officer entered the car and sat on the legs of the 150 pound, 5’8” tall handcuffed boy. Harold was pushing against the officer with his legs, but was handcuffed and posed no threat to the officer. Nevertheless, the officer continued to sit on Harold and punched him in the face three to four times until he was “stunned/dazed” and had a bloody nose.

And using their tasers inappropriately:

In one incident that illustrates CDP’s inappropriate use of Tasers, an officer used his Taser to drive stun a 127-pound juvenile twice as two officers held him on the ground. Officers believed that “Ivan” matched the description of a possible fleeing suspect wanted for harassing store customers and stealing. Officers chased Ivan on foot, caught up to him, and tackled him. The officers alleged that the 127-pound juvenile “continued to resist” as they both held him on ground, prompting one of the officers to deploy his Taser twice in the juvenile’s back in drive stun mode, even though both officers were holding him down.

In other cases, officers deployed unreasonable force against people with mental illness:

We reviewed one incident where—in response to a request for assistance—a CDP officer tased a suicidal, deaf man who committed no crime, posed minimal risk to officers and may not have understood officers’ commands. “Larry’s” mother had requested CDP’s assistance because her son, who has bipolar disorder and communicates through sign language, was holding broken glass against his neck and threatening suicide. When officers arrived, Larry went into the bathroom and sat on the edge of a half-filled tub. The officers followed and, without confirming that Larry could communicate through notes, wrote him a note saying that he needed to go to the hospital. Larry waved his hands “aggressively,” which the officers interpreted as refusal. One of the officers then grabbed Larry’s arm. Larry pulled back, “struggling” with the officer. The other officer then yelled “Taser” and pointed his finger at his Taser. Larry continued to struggle, so the officer tased Larry in his chest.

Or needing medical care:

In another incident involving the use of a Taser against a person in crisis, a CDP officer tased a man, despite the fact that he was suffering a medical emergency and was strapped onto a gurney in the back of an ambulance, because he was verbally threatening officers.

The report found officers who did not "consider carefully enough their actions" when drawing their weapons:

In one instance, an officer’s decision to draw his gun while trying to apprehend an unarmed hit-and-run suspect resulted in him accidentally shooting the man in the neck. The man was critically injured.

These stories don't even touch on the DOJ's second grave set of conclusions: that the department failed do much about such misconduct after it occurred.

It's true that police need to deploy force at times, to protect themselves and others. And many incidents — the death of Michael Brown is one of them — exist in a gray area between self defense and misconduct where it's hard to identify for certain police abuse. But the DOJ's report from Cleveland makes clear that there can also be stark lines around what's wrong, and where reform is needed.