The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the city of Cleveland over the conduct of its police officers, according to a Justice official, the latest case in which the Obama administration has investigated excessive use of force and the violation of constitutional rights by a local department.
The settlement, amid the growing national debate about American policing, is expected to be announced early this week, the official said. It comes just days after a judge acquitted a Cleveland police officer for his role in the fatal shooting of two unarmed people in a car in 2012 after officers thought the sound of the car backfiring was gunshots.
The Justice Department in December issued a scathing report that accused the Cleveland Police Department of illegally using deadly force against citizens. The Justice Department’s civil rights division found that the Cleveland police engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unnecessary force — including shooting residents, striking them in the head and spraying them with chemicals.
In one incident, an officer used a stun gun on “a suicidal, deaf man who committed no crime, posed minimal risk to officers and may not have understood officers’ commands.”
The police were also accused of repeatedly punching in the face a handcuffed 13-year-old boy who had been arrested for shoplifting.
The Cleveland report was released the month after a 12-year-old African American boy, Tamir Rice, was fatally shot by a white Cleveland police officer. Cleveland officers had responded to a 911 call that reported a person pointing a gun. It turned out to be a toy pistol.
A Justice Department spokeswoman would not comment on the settlement, which was first reported on the Web site of the New York Times.
When last year’s report about Cleveland was released, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to the city to announce the findings and said the Justice Department and the city had agreed to establish an independent monitor who would oversee police reforms. The changes will include better training and better supervision of officers, Holder said.
In the past five years, the Justice Department’s civil rights division has opened more than 20 investigations of police departments across the country, more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five. The department has entered into 15 agreements with law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with nine of them. They include the New Orleans and Albuquerque police departments.
The Cleveland settlement will be the first under the new attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch.
Justice Department officials would not provide any details of the Cleveland settlement. But other cases have required an independent monitor and significant changes in training and policies.
Since April 27, when Lynch was sworn in as the first African American woman to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official, she has been immersed in the debate on policing tactics. Her first meeting with President Obama was to discuss the violence in Baltimore after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers have been indicted in connection with Gray’s death.
Lynch’s first official trip was to Baltimore to meet with the mayor, law enforcement officials and community leaders. She also met with Gray’s family and spoke with an officer who was injured in the violence.
At her first news conference, on May 8, Lynch announced that the Justice Department had opened a broad “pattern or practice” investigation into the Baltimore Police Department to determine whether officers have committed systemic constitutional violations.
The investigation is separate from the Justice Department’s criminal civil rights probe into the death of Gray.
Similarly, the settlement with the city of Cleveland is separate from the Justice Department’s investigation into the conduct of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo.
On Saturday, a judge found Brelo, a 31-year-old white officer, not guilty of two counts of felony manslaughter in the deaths of African Americans Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30.
Hours of protests ensued in downtown Cleveland, and the Justice Department released a statement saying that the Cleveland U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI and the department’s civil rights division were all still investigating the case.
Russell and Williams were killed in November 2012 after they led 62 police vehicles on a chase across Cleveland. When Russell’s car finally stopped, 13 officers opened fire and shot at least 137 rounds into the vehicle. Brelo was accused of being the only one who continued to shoot after any possible threat was contained. Prosecutors said he climbed onto the hood of the car and shot 15 rounds into the windshield, striking both Russell and Williams.
“We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system,” said the statement from several officials, including Vanita Gupta, head of the civil rights division.
As with the Ferguson, Mo., civil rights investigation into the August death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department faces a high bar in bringing federal civil rights charges. Prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo intended to violate the constitutional rights of Russell and Williams.
When Holder released the December report about the “unreasonable and unnecessary” use of force by the Cleveland police, he said he was hopeful that “meaningful change” was possible in the police department.
“Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve,” Holder said.