Jose Luis Magana / AP Photo

Federal investigation finds reckless use of force by Cleveland police

Twenty-month Justice Department investigation comes one month after Cleveland police killed a 12-year-old

A week after surveillance footage was released showing Cleveland police officers shooting a black 12-year-old, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday said that the city's police officers use excessive and unnecessary force far too often, are poorly trained in using firearms and endanger the public and their fellow officers with their recklessness.

The findings, the result of a 20-month investigation into the city's policing standards, were presented at a press conference by Attorney General Eric Holder. As a result of the investigation, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson signed an agreement with the Justice Department to have a court-appointed monitor oversee reform.

The DOJ investigation found a systemic pattern of reckless and inappropriate use of force by officers and concerns about their search-and-seizure practices. It also said officers frequently violate people's civil rights, blaming faulty tactics, inadequate training and a lack of supervision and accountability. The result is a deep mistrust of the city’s law enforcement authorities, especially in the black community, the report concluded.

The report found that Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) officers "engage in excessive force far too often, and that the use of excessive force by CDP officers is neither isolated, nor sporadic."

The federal investigation was prompted by several highly publicized police encounters, beginning with the deaths in November 2012 of two unarmed men who were fatally wounded when police officers fired 137 shots into a car at the end of a high-speed pursuit. Jackson was among those who asked the Justice Department to step in.

The report comes amid inflamed tensions between police and residents in several cities where white officers have killed young blacks, including New York City and Ferguson, Missouri.

“The tragic losses of these and far too many other Americans – including, just last month, the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice here in Cleveland – have raised urgent, national questions,” said Holder in a statement announcing the DOJ findings.

Holder added that these cases have “sparked an important conversation about the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect.”

Last week, hundreds of people blocked a Cleveland freeway at rush hour to protest those killings and the fatal shooting of Rice by a white officer outside a Cleveland recreation center. Police said the officer thought the boy was holding a firearm, but he actually had an airsoft gun that shoots nonlethal plastic pellets. Rice was shot within two seconds of police officers arriving upon the scene.

The city and Justice Department will begin negotiating an agreement outlining the scope of reforms, which could include the appointment of an independent monitor. A joint statement signed by Jackson, Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio Steven Dettelbach notes that Jackson, the city’s safety director and its police chief "will always retain full authority" to run the police department.

The Justice Department first looked at the use of deadly force by Cleveland’s police force in 2002. Two years later, the department and the city reached an agreement to improve local law enforcement policies, but no court order or independent monitor was assigned.

This investigation, which began in March 2013, reviewed nearly 600 incidents between 2010 and 2013, not all resulting in death, in which police officers used force against citizens. Cleveland officials did not provide many of the documents sought by federal investigators, the report notes.

The Justice Department found that officers are poorly trained on how to control people during arrests and that some officers don't know how to safely handle firearms.

The report highlights one encounter in which a sergeant fired two shots at a man wearing only boxer shorts after he escaped from a home where he and others were being held against their will. The sergeant told police investigators he shot at the man because he had raised an arm and pointed his hand toward the officer.

"No other officers at the scene reported seeing (the man) point anything at the sergeant," the report said.

The 58-page report is especially critical of how the Cleveland police department investigates when officers use force.

The report says specially trained officers assigned to investigate those cases "admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible." Only six officers had been suspended for improper uses of force in three years, “an unreasonably low frequency,” the report found.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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