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Why the Cleveland police need to clean up their act

Gregory Love says he was trying to make a turn when a police officer shot him and then fined him $100

Gregory Love said he was trying to make a right turn early one morning in June 2013 when a Cleveland police officer stopped him. He tried to reverse his car and the officer came up to the driver's side window and ordered him to turn off his car.

Love said he threw his hands up. Next thing the 29-year-old knew, he said the cop stepped back, aimed and fired.

The bullet went into the right side of his chest and exited under his arm.

"I got my arms up and I looked down and I'm like, 'Oh my God, you just shot me!'" said Love, who was unarmed. "… He's just standing there with the gun aimed at me, so now I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, he's going to kill me."

A Vine video of the incident filmed by an onlooker appears to show at least one of Love's hands up when the officer was at the driver's side. After he was shot, he said officers handcuffed him and charged him with making an illegal turn.

"I really started to see the blood coming from my body. I could feel the blood leaving me," he said. "I'm begging him, 'Can you please take these cuffs off me? They're killing me.'"

Doctors told Love he was lucky to be alive.

Love hired lawyer Nicholas Dicello of Spangenberg, Shibley & Liber LLP and sued the city, accusing Officer Vincent Montague of subjecting him to excessive force.

 In response, Montague said he stopped him because he was acting "belligerent … and verbally threatening" and thought he was "likely intoxicated."

Love denies those claims. In the end, the department fined Love $100 for making an illegal turn, while Montague served a one-day suspension

Love's case is one of dozens cited in a recent Department of Justice investigation into Cleveland’s police force. The blistering 58-page report added more fuel to the protests that swept the country over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And it landed while the city was still grieving Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot dead while he played with a BB gun by a Cleveland officer previously judged unfit for a suburban force.

According to the DOJ review, the Cleveland Police Department engaged in a "pattern or practice" of excessive force, caused in part by "systemic deficiencies" like subpar training, a failure to adequately investigate misconduct and hold people accountable, and officers who “carelessly fire their weapons.” It called the department's use of force "chaotic and dangerous." 

The chase

The DOJ began its investigation in 2013 after a series of police shootings, most notably an incident dubbed the “Cleveland atrocity.” Believing the occupants of a car had fired a weapon at them, 60 police cars, and 100 officers, gave chase, pummeling a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu with 137 bullets. The driver, Timothy Russell, was struck 23 times. The passenger, Malissa Williams, was hit 24 times.

Both of them were unarmed. Both were killed.

"When I found out it was him, I was shocked," Russell's younger sister Michelle Russell told America Tonight. "Because everything that was being announced about the person that was fleeing from police and was ramming the police car and all this kind of stuff was totally out of character for him."

The case was so outrageous that Cleveland's mayor asked the Department of Justice to come in and investigate the police force. The police department now has to reach a consent decree to clean up its act. 

An officer involved in the Russell case faces trial for manslaughter. And Michelle Russell and her family won $1.5 million in damages in a wrongful-death suit. But the family is still grieving and they hope the DOJ report will signal that officers can't act with impunity.

"I feel it's definitely a step in the right direction," she said. "They came back with a lot of findings and there was a lot of things that need to be reformed in the city of Cleveland and the police."

But some are skeptical. After all, this wasn't the first time the DOJ had come to town. 

'Room for improvement'

For nearly 20 years, the federal government has been investigating local police departments accused of civil rights violations. The Los Angeles Police Department was one of the first to come under the Department of Justice's scrutiny, after a decade of police scandals that began with the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

The LAPD, like other cities investigated, entered in a consent decree to avoid getting sued, which called for an independent monitor and a series of reforms. The Department of Justice come to Cleveland a decade ago, but entered a non-binding agreement to change its way.

"There weren't detailed fact-findings," said Subodh Chandra, who worked as the city's legal director at the time. "There was no court order involved. It was an agreement that was negotiated to essentially get the city off the hook from getting sued."

In the 10 years since, not much has changed within Cleveland's police force, according to the DOJ's report. Investigators stated “it’s clear...the reforms that were initiated in response to our 2004 memorandum agreement were not fully implemented.”

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson welcomed the report, but disagreed that there were systemic failures. The city, however, is now legally compelled to make reforms, and its currently negotiating with the agency about how exactly to do that.

City Councilman Matt Zone

"A consent decree is nothing more or less than a document designed to change the culture of police departments that are violating the rights of citizens left and right," said Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They can work and they have worked, but it takes a unique combination for them to work. First of all, it takes a strong federal judge and a strong chief of police and a strong commitment by the city."

The mayor, police chief and the police union heads all declined America Tonight’s requests for an interview, but City Councilman Matt Zone, the chair of the safety committee, which oversees the city's police force, said he thought many of the findings were justified.

"So what is happening now is going through vetting that out and determining what are things that we can do as a city… as we work to enter into this consent decree," he said, "because there is a lot of room for improvement."

There is a segment of our society that has mistrust. And it's mainly people of color. Our black and brown population. And that's unfortunate.

Matt Zone

Cleveland City Councilman

But Zone agreed with the mayor that the problem wasn’t widespread “[we are not] ready to throw police officers under the bus. The vast majority of our police officers are very good and they do a great job, he told America Tonight. 

The DOJ report also highlighted a cultural problem within the Cleveland police, describing it as an "us-against-them mentality." Investigators observed a sign hanging in a district vehicle bay referring to itself as a “forward operating base” – a military term for a tactical outpost in a war zone.

Chandra said that Cleveland police have a "paramilitary culture in which everybody is watching everybody else's back" with just the semblance of accountability. He dubbed it "a Potemkin village."

The DOJ examined 600 use-of-force incidents from the last three years and found that just six officers were suspended. 

Gregory Love with his fiancée, mother and two sons

Zone acknowledged that there's a lot of distrust in the city toward the department, and that, in particular, it needs to work on its relationship with black residents.

"When I see a police officer, I feel good. I wave. I'm like, 'That's great,'" he said. "So there is a segment of our society that has mistrust. And it's mainly people of color. Our black and brown population. And that's unfortunate."

Love hopes the report will shepherd in an era of improved relations between the community and law enforcement. In the meantime, he said he'll continue to teach his boys to grow up respecting the police.

"The scars will always remind me of that night, but I'm going to be OK," he said. "I'm a survivor, you know, I have to survive. I've got children, you know, boys, I've got another child on the way. So I have to survive, you know?”

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