Dettelbach noted the tense climate – high-profile police cases and the public protests they provoked – that federal and city officials worked against as they hammered out a settlement. He said the negotiators wanted to reach a deal as quickly as possible in light of those factors, but not to the detriment of the finished product.
The Rev. R.A. Vernon of The Word Church in Warrensville Heights said in an interview Tuesday that the consent decree is a strong starting point on the path to reform, though he has concerns about how the city will pay for its implementation.
He said he is cautiously optimistic about the agreement’s power to change what he called the “culture of blue” in Cleveland. But Vernon said he has faith in Jackson and will remain patient.
“It’s naïve to think we will fix the system in three months, when it has been broken all the way back to Jim Crow,” said Vernon, who was among a small contingent of community leaders invited to a briefing at City Hall before the consent decree was announced Tuesday. “But there was a time when this kind of process wouldn’t have even started. Just 150 years ago, a black person would have been killed with no repercussion. Now people of all colors are realizing that there are systemic issues that must be addressed.”
Deal seeks major changes to use-of-force policy
Much of the consent decree surrounds changes to Cleveland’s rulebook on the use of force.
- Officers would face higher standards on unholstering and firing weapons and no longer will be allowed to use guns to strike suspects as they would with a baton. And all strikes to the head using any hard object would be banned unless lethal force is justified.
- Rules for using Tasers and pepper spray also would be revised, requiring more detailed reporting and justifications for each use. If an officer used a Taser or pepper spray twice on someone, separate reports and justifications would be required.
- Officers would be required to take immediate steps to provide or secure first aid for suspects they injure, addressing an issue raised in many lawsuits that cost the city big money. It’s also an issue that has been a flashpoint in the Tamir case, as the first officers on scene made no attempt to administer first aid in the minutes after he was shot.
- Retaliatory force – such as tussling with a suspect at the end of a chase or to mete out punishment for disrespecting an officer – would be explicitly prohibited.
City wants more ink, fewer rubber stamps
Officers also would have to provide real details – no more “boilerplate” language – when explaining why they used force. And their supervisors would have to provide more than the perfunctory reviews that nearly always have favored the officers over the suspects they encounter.
In 2011, for example, Plain Dealer Publishing Co. found that then-Police Chief Michael McGrath often signed off on force investigations without questioning irregularities or discrepancies. McGrath, whom Jackson since promoted to public safety director, defended the city’s policy then as one of the nation’s best.
The agreement calls for far more robust force investigations, including a Force Investigation Team and Force Review Board to look into the most serious cases. The city would expand a computerized database to better track police conduct. And the mayor would appoint a civilian inspector general to delve deeper into police procedures.
“The quality of investigations of uses of force is extremely important,” said Samuel Walker, an expert on policing and criminal justice issues and emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “That, in fact, is one of the things I regard as a major part of a department’s ‘culture’ – what kind of questions do sergeants [and] supervisors ask? Do they probe? Do they look for inconsistencies and contradictions?”
Cleveland’s system for investigating allegations of police misconduct also would change dramatically. For complaints that arise internally, the unit that investigates will be moved into a department that is run by a civilian, not a police officer or, even, a former police officer. Officers who witness misconduct by colleagues no longer would be permitted to stay silent as part of the “blue code.” The police chief would order them to cooperate, and their failure to comply could result in discipline.
Citizens panel would add scrutiny
A 13-member Community Police Commission would flex oversight muscle, too. Representatives from Cleveland’s corporate boardrooms, churches, minority organizations and other key constituencies would issue annual reports and make recommendations. The agreement guarantees one seat each for the city’s two police unions and for Black Shield, a professional association of black officers.
Leaders of those groups were cautiously optimistic Tuesday.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of things in there that are going to improve the Division of Police, and that’s what all of us want,” said Brian Betley, president of the Cleveland Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents police supervisors.
The panel also would help develop the new bias-free policing strategy, which would take aim at racial profiling and discrimination. Data-collection is key to the initiative. So is a stricter search-and-seizures policy that is targeted at unjust stops by officers.
Terry Gilbert, a prominent local civil-rights attorney, also praised the deal but urged patience and persistence.
“This is an historic agreement, which has the potential to reduce the widespread abuses in the use of force within the department [that] has existed for decades,” Gilbert wrote in an email. “The key to its success lies in the oversight by a federal judge and independent monitors. But keep in mind the reforms will take years to weed out the bad practices and attitudes that have been ingrained within the culture of the police.
“And it will require active community involvement that will stand the test of time regardless of changing politics and new administrations.”
Northeast Ohio Media Group reporter Leila Atassi contributed to this story.