Cleveland Police Cited for Abuse by U.S. Department of Justice

A memorial for Tamir Rice, shot by the Cleveland police. (TY WRIGHT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

CLEVELAND — The Justice Department announced on Thursday that a nearly two-year civil rights investigation into the Cleveland Police Department had found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” that resulted in dangerous and reckless behavior by officers, pointing out the kinds of problems that have angered black residents here and touched off demonstrations across the country in recent weeks.

The abuses cited in the report included excessive use of force by the police involving not just firearms, but also less-than-lethal weapons like Tasers, chemical spray and fists, which were sometimes used for retaliation. The report also said the police had used excessive force against mentally ill people and employed tactics that escalated potentially nonviolent encounters into dangerous confrontations.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a sign of the Obama administration’s growing concern about contentious police shootings and other use of force — and with demonstrations in New York; Ferguson, Mo.; and elsewhere — traveled to Cleveland on Thursday to announce the findings himself. The city has been roiled by the fatal shooting last month of a 12-year-old African-American boy by a rookie police officer.

“Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments,” Mr. Holder said, “and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve.”

The Cleveland report was released a day after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white New York City police officer in the choking death of an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, 43, and nearly two weeks after a grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Both decisions led to demonstrations around the country, including violent protests in Missouri.

The report also came as law enforcement officials in other cities were grappling with police shootings. In Los Angeles, the police chief ruled on Wednesday that three officers accused of improper force in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man during a car chase last year had violated department rules, determining that most of the evidence did not support the officers’ claim that a “deadly threat” was present. And a grand jury in South Carolina returned a murder indictment this week against a former police chief of Eutawville in the 2011 killing of an unarmed black man he was trying to arrest.

Protests over the Garner case erupted again Thursday across the country, disrupting traffic and blocking streets in several cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington.

In the wake of the protests in Ferguson, President Obama on Monday met with civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials at the White House, citing a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” Afterward, the president announced plans to provide money for police officers to wear body cameras, tighten standards on providing military-style equipment to local police departments and form a task force to study ways to improve local policing.

As a result of the federal investigation in Cleveland, the city has agreed to work toward a settlement with the Justice Department, known as a consent decree, that will overhaul practices, tighten policies on the use of force and subject the police to oversight by an independent monitor. Consent decrees in other cities, including Albuquerque, Detroit, New Orleans and Seattle, were put into effect after investigations into questionable police violence and other abusive practices. In Mr. Holder’s first five years in office, the Justice Department opened 20 civil rights investigations into police departments, more than twice the number in the five years before.

While Cleveland is 53 percent black and 37 percent white, its 1,551-person police department is almost the reverse image: 25 percent black and 65 percent white, the latest data shows. The department’s new chief is African-American.

Anger among many blacks in Cleveland toward the police has risen in recent weeks after the fatal shooting of the 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, on Nov. 22 by an officer within two seconds after arriving in a patrol car.

The police said the boy, who had what turned out to be a replica gun that shoots small plastic pellets but looks like a semiautomatic pistol, was told to raise his hands but instead reached to his waistband for the replica. Surveillance video of the killing released last week showed, however, that the shooting happened so fast, it was hard to know whether the officer issued any real warnings or whether the boy could have understood them if he did.

The officer had quit a suburban police force after his supervisors determined two years ago that he had had a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training and was emotionally unprepared to cope with stresses of the job, records show. The Cleveland police acknowledged that they had never reviewed the previous police personnel file of the officer, Tim Loehmann, 26, during background checks before his hiring.

The killing prompted the St. Louis County, Mo., Police Department to use its Facebook page to urge parents to warn their children that police officers cannot always differentiate between real and replica firearms. But after the warning was criticized by people who said it was disrespectful to Tamir’s family, the department removed the post and apologized to the family.

The Justice Department report on Cleveland cataloged many instances of unjustified force, including officers who assaulted, pepper-sprayed and even Tasered people already being restrained. In one case last year, the police fired two shots at a man wearing only boxer shorts who was fleeing from two armed assailants. In a 2011 case, a man who had been restrained on the ground with his arms and legs spread was then kicked by officers. He was later treated for a broken bone in his face.

The city’s policing problems, Mr. Holder said, stemmed from “systemic deficiencies, including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement with the community.”

Justice Department officials had been saying for weeks that the Cleveland inquiry was coming to a close, suggesting that the timing of the release of its findings was not related to the outrage prompted by the Rice killing. On Thursday, Steven M. Dettelbach, the United States attorney in Cleveland, said the investigation, which involved a review of nearly 600 encounters involving police use of force from 2010 to 2013, did not include the shooting of Tamir.

But in his comments in Cleveland, Mr. Holder made clear that the Cleveland shooting was one of several recent police killings on his mind, citing the “tragic losses” of Mr. Brown in Ferguson, Mr. Garner in New York and Tamir. Their deaths, he said, have “raised urgent, national questions” and “sparked an important conversation about the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect.”

While some police departments have resisted the Justice Department inquiries, Cleveland officials have generally supported the review amid public outrage about the shootings, which have also drawn criticism from police experts. The Justice Department began investigating the Cleveland police in March 2013, after the mayor, Frank G. Jackson, a Democrat, asked for an outside review of the city’s policing policies following the 2012 killing of two black people who were apparently unarmed.

That shooting happened after the police apparently mistook backfire from a speeding car for gunfire and began a 20-mile chase that eventually grew to include 62 patrol cars. It ended when officers fired 137 rounds at close range at the car after it pulled into a middle-school parking lot, killing both occupants. The incident was described by the state attorney general, Mike DeWine, a Republican, as a “systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department.”

This year, one officer was indicted on a charge of manslaughter in the shooting and five supervisors were charged with criminal dereliction of duty.

Mr. Jackson said on Thursday that he looked forward to a “real partnership between the city, the Department of Justice and the community.” He also expressed support for the city’s director of public safety, Michael McGrath, who had been police chief during the period investigated by the Justice Department.

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