Attorney General Holder: Excessive Force a Habit for Cleveland Police, Reforms Coming

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks, with Mayor Frank Jackson, far left, and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks, with Mayor Frank Jackson, far left, and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
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Holder said Cleveland’s Division of Police routinely overused force, including unnecessary, excessive and retaliatory violence, according to a Justice Department review of cases from 2010 to 2013.

"There is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force, and as a result of systemic deficiencies," Holder said, before dozens of reporters at the city's federal courthouse.

Unconstitutional police practices included the overuse of shootings and head strikes, Tasers, chemical sprays and fists, the review found. It said police used force excessively against the mentally ill, including in cases where officers were called just to check someone’s welfare.

Reliance on poor and dangerous tactics created situations where force became inevitable, said Northern Ohio's U.S. Attorney, Steven Dettelbach.

On the heels of announcing a federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner, a black New Yorker killed when a white police officer put him in a choke hold, Holder linked troubling practices in Cleveland’s police department with growing racial tension nationwide. He referred to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland just last month.

"The tragic losses of these and far too many other Americans...have really raised urgent national questions," he said.

Mayor Frank Jackson requested the Justice Department review after the 2012 police chase and shooting of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. They were black and unarmed, and some thought race was a factor in their deaths.

Holder said a national conversation is taking place about the importance of trust between communities and their police.

U.S. Attorney Dettelbach said Cleveland’s officers were poorly trained, tended to escalate rather than defuse encounters, and were not held accountable for their actions. He said dishonest incident reports were written to favor officers, and internal investigations required an inappropriately high level of proof before an officer could be disciplined.

Dettelbach said it was a tough day for Cleveland police officers, but cited the oath he and others in law enforcement make to defend the Constitution and uphold the law.

"If we, in law enforcement, cannot apply those same principles in that oath to ourselves, even when it’s hard to do, then the oath doesn’t mean anything," he said.

Standing beside Mayor Jackson, Attorney General Holder said the city and the Justice Department are working toward a legally binding agreement for reforms, to be enforced by an independent monitor.

Holder also met with elected leaders and community members as part of a national tour to help improve community-police relations.

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