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Misconduct and the Use of Excessive Force in Law Enforcement

February 4, 2016


The U.S. Department of Justice just finished an investigation and report on abusive and often unconstitutional policing by Cleveland Division of Police between 2010 and 2013. This is what they found.

15 Reasons America’s Police Are So Brutal

Countering excessive force faces barriers every step of the way.

  1. The Street Cops Are On Their Own – Officers report that they receive little supervision, guidance, and support from the Division, essentially leaving them to determine for themselves how to perform their difficult and dangerous jobs.
  2. Excessive Force Is Expected And Covered Up – CDP’s pattern or practice of excessive force is both reflected by and stems from its failure to adequately review and investigate officers’ uses of force.
  3. Using Maximum Force Has Become Routine – For example, we found incidents of CDP officers firing their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others and using guns in a careless and dangerous manner, including hitting people on the head with their guns, in circumstances where deadly force is not justified.
  4. Police Don’t Know How To De-escalate – CDP officers too often use dangerous and poor tactics to try to gain control of suspects, which results in the application of additional force or places others in danger.
  5. Top Cops Don’t Want To Hear About It – Deeply troubling was that some of the specially-trained investigators who are charged with conducting unbiased reviews of officers’ use of deadly force admitted to us that they conduct their investigations with the goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light.
  6. Top Cops Will Ignore Worst Abuses – Many of the investigators in CDP’s Internal Affairs Unit advised us that they will only find that an officer violated Division policy if the evidence against the officer proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an officer engaged in misconduct—an unreasonably high standard reserved for criminal prosecutions and inappropriate in this context.
  7. Most Cops Face No Disciplinary Threats – Discipline is so rare that no more than 51 officers out of a sworn force of 1,500 were disciplined in any fashion in connection with a use of force incident over a three-and-a half-year period.
  8. The DOJ Found These Problems Before – The current pattern or practice of constitutional violations is even more troubling because many of these structural deficiencies were identified more than ten years ago during our previous investigation of CDP’s use of force.
  9. Police View Their Beats As War Zones – CDP too often polices in a way that contributes to community distrust and a lack of respect for officers – even the many officers who are doing their jobs effectively.
  10. Harassment, Unprovoked Searches are Routine – Individuals were searched “for officer safety” without any articulation of a reason to fear for officer safety. Where bases for detentions and searches were articulated, officers used canned or boilerplate language. Supervisors routinely approved these inadequate reports.
  11. Using Tasers is Routine And Never Questioned – Between October 2005 and March 2011, CDP officers used Tasers 969 times, all but five of which the Division deemed justified and appropriate (a 99.5% clearance rate which one police expert said “strains credibility”).
  12. The CDP Stonewalled DOJ Investigators – CDP did not, for example, produce deadly force investigations that occurred after April of 2013 despite multiple requests.
  13. CDP Didn’t Want To Be Accountable – CDP’s inability to track the location of critical force-related documents is itself evidence of fundamental breakdowns in its systems and suggests that any internal analysis or calculation of CDP’s use of force is likely incomplete and inaccurate.
  14. Arrest Reports Cover Up Use Of Force – For the months of February, June and August 2012, there were 111 resisting arrest incidents, and for seven of these – over six percent – CDP acknowledges that no use of force report can be located… The inability to produce Taser firing histories compounds our concerns about the reliability of the data and undermines the assertion that Taser uses have declined.
  15. There Are No Clear Policies On Using Force – Departments must also provide their officers clear, consistent policies on when and how to use and report force. Departments must implement systems to ensure that force is consistently reported and investigated thoroughly and fairly, using consistent standards…CDP fails in all of these areas.

No Quick Or Easy Solutions

The DOJ report on excessive force by Cleveland’s police is very revealing. It shows how deeply embedded the culture of abusive policing is, how resistant police departments are to changing, and how the problem is not just what weapons are used by police, but how many officers want to operate with impunity and a military mindset.

These aren’t the conclusions of community activists protesting about police brutality and the institutional racism of white officers shooting unarmed black men. These conclusions come from the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officials, who had to use their political power to force the Cleveland Department to open up its records and files.

The DOJ’s observation that many of the same problems of excessive force are back more than 10 years after a similar federal investigation and settlement suggests that reforming America’s runaway police departments is going to be incredibly difficult. Despite public protests, there’s little evidence that police themselves want to change from within.

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