Cleveland, Ohio has become the latest city to enter into a consent decree with the United States Justice Department (“DOJ”) concerning the conduct of its police force. Other cities that have previously entered into similar agreements include New Orleans, Seattle and Detroit.
The consent decree stemmed from a DOJ investigation that found Cleveland police officers had routinely used excessive force (e.g., tasers, pepper spray and guns) against mentally ill, unarmed and already-handcuffed suspects. DOJ investigators reviewed approximately 600 use-of-force incidents that occurred between 2010 and 2013 and concluded that officers almost routinely used guns in a “careless and dangerous manner”. Other problems with the police department included its apparent inability and/or unwillingness to investigate complaints against itself.
The consent decree will cover such topics as use of force by police officers, community policing and engagement, accountability, crisis intervention and bias-free policing. The consent decree will be supervised by a Federal judge, and will terminate only after Cleveland can demonstrate sustained and substantial compliance with its terms. If the City fails to implement the changes contemplated by the agreement, the judge can order them to do so.The use of force by the police is one of the Consent Decree’s key subjects. The department will now have to document each instance in which an officer even unholsters a gun. Supervisors will investigate uses of force in a manner similar to the way officers investigate crimes. The apparent goal is to investigate every reportable use of force.
Cleveland officers will now be prohibited from using force against people for talking back or simply running away. Practices such as pistol whipping, the firing of warning shots, and shooting at moving cars, will now be prohibited. (Interestingly, the New York City Police Department banned shooting at moving vehicles in 1972, and there was an almost immediate and substantial decrease in the number of shootings.)
As to the issue of investigating complaints against officers, the City agreed to hire a civilian to head the internal affairs unit, and to appoint an inspector general to investigate police misconduct. There will also be an internal panel assigned to review cases involving use of force.
Use of force is, however, only one broad topic addressed by the consent decree. Pursuant to the agreement, the department will also start collecting more accurate data on searches and seizures.
Other topics addressed include improved officer training (particularly when dealing with mentally ill suspects), better oversight of officers, the designation of an independent monitor, and increased efforts at working in concert with community groups. Many of these topics and issues have become part of the standard content of the consent decrees that DOJ has entered into with police departments in several cities.
These consent decrees are becoming a nation-wide trend. Further, they seem to be covering many of the same topics and issues, including how the police deal with mentally ill suspects, and how they conduct searches and seizures. They are highly significant because they are almost certainly going to change the ways in which police officers all over the country interact with civilians each time there is a police-citizen encounter. Let’s all hope the changes are for the better.