Cleveland residents protest the acquittal of a police officer involved in the 2012 deaths of two unarmed African Americans. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

The city and the U.S. Department of Justice announced an ambitious law-enforcement consent decree agreement Tuesday.

The city of Cleveland announced Tuesday a consent decree agreement between the police department and the U.S. Department of Justice on how to ameliorate what Justice officials called in December a pattern of unlawful police practices and uses of force, much of them aimed at African Americans. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson stood with the city’s police chief, U.S. attorney Steven Dettelbach, and DOJ Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta to formally display the 105-page document, which will focus on community engagement, racially “bias-free policing,” crisis intervention, and reforming the use of force.

U.S. Attorney Dettelbach called the consent decree “a historic agreement” that “will not only serve as a roadmap for reform in Cleveland, but as a national model for any police department ready to escort a great city to the forefront of the 21st century.”

The announcement comes on the heels of a weekend of mostly mild-mannered protests in Cleveland stemming from the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo, who took part in the killing of two unarmed African Americans, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, in 2012. Mayor Jackson reminded the public at the press conference that investigations are still open into the Cleveland police killings of Tanisha Anderson and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and said that “this agreement will serve as a catalyst for moving us forward to ensure that we will not have to [have] these things again.”

The key reforms listed in the consent decree:

  • Use of Force: The Cleveland Division of Police will establish, train on, and implement new policies that require: (1) that any use of force is proper and lawful, (2) that officers receive state of the art training on the use of force and its lawful limits, and (3) that all officer uses of force are properly and fully reported and reviewed.
  • Community Engagement and Policing: The CDP will establish a City-wide Community Police Commission that will work with enhanced neighborhood policing committees to provide meaningful input into police matters. The CDP will work side-by-side with these groups, made up of both police and community members to establish a comprehensive community policing plan.
  • Support, Equipment, and Resources: Working with line officers and community members, CDP will complete and submit both equipment and staffing plans to ensure that its officers are properly resourced. For instance, CDP will modernize its IT abilities and improve its early intervention program to make sure that the men and women of the CDP are poised to succeed in the 21st century.
  • Accountability: The City will both reform existing watchdog offices and form new ones to ensure that all allegations of officer misconduct are fully, fairly and promptly investigated. For instance, these reforms will include major revamps of the Office of Professional Standards and the Police Review Board, in addition to creating a new Police Inspector General appointed by the Mayor and requiring that going forward there is a well-qualified civilian overseeing CDP’s Internal Affairs Unit.
  • Bias-Free Policing: The CDP will adopt policies and train its officers to minimize the opportunity for the use of racial and other improper stereotypes in policing, including training on cultural competency and avoiding implicit biases. The City will also collect and analyze data on its stops, searches, and seizures aimed at identifying and eliminating any unconstitutional practices or actions in this area.
  • Crisis Intervention:  The CDP will work side-by-side with leaders in the mental health community, including a new Mental Health Advisory Committee, to train its officers on dealing safely with people in crisis. CDP will name a senior officer to be the Crisis Intervention Coordinator and will develop a plan to ensure that specialized crisis intervention trained officers are available to respond city-wide, and 24/7 to all incidents that involve people in crisis.

As is typical of these types of law-enforcement consent decrees, an independent monitor will track police progress on the accords, and the agreement will only be terminated when a federal judge has determined that the city has satisfied ongoing compliance with the decree’s provisions. Dettelbach said the decree will transform the police department by “building on the best of what already exists” in the police department.

During the press conference, Dettelbach fielded one question about whether there was “anything new or innovative” in the decree, since it “all seems to be stuff that should have been part of policy to begin with.”

Dettelbach responded that there are a “tremendous amount” of provisions in the settlement that are innovative, such as having a crisis-intervention coordinator on police staff and having an inspector general. Mayor Jackson added that all Cleveland police will have body cameras by the end of the year, making Cleveland the largest police department to do so. The provisions asking Cleveland police to collect and analyze data on stops and searches are similar to what the White House has asked 21 other police departments to do around the country.  

“When other cities across this country look at their issues, they will say let's look at Cleveland because Cleveland has done it right,” said Jackson.

Roughly 20 city police departments have entered into consent decrees with the U.S. Department of Justice since the federal agency created its first in 1997 for monitoring Pittsburgh police. Despite Dettelbach’s labeling of the Cleveland agreement as “historic,” this is not the first time such language has been used to describe these accords.

In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a consent decree with New Orleans police by calling it “one of the most wide-ranging in the Department’s history.” Then-DOJ civil rights division head Thomas Perez followed by describing the New Orleans decree as “the most comprehensive agreement the Civil Rights Division has ever entered into with a police department, and it will serve as a blueprint for reform for departments across the country.”

How effective such decrees are depends on how well the city and police department cooperate with the Justice Department and independent monitor. The Vera Institute of Justice surveyed public satisfaction with police in Pittsburgh five years after the Justice Department signed its 1997 consent decree and found mostly high marks:

From “Turning Necessity into Virtue: Pittsburgh’s Experience with a Federal Consent Decree,” September 2002 (Vera Institute of Justice)

Still, just last year, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto warned that the city might have to re-enter into a federal consent decree after a scandal involving cronyism and financial corruption surfaced.

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