Thursday, March 14, 2013

Justice Department investigating Cleveland police

The debate over the Nov. 29 police chase and shooting got bigger today. A top civil rights lawyer for the Justice Department, with Mayor Frank Jackson at his side, announced an investigation into whether the Cleveland police have engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force.

It’s not a criminal investigation, but it could result in the federal government asking or demanding reforms in the police department. It’s not just about the November shooting, but that’s definitely part of it.

“We initiated our investigation after a careful, considered review process that spanned police activity over a number of years,” said Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, at a morning press conference. U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach confirmed that the Nov. 29 shooting was part of the feds’ review.

Dettelbach said the preliminary inquiry was launched last year in response to requests from the mayor, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, the NAACP, and local clergy. Those requests all came in December. Some specifically asked the feds to investigate the Nov. 29 shooting.

The announcement reframes the debate about Cleveland police’s use of force: It’s not just about one chase on one night, but a possible pattern. Dettelbach confirmed today that his office is still investigating the police use of force against Ernest Henderson after a high-speed chase in January 2011. (For a roundup of several recent allegations of excessive force in Cleveland, including the Henderson case, see this Plain Dealer article.)

Jackson’s presence at the press conference may also get the town beyond the debate it got stuck in last month, over whether the Nov. 29 chase was a “systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department.” Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, said it was. Police chief Michael McGrath disagreed. Jackson left the question open. (See my new profile of Jackson for more on this.)

“[If] we need to do better in areas, then we will gladly change,” Jackson said today.

But I doubt that means the chief’s head on a platter, as some critics demanded last month. Jackson said today that he, McGrath and safety director Martin Flask have worked on maintaining trust between citizens and police for “all the time that I have been mayor, this chief has been chief, [and] this director has been director.”

Jackson values loyalty, and it sounds like he still views McGrath and Flask as loyal subordinates who are willing to go as far as he wants to change the department. That means the questions rebound on Jackson too. Has he done enough to discourage excessive force? And if no, what more must he do?

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