A one-year investigation by the Justice Department into the Cleveland Police Department found off-duty officers pistol-whipped suspects, assaulted a juvenile in the back of a squad car, abused the mentally ill, were reckless with Tasers, and fired their weapons when they didn't have to.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a press conference this week that the investigation revealed a pattern of excessive force, reckless behavior, and poor training and accountability policies within the department.
The violations are so egregious that the CDP will now face government intervention mandating reform. The CDP is already in the midst of an investigation into the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police.
Beginning in March 2013, the DOJ looked at more than 600 incidents over a three-year period from 2010 to 2013. The review was prompted by over 100 complaints from citizens and several highly publicized incidents, including the beating of a suspect by Cleveland police that was caught on helicopter camera and a 2012 car chase that ended in a hail of 137 bullets fired by officers and the death of the two unarmed suspects. A racial discrimination lawsuit is pending in the latter.
The most damaging details the investigation uncovered are detailed in a lengthy report sent to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. BuzzFeed News reviewed the other shocking incidents contained in the Department of Justice report made public for the first time Thursday.
A Cleveland Police spokesperson declined to comment on the report and referred BuzzFeed News to the Office of the Mayor.
Police Abused the Mentally Ill
One of the more appalling incidents involves the abuse of a mentally ill man in custody, identified as "Kent" (most names of suspects are changed in the report).
In February 2013, officers were called to Kent's house because he was threatening to "blow up the government."
When they arrived, officers placed Kent in handcuffs, but he began to spit at the police, so they placed a hood over his head to prevent the transmission of diseases, known as a "spit-sock."
When Kent continued to spit and tried to kick out the window of the squad car, an officer pepper-sprayed Kent in the face and left the contaminated spit-sock on his head as Kent was transported to the hospital.
The Justice Department called this treatment "cruel and unnecessary" and said it was never questioned by the chain of command.
Police Beat a 13-Year-Old in Handcuffs
Another damaging incident detailed in Holder's report involves the beating of a handcuffed 13-year-old in the back of a squad car.
"Harold" was arrested for shoplifting and began to kick the door and an officer as he was put into the police cruiser.
In response, a 300-pound, 6-foot-4 officer sat on the 150-pound, 5-foot-8 handcuffed boy. Then he punched him in the face three or four times until he was "stunned/dazed."
Police Shot Their Guns When They Did Not Have To
In 2013, a Cleveland sergeant shot at a victim, "Anthony," who had been held captive at gunpoint and had broken free. Anthony ran from the house where he was held toward the police wearing only his boxer shorts.
In 2012, "Brian" was stopped for carrying an open container of beer. He set the beer down and put his hands in the air. Brian was carrying a licensed handgun (Ohio is an open carry state). One officer moved to handcuff him, but another officer reportedly saw Brian move toward his gun, and fired a shot that hit Brian in the stomach.
In another incident, an officer approached "Nathan" with his gun drawn when he attempted to make an illegal right turn from a center lane at a busy intersection. Nathan sat with his hands up as the officer reached into the vehicle to turn off the ignition, accidentally shooting Nathan in the chest in the process.
Helicopter surveillance at left shows Cleveland police officers approaching and beating Edward Henderson. Henderson was already on the ground and handcuffed. At right, a photo of Henderson's sustained injuries from the 2011 incident.
Police Used Tasers Recklessly
In addition to unnecessary shootings, Cleveland Police were also found to use Tasers when it wasn't appropriate — especially against individuals with mental illnesses or otherwise limited faculties, or people undergoing medical crises.
"Larry," a deaf and bipolar man who communicated only with sign language, was making suicidal threats when police arrived at his house. After communicating with a written note and trying to subdue Larry, officers tased him in the chest. Larry was sitting on the edge of a half-filled bathtub.
In another incident, Cleveland police tased "Mark," who had just suffered a series of seizures and was verbally threatening the officers while he was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance truck.
After falsely identifying himself one day in 2011, "Jason" escaped arrest from two officers and ran down the street, handcuffed. One tased him, reportedly to "stop the male from causing himself severe injuries from falling or being struck." The Department of Justice found this justification unsatisfactory, since tasing suspects normally causes them to fall.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer conducted a three-month-long analysis of the police department and found that officers used Tasers 969 times between October 2005 and March 2011. Of those, only five instances were deemed unjustified.
Police Pistol-Whipped Suspects
Additionally, the Justice Department found a few examples of excessive force where off-duty Cleveland police pistol-whipped suspects.
In one incident, an off-duty officer witnessed what he believed to be a drug deal happening between two parked cars.
When he approached, one of the suspects, "Eric," got out his car and asked the officer to show his badge. He thought the cop might be trying to rob him and the other suspects.
The officer drew his gun and refused Eric's request to identify himself and the two began wrestling. At one point, the officer hit Eric in the head with his weapon, at which point the gun went off. Eric then broke free and ran away. The Justice Department writes, "The officer reported that he did not know whether the bullet struck Eric, but Eric was bleeding from the face as he ran away."
Another time, an off-duty cop working a second job in a wine shop chased after a shoplifter with his gun drawn. The officer caught the suspect and hit him in the head with his weapon before handcuffing him.
A review of the department's use-of-force policies by the Justice Department revealed that Cleveland Police doesn't consider hitting a suspect with your gun a dangerous tactic. "[T]heir less lethal force report includes an actual check box for hitting someone on the head with a firearm."
Police Missed a Loaded Gun During a Pat-Down
The investigation also found that officers committed mistakes during procedures like pat-downs, showing insufficient officer training.
In May 2013, for example, officers frisked "Paul" for looking "suspicious" and found a kitchen knife in his possession. They placed him under arrest, but it was not until Paul was transported to prison that the officers found a loaded gun in his pocket. The Department of Justice called this oversight "extremely troubling."
Police Reports Were Shoddy and Unchecked By Supervisors
The extent to which all these incidents were reported is also questioned by the Justice Department, which found that officers often used boilerplate language to describe encounters with suspects. For example, when officers filed use-of-force reports, they would write "employed a takedown maneuver," or "escorted (the subject) to the ground," making it virtually impossible to determine whether or not the force used was necessary or appropriate.
The Department of Justice reviewed hundreds of police reports and found that supervisors often failed to analyze them; instead, they reiterated the officers' language and concluded that the force used was within division guidelines. "It is almost as if," the Department of Justice noted, "the goal of the chain of command in many incidents is not to create a complete record of the incident that can be subjected to internal and external review, instead of the opposite."
According to the Justice Department's report, "In almost all instances, these inadequate reports and investigations were approved all the way up the chain of command with no comment."
In at least one incident, where a woman was choked while in custody, it appears Cleveland Police flat-out lied in a report and were not reprimanded after a supervisor found out.
According to the report, "Gwendolyn" was handcuffed to a chair and one of the officers wrote that a fellow officer "attempted to grab the offender in the chest area." Security footage later revealed otherwise, and the supervisor amended the report to say the officer grabbed the woman "by the front of the neck." No other action or follow-up happened after.
The flawed review process in the department seems at least partly due to supervisors simply being too busy. According to the Justice Department report, "Supervisors also reported that their workloads are simply unmanageable. Sergeants told us that 'it's the worst job in the department' and 'the work never stops.'"
And the numbers support the testimonials. Of the incidents reviewed, the Justice Department found that over three years, only 51 officers had been disciplined, mostly for "procedural violations." Only six suspensions occurred.
Police Are “Confused” About How to Improve the Department
During his announcement, Holder said that the CDP has already begun reform, including revising its use-of-force policy. However, officers interviewed for the report told the Department of Justice that they were confused by the changes and "did not understand what level of force they were permitted to use under what circumstances."
One example of a potentially confusing policy line is the way the police department exemplifies "Actively Resistant" and "Self-Destructive Behavior": Included in that list is "yawning with outstretched arms," and "glancing around, assessing the environment."
This pattern of bad behavior will now earn Cleveland a consent decree that requires it to tighten up its operation while being monitored by an independent third party appointed by the DOJ.
Police Did Not Fully Cooperate With the Justice Department
In his address from Cleveland's City Hall on Thursday, Holder commended the city and the department for its willingness to participate in the reform process. However, the details of Holder's evaluation call into question the CDP's interest in cooperating fully. In its report, the DOJ notes that the police did not produce key documents they asked for:
"CDP did not, for example, produce deadly force investigations that occurred after April 2013 despite multiple requests. CDP was not able to produce some 2012 use of less lethal force reports until more than a year after our initial request for documents and failed to provide a justification for this delay."
This attempt at reform will actually be Cleveland Police's second pass with the DOJ. In 2002, the Justice Department looked into a similar pattern of poor policing in Cleveland, reaching a reform agreement in 2004. In its latest assessment, the DOJ writes that those measures from a decade ago "were either not fully implemented or, if implemented, were not maintained over time."
If failing the first time wasn't enough additional pressure to fix the problem, last month's shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park by a rookie cop raises the stakes even higher.
On Friday, Rice's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the two officers involved in his death, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, and the City of Cleveland. In the suit, the family claims the "City of Cleveland's policies, patterns, practices, customs and usages regarding the use of deadly force against nondangerous subjects were the moving force behind the use of force and proximately caused Tamir Rice's suffering and death."
The city's attempt to eradicate these shocking practices from its police will dovetail with the investigation of yet another police killing in America of a young black boy. And the Cleveland Police will have to bring its cops in line under the eyes of a nation growing more and more impatient with the use of excessive force by police.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tamerra Griffin is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based Nairobi, Kenya.
Contact Tamerra Griffin at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.