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May 28, 2015 12:41 PM

Civilians get new authority in Cleveland police settlement

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND (AP) Cleveland's settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on reforming the city's troubled police department calls for civilians to play influential roles in investigating police misconduct and establishing policies and procedures.

The city and Justice Department announced Tuesday that they'd reached a settlement on a consent decree that a federal judge must approve and an independent monitor will enforce. DOJ officials said in December that an 18-month investigation had found that Cleveland police had engaged in a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations.

The 105-page agreement details new rules for how officers employ, report and investigate uses of deadly and nonlethal force, to include prohibitions against shooting at moving vehicles, striking suspects in the head with their firearms and using stun guns to inflict pain, examples of which were cited in the DOJ investigative findings. The agreement also requires Cleveland police to make community policing, which requires officers to work with citizens and to help them solve problems when possible, its core principle.

A striking component of the decree is the level of civilian authority in vital areas of police administration and oversight.

The agreement calls for a civilian to head the internal affairs unit, rather than a member of the police command staff. And a civilian will be appointed to the new position of police inspector general. No former employees of the Cleveland police department can hold those positions.

Additionally, a community police commission consisting of 10 civilians and a representative from each of the three police unions will be formed. According to the settlement, the commission will have the authority to review, recommend and comment on police department policies, procedures and performance, along with its adherence required reforms.

"It's fair to say the city has committed in this consent decree a vigorous civilian and community component in the way we're going to police in Cleveland," U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said in an interview with The Associated Press. "An important point to me going forward is that the community and department will be linked in many ways that hasn't occurred before."

A city spokesman said the administration would not comment at this time.

Many large cities and police departments across the nation have internal affairs units, inspector general's offices and civilian review boards that serve as watchdog agencies.

Appointing a civilian to lead the internal affairs unit in Cleveland appears to be tied to DOJ findings that criticized the city for its inability or unwillingness to punish officers for wrongdoing. The report singled out internal affairs, concluding in its findings that the unit "failed to ask key questions and take important investigatory steps."

"In some cases, these flaws prevented the (department) from holding officers accountable for serious misconduct," the report said.

Dettelbach said the head of internal affairs will answer to the police chief and will provide "a fresh perspective" on criminal investigations of police.

The police inspector general will have wide-ranging authority to investigate whatever he or she wishes. Dettelbach described the position as an "internal whistleblower" whose investigative findings are not binding. The consent decree calls for the inspector general to work out of the mayor's office and answer to the police chief.

The community police commission, Dettelbach said, could become an incubator for ideas on how to make the department better.

"The hope is that it will be a body that is saying things that are important and relevant and are backed by data," he said.

A law professor said Tuesday that Cleveland's ceding of police authority to civilians shows that the department and city administrations have long done a poor job of policing the police. Michael Benza of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law said in an interview that the new civilian roles should be about more than community policing, a policy that requires officers to be engaged with the people they serve.

"There's also a need to have the community connected and to feel empowered to make substantive changes in how they want the police department to work," Benza said.


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