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Cleveland Strikes Deal on Police Misconduct After Officer Is Acquitted

The Justice Department and Cleveland officials have agreed to settle a case alleging widespread misconduct by the city's police, the first such agreement reached under the new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, who took office last month.

By Richard A. Serrano and Matt Pearce

The Justice Department and Cleveland officials have agreed to settle a case alleging widespread misconduct by the city's police, the first such agreement reached under the new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, who took office last month.

Under the agreement negotiated by the Justice Department's civil rights division, federal law enforcement officials are expected to monitor the troubled police agency's practices, a government official briefed on the matter said Monday. The decision comes after a series of incidents of alleged misuse of force by the police, which culminated with the shooting death on Nov. 22 of a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a park.

Detailed terms of the settlement are expected to be announced soon, perhaps as early as Tuesday. The official described the outline of the settlement on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced.

The agreement comes after a blistering Justice Department report in December concluded that Cleveland's police officers far too often had used unnecessary force, shooting and beating citizens and making false arrests, particularly of blacks and other minorities.

That report, along with a recently announced Justice Department investigation into the shooting by police of an unarmed African-American couple in 2012, prompted city officials to move quickly to a settlement and a monitoring agreement, the official said.

In the 2012 case, the couple, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, were killed by a hail of police gunfire after officers apparently mistook a car backfiring for gunshots. The backfire led to a large, chaotic police chase involving at least 62 vehicles.

Officers joining in the chase shot 137 rounds at the couple, leading Ohio's attorney general to call the incident a "systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department."

On Saturday, a state judge in Cleveland acquitted one of the officers involved, Michael Brelo, 31, who had been charged with manslaughter. The acquittal sparked widespread public protests in Cleveland, much like those that have occurred after deaths at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo.; New York and Baltimore.

On Monday, dozens of people who protested the Brelo verdict were arraigned after spending two days in police custody.

Fifty-six defendants faced misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse, and 53 were released after 35 defendants pleaded no contest to lesser charges of disorderly conduct, 20 pleaded not guilty and one pleaded guilty, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. Three defendants stayed in custody on bonds for other cases. Court officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Brelo, who is white, had jumped onto the hood of the car and fired 15 shots at Russell and Williams. He had been accused of being the only officer who continued to shoot after any possible threat had been eliminated.

But Judge John P. O'Donnell of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court ruled that it was impossible to determine whether Brelo's shots had killed either of the two victims. Both suffered multiple fatal wounds.

"I will not sacrifice him to a public frustrated by historical mistreatment at the hands of other officers," the judge said.

The deaths of Russell and Williams, followed by the killing two years later of Rice, crystallized years of complaints by residents of Cleveland about brutality by its police force.

The 2012 killings "inflamed community perceptions, particularly in the African-American community," and convinced the public that the Cleveland Police Department was "out of control and that its officers routinely engaged in brutality," the Justice Department report said. It found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.

Officers' misconduct has led to a situation where "avoidable force becomes inevitable," the investigation concluded.

The Justice Department investigation of the city's police began after the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed in May 2011 that six officers accused of brutality had used force on 29 suspects during a two-year period.

The paper reported that police management often overlooked conflicting statements in use-of-force investigations, leading to a high clearance rate for abusive officers.

The inquiry is among dozens that the Justice Department opened during the tenure of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., leading to settlements with cities around the country.

The Justice Department's investigation of the Cleveland police ended before the shooting of Rice. Cleveland officials have yet to announce their findings in the Rice case, although Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney said this month that his department's investigation into the death was almost finished. Once the investigation concludes, the county prosecutor's office is expected to present the case to a grand jury.

(Serrano reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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