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Justice Department Says Cleveland PD Has Pattern Of Excessive Force


The Justice Department has found that Cleveland police systematically use too much force. The lengthy federal civil rights investigation also uncovered serious deficiencies in the way those incidents are investigated. The announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder comes as his department investigates the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in New York and Missouri. And since Holder is leaving soon, those cases could complicate the confirmation of the next attorney general. With us to talk about all of this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, let's start with Eric Holder's announcement today in Ohio. His Justice Department has been unusually aggressive in investigating police wrong-doing. What are the findings from the cases in Cleveland?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melissa, when you say too much force, what the Justice Department means is shootings of people who are unarmed and actually physically hitting people with weapons in violation of the Fourth Amendment. But it didn't involve just guns in Cleveland - also, the overuse of tasers and sprays that were deployed against people who didn't pose a threat to public safety, the Justice Department says. Here's how Attorney General Eric Holder described the investigation. We can take a listen.


ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The Justice Department has closely examined nearly 600 use-of-force incidents that occurred between 2010 and 2013, including the incidents involving the use of lethal and less than lethal force.

JOHNSON: So zeroing in on a couple of examples here, out of that 600 - of that pool of 600 cases - a famous 2012 incident where Cleveland police fired off 137 rounds in a high-speed car chase. Both people in the car died. They were unarmed. They never fired at police. The car backfired, and the cops thought - mistakenly thought that was gunfire. And in another incident, a helicopter camera caught police kicking an unarmed man who was on the ground. He was already handcuffed.

BLOCK: And another case that got a lot of attention just over a week ago when police in Cleveland shot and killed a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who had a pellet gun - did Eric Holder talk about that case?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department investigation was well underway at the time of that incident last month. It was not included in this review. But the Justice Department found many cases in Cleveland - many other cases where police ratcheted up tension when they should've been dialing back.

BLOCK: The civil rights prosecutors also found problems with the way that Cleveland police supervisors handled these kinds of episodes.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says discipline of any individual officer in Cleveland is rare - so rare that out of a force of 1,500 officers, they could find only 51 incidents where officers were disciplined. But it gets worse, Melissa, because most of those punishments were for paperwork trouble, like not filing police reports. And some of the internal affairs types in Cleveland actually told the federal investigators that they try to cast accused police officers in the best light possible, rather than acting as independent watchdogs.

BLOCK: And, Carrie, all this is happening as federal investigations into the Michael Brown shooting and the Eric Garner case are underway. And in New York, the person leading the investigation of the Garner case is the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta Lynch, who's in line to succeed Eric Holder as the next attorney general.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it's in a bit of odd timing. Loretta Lynch has actually been in Washington this week, visiting senators. She's had pretty smooth sailing with Democrats and has been confirmed twice at the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn with virtually no opposition. And, of course, she made her name prosecuting a New York Police Department officer who brutalized Abner Louima.

BLOCK: Republicans are going to be in control of the Senate come January. How are they reacting to the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general?

JOHNSON: It's been a mixed reaction so far, Melissa. Charles Grassley, who's in line to become the leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year says he had a nice conversation with Lynch, but she should get ready for a barrage of questions at her confirmation hearing. And a little bit less friendly reception from Texas Rep. John Cornyn, who's been very unhappy with President Obama on immigration - a spokesman for Cornyn told me it's premature to say whether Lynch will survive her confirmation in the Senate next year. Aside from that, Melissa, there's also the issue of these sensitive police investigations. I reached out to Ron Hosko, a former FBI official who defends police officers. And he is not clear at all that the administration is handling these cases well. He thinks Lynch is very professional, but he's not sure about the politics and how that will come into play next year for her confirmation.

BLOCK: OK. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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