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Cleveland Comes To Grips With Scathing Report On Police Department

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Cleveland, meanwhile, is coming to grips with the scathing report it received from the Justice Department yesterday. The report harshly criticized police practices of excessive force and calls for sweeping reforms. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett tells us how the report is being received in the city.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: A picnic table in a public park on Cleveland's West Side is filled with teddy bears, candles and messages for Tamir Rice - the 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot to death by a rookie police officer just a few feet from this spot two weeks ago. Patrolman Timothy Loehmann mistook an Airsoft pellet gun for the real thing and fired on the boy within two seconds of leaping out of a squad car. Dominic Hunter (ph) looks on the makeshift shrine and shakes his head.

DOMINIC HUNTER: You got all these people getting killed. And they being killed by the police. It's bad, man. Every time the police come to somebody, they shooting and killing them. It's as simple as that.

BARNETT: Though the circumstances of Tamir Rice's death weren't part of the Justice Department's investigation of the Cleveland Division of Police, the incident is the latest in a litany of concerns about local law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Cleveland yesterday. He announced the findings of a nearly two-year investigation. The report documented numerous uses of excessive force, involving shooting, tasers and hitting suspects. Holder cited a list of many systemic problems.

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U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: ...Including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community.

BARNETT: The Justice Department investigation was launched after a November 2012 high-speed chase through several communities involving 60 squad cars and ending in a hail of gunfire. Police were widely criticized for the incident. Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association Jeffrey Fulmer challenges some of the report's findings and says establishing better community relations is tough when you're understaffed.

JEFFREY FULMER: And when you're short and you're running from run to run, you don't have time to say, hey, hello, how are you? - because you're getting a gun run here or a domestic violence here. You're going across your districts from, you know, all day, answering 15 to 20 runs.

BARNETT: In addition to criticism of excessive force and poor judgment in the field, the report notes the department must undergo a cultural shift at all levels to change an us-against-them mentality. And in many cases, the us against them breaks down along racial lines - black residents feeling threatened by white cops. The Department of Justice has been conducting such investigations since 1994's Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act passed in the wake of the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.

Vanita Gupta heads the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. She, Holder and others at yesterday's news conference made a point of praising the work and dedication of most officers on the Cleveland Police Force and said Cleveland is not alone in facing challenges with the reform of police procedures.

VANITA GUPTA: And nonetheless, I stand here today with great optimism and hope. Our experience around the nation shows that together we can work towards solutions and forge a constructive path.

BARNETT: Denaya Robberson (ph), like many black residents in Cleveland, says the Justice Department report is long overdue.

DENAYA ROBBERSON: You're supposed to feel safe around the police. I don't. If anything should happen and I have call them, I have to just pray like Lord, should I call them?

BARNETT: The Department of Justice and the city of Cleveland have agreed to get working immediately in developing a reform program for the Division of Police and the appointment of an independent monitor to see it through and promote a feeling of safety for the entire community. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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