Cleveland police firings: Is internal discipline an effective way to reform? (+video)
The termination of six Cleveland police officers for their roles in a fatal 2012 incident is part of a new era of police accountability. But internal discipline measures may have their limits.
Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer/AP/File
Amid nationwide scrutiny of how and when police officers use lethal force, few police departments have courted as much controversy as the one in Cleveland.
After a high-speed pursuit in 2012, officers unleashed 137 shots in 19.3 seconds, killing two unarmed civilians. Two years later, the city mourned the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the victim of a fatal police shooting. The police department is now under US Department of Justice oversight.
Even in those two cases, the court system found the use of lethal force justified. But on Tuesday, city officials said they’re firing six officers and suspending six others who were involved in the 2012 fatal chase.
True, the chief accountability mechanism for police conduct is still the courts, and more police officers are being prosecuted in use-of-force cases, recent research has found. But with convictions still extremely rare, some legal experts see police departments’ internal administrative process as playing an important role, too – in part because it involves a different set of standards.
"If you're exonerated from criminal liability, it doesn't mean you didn't violate department policy," says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.
In the end, however, internal discipline may be a weak accountability mechanism, legal experts say.
"I wouldn't be surprised if these cops ultimately got their jobs back," says Thomas Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and now an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
The high-speed pursuit in 2012 went on for 22 miles, and the ensuing gunfire killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The only officer in the case to face criminal charges was Michael Brelo, and he was acquitted last May.
A lengthy internal investigation resulted in the disciplinary actions announced Tuesday. Mr. Brelo was one of the six fired.
Officials in Cleveland insist that they conducted a thorough investigation and sanctioned the 12 officers based on the facts.
The Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association has already filed several appeals for the officers, and the group's president, Stephen Loomis, made it clear Tuesday he thinks politics played a role in the disciplinary process.
"Six people got fired after the state Attorney General's Office cleared them, a grand jury cleared them, [and] a Cuyahoga County judge cleared them. And yet the safety director finds enough there to make these kinds of decisions," he said. "It's absolutely politically motivated and insane."
The appeals process in such situations has proved fruitful for dismissed officers in the past.
Just this past year, officers from Florida to Arizona have been fired for offenses ranging from excessive force to racist posts on social media, only to appeal and be reinstated months later. In 2013, a Boston officer named David Williams was reinstated for the second time in his career after being fired for what was ruled an illicit chokehold, as well as falsehoods about the individual’s arrest. He had previously been fired, in 1999, for his role in a near-fatal beating of a plainclothes officer, mistaken for a suspect.
"Unions are still going to strenuously advocate for their members," Professor Nolan says, "and they're going to litigate to any extent possible to overturn any disciplinary sanctions on their members."
While Professor Burke thinks accountability is important, he says he doesn't want a blame game to get in the way of meaningful reform that could prevent similar tragedies.
"Stop playing politics with people's lives. Look at issues, fix the issues, and gain back trust, from both the community and [the rank and file]," he says.
Burke, who was formerly a Maryland police officer, says the true opportunity for reform lies in the process involving the Department of Justice.
"If you're going to reform a [police] agency, it's going to take everyone's cooperation," he adds. "You don't want to end up sanctioning police; you want to prevent these things from occurring. That's why strong [new] policies, procedures, and training are important."