Preventing the Next Cleveland

It doesn't have to be this way.

Photographer: Ricky Rhodes/Getty Images

The Department of Justice keeps finding police departments that use excessive force and ordering them to stop. It may be time for it to rethink its approach.

On Tuesday, the city of Cleveland entered into an agreement with the department after investigators found evidence that its police department had a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force and violating residents’ constitutional rights. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department has made similar findings in other cities, including Albuquerque, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Portland, Seattle and Ferguson, Missouri. Many of the cities, like Cleveland, have agreed to federally imposed changes and monitors to ensure compliance with them.

None of this necessarily means these police departments are routinely breaking the law. Cities may enter into agreements to avoid the legal -- and political -- costs of fighting a “pattern or practice” lawsuit. But even if only some of the federal government's findings are correct, it’s clear that the problem is far from isolated. It demands a more hands-on solution.

Rather than waiting for the tragic death or injury of a civilian, and then for public protests to erupt over it, the Justice Department ought to establish standards that allow the public -- and elected officials -- to judge police actions. For instance, one of the changes accepted by the Cleveland Police Department will be to generally prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles. When New York City's police department adopted this change in the early 1970s, police shootings fell dramatically.

That is the kind of lesson that federal officials ought to be spreading loudly and widely. Through its investigations and close relationship with thousands of local law-enforcement agencies, the Justice Department is well positioned to identify the rules and practices that are most effective at reducing the likelihood of excessive force and other violations of constitutional rights.

Earlier this month, the department released a report by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that contained dozens of recommendations, many of them good. But reports by presidential commissions usually end up collecting dust. The Justice Department is funding several pilot projects to help a few places carry out some of the recommendations, but that is not enough. It ought to give clear guidance to police chiefs and the elected officials who oversee them on the standards that define good policing so that citizens can hold them accountable.

And if a city's leaders and federal officials disagree about the appropriateness of any particular practice, the public ought to know about it. Political pressure brought by citizens can bring about change more swiftly than any federal lawsuit -- and before tragedy strikes.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.