- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

CLEVELAND (AP) - The heads of the city police department’s two unions say they disagree with some of the U.S. Justice Department’s conclusions in a report alleging a pattern and practice of excessive use of force by officers. But they also hope an eventual agreement between the city and the department will result in improvements that will enhance officer safety and make their jobs easier.

Jeff Follmer leads the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents more than 1,200 officers on the 1,500-member force. He does not believe Cleveland police officers routinely use excessive force and violate constitutional rights as alleged in the Justice Department report, which was issued after a 20-month investigation that began in March 2013. It was the second time since 2002 that the department has investigated the Cleveland police department’s use of excessive force policies.

Brian Betley, who leads the union representing sergeants, lieutenants and captains, said a renewed emphasis on community policing - a strategy that requires engagement with residents - could help reduce citizens’ mistrust of police.

The city and the Justice Department have agreed to negotiate a reform-minded consent decree that a federal judge must approve and an independent monitor will oversee. If an agreement is not reached, the DOJ would be forced to sue the city to enact reforms.

The federal investigation was launched within months of a November 2012 case where 13 police officers fired a total of 137 rounds into a car after a high-speed chase, killing two unarmed suspects in the vehicle. A patrol officer has been charged with two counts of felony aggravated manslaughter and five supervisors with misdemeanor dereliction of duty. All have pleaded not guilty.

Suspects arrested by police are rarely compliant, which means officers must exert some measure of control to subdue them, Follmer said. It’s too easy for people to second guess what an officer does after the fact, he added.

“Officers have to make split-second decisions,” Follmer said.

But he hopes the consent decree will lead to better equipment and improved training for officers, shortcomings noted in the Justice Department report. He also hopes for better working conditions, calling the city’s five outdated district stations “nasty.” And he was encouraged that the Justice Department is seeking union input on the consent decree.

In addition to the emphasis on community policing, Betley hopes there will be improvements in how the department tracks use of force, both deadly and non-lethal. He noted that when Cleveland and federal officials reached a voluntary agreement in 2004 after the last investigation, the department implemented changes and has largely followed them.

Betley said he was warned by union brethren from outside Cleveland that federal investigators would inevitably find mistakes and missteps by officers.

“There’s too much human factor in our job,” Betley said, “too much room for error.”

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