Justice Department Launches Civil Rights Probe into Cleveland Police

After a harrowing chase in which two citizens were killed by police, local officials are heartened by a federal investigation into law enforcement practices.

Posted: 03/15/2013 04:41 PM EDT

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation to determine whether the city’s police department has used excessive force, including “unreasonable deadly force” in dealing with citizens.

The decision to investigate the Cleveland police comes after a massive chase last fall in which officers in more than 60 patrol cars fired 137 shots that killed two people who were widely thought to be unarmed. In the aftermath of those killings, several elected officials and leaders of civil rights groups in Cleveland called for a federal investigation of the police department.

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general, said the Justice Department investigation will look into procedures and practices beyond the November car chase that ended in the shootings of Timothy Russell, 43, and his 30-year-old passenger, Malissa Williams.

In that incident, Russell and Williams were each shot more than 20 times. Some of the police officers said they believed the two to be carrying weapons, however no weapons or shell casings were found.

The chase made headlines in Cleveland and in Ohio, which included police driving through several residential neighborhoods and onto a highway prior to it ending behind a school in neighboring East Cleveland. At one point, the chase reached 100 miles per hour. It covered 25 miles over 22 minutes.

“No one in America should ever have to deal with a situation like this, where people are chased, gun downed and killed without anyone asking them a single question,” said Gary Norton Jr., the mayor of East Cleveland, Ohio, where the chase ended.

“We have to know whether these officers operated within the law,” Norton said, in an interview with BET.com. “An incident like this demands an answer.”

But leaders of civil rights groups said they were pleased that there had been movement in the matter by the Justice Department.

“We are elated that the Justice Department has answered our call,” said Hilton Smith, the president of the Cleveland NAACP, in an interview with BET.com.

“Early on...we wrote the Justice Department and asked them to do a thorough investigation,” Smith said. “They have responded. We met with them yesterday and said they would conduct a wide-ranging investigation. So now, we’ll wait and see. But we’re pleased that they have responded.”

Frank Jackson, the mayor of Cleveland, said he welcomed the federal investigation. “It is vital that there is a level of trust between police and the community,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference in Cleveland, Perez said that the Justice Department is not conducting a criminal investigation but that it will fully review a wide range of police department policies and procedures.

“We go into this with no preconceived notions,” Perez said.

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(Photo: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

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