By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has launched a full federal review of Cleveland police policies over the possible use of excessive force by officers, federal officials said on Thursday.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson had asked federal authorities to look into the department's policies after a routine traffic stop last November mushroomed into a lengthy chase and police firing more than 100 rounds, killing the car's occupants.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, told a news conference no single incident prompted the full investigation, but the preliminary review found that one was warranted.
"Police officers across the county are called upon to protect and safeguard members of their communities and are afforded the authority they need to do so, including the authority to use deadly force," said Perez. "It is absolutely imperative that officers use that authority responsibly and within the boundaries of the law."
Perez said the investigation would focus on whether there is "a pattern or practice of excessive force" by the department and then the development of a blue print for sustainable reforms if a pattern is found.
The investigation could result in a consent decree between the Justice Department and city police that mandates changes in department policies and possibly an outside monitor.
The Justice Department has reached agreements with several police departments in recent years including New Orleans, where a consent decree approved in January calls for sweeping changes and the scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor for several years.
Agreements on use of force also have been reached with Seattle and Portland, Oregon, police, Perez said.
Perez said the Justice Department expected regular contact with Cleveland police leaders over the next several months. The investigation is civil, not criminal, and focused on the department as a whole, not individual officers, he said.
Perez said the investigation would look into department policies, procedures, training, supervision and accountability.
The Justice Department looked at Cleveland police activity over a number of years in its preliminary probe. It also looked at an agreement the department reached with Cleveland police after a similar investigation in 2004, Perez said.
Jackson said the city welcomed the investigation because trust between police and residents was of vital importance.
"If there are things that are found that are suggestions that we need to do better in areas than we will gladly change," Jackson told the news conference.
According to a state investigation, police from several cities including Cleveland engaged in a 25-minute car chase on November 29 after a driver fled a traffic stop.
Two officers standing on the street reported hearing shots from the car as it sped by. Several other officers reported hearing what they thought were multiple shots coming from the car and seeing something metal that may have been a soft drink can held by the passenger, according to the state investigation.
The chase ended when 13 officers fired 137 rounds at the car in less than 30 seconds, killing driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa A. Williams.
A search of the chase route failed to turn up a gun, and no gunshot residue was found on the car's occupants. The investigation found that the sound officers attributed to gun shots most likely was the engine on Russell's car backfiring.
(Editing by David Bailey; editing by Carol Bishopric)