Amid nationwide scrutiny of how and when police officers use lethal force, few police departments have courted as much controversy has Cleveland’s. After a high-speed pursuit in 2012, officers unleashed 137 shots in 19.3 seconds, killing two unarmed civilians, says the Christian Science Monitor. 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 U.S. Department of Justice oversight. Even in those cases, the courts found the use of lethal force justified. On Tuesday, city officials said they're firing six officers and suspending six others who were involved in the 2012 fatal chase. With criminal convictions of police still extremely rare, some legal experts see police departments' internal administrative process as playing an important role, 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, experts say. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these (Cleveland) cops ultimately got their jobs back,” says Thomas Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and now a criminologist at Merrimack College in North Andover, Ma. 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. “Unions are still going to strenuously advocate for their members,” Nolan says, “and they’re going to litigate to any extent possible to overturn any disciplinary sanctions on their members.”