Muddy waters: Issue 24 raises heated debate about police accountability

Brenda Bickerstaff (left) and LaTonya Goldsby (right) stand outside the Harvard Community Services Center in Lee-Harvard ahead of a community conversation about Issue 24’s proposed charter amendment on Tuesday, September 28th, 2021.

Muddy waters: Issue 24 raises heated debate about police accountability

by Michael Indriolo

(Plain Press, November 2021)   LaTonya Goldsby was a teenager when the story of Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of LAPD broke. Again, she watched her TV with burning eyes when George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin in 2012. Then, Mike Brown was killed in the fall of 2014.

  She didn’t watch the next shooting on TV. 

  “Then it came home,” Goldsby said. A Cleveland police officer fatally shot her 12-year-old cousin Tamir Rice in November 2014.

  Those instances of police violence have remained in the front of the minds of Goldsby, Brenda Bickerstaff, and a cadre of others who have joined together after losing loved ones to police violence in Cleveland. They call themselves Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, and they have worked with a coalition of local, state, and national organizations to push for an amendment to Cleveland’s city charter that would broadly empower citizens to oversee the Cleveland Division of Police.

  “We want shared power, not split power,” Bickerstaff said. “We have to have shared power across the board. They’re talking about democracy. Democracy is shared power.”

  The fruits of those years spent agitating for change will soon ripen when Issue 24, the proposed charter amendment, goes to voters Nov. 2. Earlier this year, the activists behind the ballot measure spent months crafting the language and gathering more than 15,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. Now, the amendment’s 16 pages of complex legal language, which were recently mailed out citywide, have blasted open the door for conflicting interpretations. 

  That was evident at a Sept. 29 hearing for the amendment held by Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee, during which conversation at times devolved into back-and-forth arguments over strikingly different analyses of the amendment’s language. 

  On the one hand, Citizens for a Safer Cleveland and Issue 24’s supporters believe the charter amendment will offer a clear avenue to justice for victims of police misconduct. They say it will build trust among officers and the communities they police, by steering the culture of policing in Cleveland toward community-oriented accountability.  

  “I sincerely believe that this initiative will not cripple the division of police,” said Subodh Chandra, a former Cleveland law director and one of the amendment’s authors. “Rather, it will restore public confidence in the Division of police, as change and accountability get institutionalized over time.”

  On the other side, Issue 24’s detractors like Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams and Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard say the amendment would walk back progress made under the Consent Decree and grant too much power to an unaccountable commission of appointed officials. 

  “We get out there and we talk to people whenever we get the chance to,” Howard said during the Safety Committee hearing. “We’ve seen discipline and accountability change, training change. The culture has shifted from what it may have been — no, from what it was — and officers are aware.”

A new governing body

  The amendment’s most substantial reform would create a permanent governmental body called the Community Police Commission. The federal Consent Decree already created a body called the Community Police Commission, but it will only remain in place as long as the Consent Decree does, which is estimated to expire in 2022.

  The amendment would create a permanent Community Police Commission with a new structure and broader powers. So, if Issue 24 passes, the city would have to renegotiate the terms of the Consent Decree that relate to the Community Police Commission. 

  The proposed commission would serve as the final authority on police discipline, among much else related to the city’s Division of Police. This differs from the current disciplinary process that excludes the commission altogether. 

  That current process starts with the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Professional Standards. The office investigates complaints and submits its findings to the Civilian Police Review Board, its other arm. The board then recommends a course of disciplinary action to the police chief and the safety director, who have the final say on how to discipline officers. 

  Right now, the commission simply offers recommendations to the police chief and safety director on general reform related to excessive force, profiling, and other issues highlighted in the Consent Decree. But it doesn’t have teeth to enforce those recommendations, said Lewis Katz, who has served as the commission’s current co-chair for about a year and a half. That would change under the amendment, which, along with other broad powers, would grant the commission final authority over “police policies, procedures, and training regimens.”

  Yet Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said that would be a mistake. Taking authority away from him and the safety director and delegating it to civilians without law enforcement training could be disastrous for Cleveland and erode hard-won progress by restructuring the police accountability and civilian input systems the city has spent years refining, he said. 

  “This amendment starts out by saying complete civilian oversight, but we have oversight,” Williams said. “The point I’m trying to make is, if you want to better that, then let’s look at making that better. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and start from scratch.”

  During the Safety Committee hearing, Williams brought statistics to back up the Consent Decree’s progress. From 2011 to 2014, he said Cleveland Police officers were involved in 80 shootings. From 2015 to 2020, that number dropped to 24 shootings, he said. Complaints against Cleveland Police Officers have decreased by about 50% since the Consent Decree has been implemented, he said. 

  “We want reform in this police division, and we’re getting reform,” Williams said. “We’re getting there. This [charter amendment] is going to set us back 10 years, I can tell you that flat out: It’s gonna set us back.”

Community voices 

  Issue 24’s supporters say it would place the power to regulate police reform into the hands of the communities most impacted by police violence, yet the charter amendment’s opponents have characterized the team as outsiders, citing financial support they received from state and national activist organizations. That’s part of what Ward 16 Cleveland City Council Member Brian Kazy raged about during the Safety Committee hearing. 

  “Don’t sit here and tell me that this is what the citizens of the city of Cleveland want,” Kazy said. “Let me throw a fact out for you. $91,208.03 … was spent on putting this ballot initiative on the table. $88,663.30 of it came from outside the city of Cleveland. $2,544.73 absolutely came from the city of Cleveland. If you think that’s a fair representation of what they want, then you’re sadly mistaken.”

  Yet Citizens for a Safer Cleveland is led by residents who have lost loved ones to police violence, and for the past several months, they’ve been hosting conversations about the charter amendment at various community centers throughout Cleveland. Last month, about 25 people gathered in the hall at Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hough. Bickerstaff, Goldsby and others made their case. 

  “We need a permanent body to oversee the police,” said Bickerstaff, whose brother, Craig Bickerstaff, was killed by a Cleveland Police officer in 2002. “The police cannot investigate the police. It’s just not gonna happen. We need a truly powerful permanent system.”

  Bickerstaff detailed how she spent the years following her brother’s death filling up the voicemails and mailboxes of investigators on the local, state and national levels who just kept passing the buck. And her story wasn’t unusual. 

  According to a recent Policy Matters Ohio report, the city of Cleveland has spent $46.9 million on settlements and judgements related to police misconduct since 2010. Alicia Kirkman, another speaker at the community conversation, went through that settlement process after her 17-year-old son Angelo Miller was killed by police in 2007. She settled with the city of Cleveland for $35,000 in 2010, but that wasn’t enough, she said.

  “They gave me a settlement according to what they thought my son was worth,” she said. But the police officers who killed her son weren’t charged or even fired. 

  That’s who the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland team say they are: a group of Clevelanders who’ve dedicated decades to agitating for greater police accountability in Cleveland after personally experiencing a lack of it. 

  “This petition initiative was front and center and led by Cleveland residents, Cleveland family members, people who are directly impacted by the Cleveland Division of Police,” Goldsby said. “There was no outside influence at all. This is something that was truly led by Clevelanders.”

  And the amendment specifies that its proposed Community Police Commission would comprise members who represent “the racial, social, economic, and cultural interests of the community.”

  That includes police. The amendment stipulates that the Community Police Commission, members of which would be appointed by the mayor and approved by city council, would include three representatives from local police organizations, two representatives from organizations focused on civil rights issues, and at least one member who has been directly impacted by police violence.

  It would also include at least one member with knowledge of or experience in homelessness, substance abuse disorders, mental illness, wrongful conviction and gun violence. 

One-sided relationship

  Although Williams and others say the consent decree process is working, tension has long festered between the existing Community Police Commission and the Division of Police. And under the current structure, the commission has limited options for enforcement or holding the police chief accountable. 

  “The only way we can get documentation as to what’s been going on is from the chief,” said Katz, the commission’s co-chair. “And he’s been totally unwilling to cooperate.”

  That’s why the commission needs legal authority to force compliance in order to meaningfully reform policing in Cleveland, he said. Yet Williams blamed the commission for their tumultuous relationship during the Safety Committee hearing. 

  “That’s the issue that’s been brewing with our CPC from the beginning,” he said. “They’re put in the Consent Decree to be a connecting body and a recommending body of community engagement to the Division of Police. They have not done that. They have always skewered us in the negative.”

  Richard Jackson, a retired Cleveland Police sergeant who served as the commission’s co-chair for about three years starting in 2018, said he’d been involved in a case in which the chief’s noncompliance tied up a commission investigation for years. 

  Jackson said his predecessors had asked the chief for disciplinary letters related to an investigation, which constitute public record, before he began serving on the commission. The chief never sent the letters, so after years of back-and-forth, the federally appointed monitoring team overseeing the Consent Decree’s implementation held a special meeting this March.

  “The tension had gotten so bad where the monitor had to step in and hold a special meeting with myself and the chief and the monitor and the [U.S. Department of Justice] and some other members of the CPC,” Jackson said. “We stated that we wanted these documents. They stated that they will comply, but they never did.”

  Judge Solomon Oliver, the federal judge who presided over the case that brought the Consent Decree to Cleveland, finally issued a legally binding ruling in September ordering the chief to hand over the letters, and the police partly complied in September, Katz said. The commission doesn’t have to be the Division of Police’s enemy, Jackson said. It could be an ally to officers who’ve been wronged by division leadership.

  Throughout his 30 years on the force and his time on the commission, Jackson said that he’s reviewed case after case involving what he and Katz described as an “old boys club” in the Division of Police. Jackson recalled several instances in which he believed the chief unequally doled out lighter punishments to officers in his good graces. 

  “Some of these wrongs can be righted by the CPC if they have the last word,” Jackson said. “Everybody always looks at it as the CPC being able to fire officers when the department lets them go [with light punishment], but that door swings both ways.”

  That’s why the commission needs power to force compliance from the Division of Police. But still, Issue 24’s detractors say parts of the language in the amendment that grant this power are too vague and could lead to abuses of power. 

  Under the section outlining the commission’s duties and authority, the amendment states that city employees who obstruct the commission’s investigations “may be subject to dismissal, discipline, or censure consistent with city and state laws.”

  That’s the language fueling an alarmist claim discussed during the Safety Committee hearing that the amendment would grant the commission power to terminate the mayor. 

  Chandra, one of the amendment’s authors, said that’s patently false. While the amendment says interference with the commission’s duties could be a terminable offense, it doesn’t grant the commission power to fire anyone or dole out punishments. That responsibility would fall to regular channels outlined in city and state law. 

  “The only way a mayor can get terminated is a removal action or removal by the people,” Chandra said. “The Commission itself doesn’t have that authority.”

The new bogeyman

  The amendment’s detractors also claim it would set the city’s Division of Police back by detrimentally affecting its ability to recruit new officers at a time when the department is already down 150 officers, Williams said. 

  “Officers are going to leave this division in droves, good officers, because they see this as bad legislation,” Williams said. “It talks about complete civilian oversight. The military has civilian oversight in this country. The President does not decide what discipline a soldier gets in the Marine Corps or the Air Force. He lets his generals do their job.”

  Safety Director Howard said he’s been “expressly told” that the Division of Police would be looking to hire officers if the amendment passes. He said he talked with police departments across the country at a recent National Homeland Security Conference that have all struggled to recruit police officers. Cleveland, he said, is no exception. 

  Mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley seems to agree. During the first general election debate on Monday October 11th, he said: “Issue 24 would make our neighborhoods less safe. Issue 24 would result in hundreds of officers leaving their jobs. Issue 24 would result in slower response times.”

  The amendment’s supporters, on the other hand, approach this issue from a longer-term perspective. They say that, while the amendment could hurt morale initially, it will steer the culture at the Division of Police toward community-oriented accountability. 

  And they seem to have found an ally in Kelley’s opponent, mayoral candidate Justin Bibb, who has consistently supported the charter amendment. Changing police culture seems to jive with his “fresh ideas” platform. 

  “I believe we need more voices around the table to create a better culture and better training protocols is a step in the right direction to be sure our law enforcement have the tools they need to fight crime all across the city of Cleveland and restore trust,” Bibb said during the debate.

  Jackson, the retired Cleveland Police sergeant, said that, while officers may resist the changes initially, they will adapt over time. He admitted that he, like many of his officers, initially resisted having to wear a body camera. In time, he came to see how body cameras benefitted both the community he served and himself as an officer.

  “Same thing is here,” he said. “In time, the officers will come to see the good the CPC can do. Right now, it’s being looked at as the new bogeyman. You go from the Consent Decree being the bogeyman, now, the CPC will be the bogeyman.”

  The Consent Decree went into effect six years ago, and the city has a ways to go to meet its goals. But Bickerstaff and Goldsby said they’re more concerned about what could happen after the Consent Decree expires. Cleveland needs comprehensive reform of its policies and its culture before that happens, they said. 

  “We want to weed out those so-called bad apples so that we have a quality police department,” Goldsby said.

Goldsby started pushing for the charter amendment for reasons many Clevelanders surely understand. She’s a Black woman with a Black grandson. Just like the city’s white residents, she wants her family to feel safe in the city, she said. 

  “I want to make sure that they are not profiled because of the color of their skin,” she said. “I want them to come home safe, just like they want their children to come home. We should have the same quality police force within our communities that they have within their communities.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced and provided to the Plain Press by The Land. The Land is an online newsletter that reports on Cleveland neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. To subscribe to The Land visit: Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.

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