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Jackson administration spells out conflicts with Cleveland consent decree & Issue 24 in court filing

Mayor Frank Jackson opposed Issue 24 beginning in the days after it was introduced by Cleveland and Ohio activists. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson stands in the red room in City Hall with Police Chief Calvin Williams to his right.

The city of Cleveland is asking a federal district court to reconcile the changes needed in the consent decree with provisions of the recently passed police oversight amendment Issue 24.

The city filed a motion Thursday with Judge Solomon Oliver, who has been overseeing the city's 2015 police reform agreement with the U.S. Justice Department. The motion lays out the ways Issue 24 conflicts with various aspects of the consent decree, the police union contract and other laws and policies.

The city did not suggest remedies or any other options for the court.

“Unfortunately, with its motion, the current Cleveland administration has used its motion as a trojan horse to undermine the will of Cleveland’s voters,” said Issue 24’s author Subodh Chandra.

The charter amendment, which passed in November with 60% of the vote, requires the city file a motion in federal court to add provisions of the amendment to the consent decree. The city’s 33-page motion goes through the charter amendment section by section and finds issues with many of them.

According to Chandra, the city made several disputable arguments, including that Issue 24 would conflict with the police union agreement. According to that contract, the chief of police and public safety director have authority over officer discipline. Issue 24 gives the final authority to the Community Police Commission.

Chandra argues the amendment is a civil rights law and so overrules the collective bargaining agreement. But, he says, the city chose not to mention that argument.

Chandra says Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration is, in effect, arguing there are so many differences between Issue 24 and the consent decree, union contract and other laws and policies that it would be too much work to modify the consent decree.

“Instead of making the best case for Cleveland voters, this administration is retaliating against them for wanting change,” Chandra said. “What this administration is doing is trying to set Issue 24 on fire on its way out the door.”

But Issue 24 doesn’t just change the city’s system of officer discipline. It also gives the Community Police Commission (CPC) authority over policies already approved by Judge Oliver. And it gives the CPC authority over policies outside the consent decree such as police hiring, an authority that currently rests with the civil service commission.

According to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich, the motion doesn’t tell Judge Oliver whether to add Issue 24 to the consent decree or keep it out entirely. The city tries to stay on the fence on that question.

“I think they’re trying to assist the court by highlighting here are the different issues we think you’re going to have to figure out,” said Witmer-Rich.

Judge Oliver, who will ultimately decide what happens, has some difficult decisions to make, Witmer-Rich added. But he says the conflicts can and should be worked out in the consent decree.

“This is a piece of legislation passed by the voters of the city of Cleveland and to say we can just disregard that, because we have this existing agreement in place, I’m uncertain that would be the right outcome here,” Witmer-Rich said.

Witmer-Rich says the court is likely to ask for input from the Department of Justice and may wait until Mayor-elect Justin Bibb takes office next month.

Subodh Chandra agrees that the court should wait to make any decisions.

“The new administration will likely withdraw this misguided filing and ask the court to adopt voters’ will to ensure fair and constitutional policing,” Chandra said.

Bibb backed Issue 24 during the election. In a written statement to Ideastream Public Media, Bibb said he looked forward to working with Judge Oliver to “continue executing the consent decree alongside the charter amendment.” He added, “We can and must do both.”


Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.