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For Cleveland Community Police Commission, bickering and disarray top the agenda

cleveland community police commission
Cleveland Community Police Commission
Cleveland activist Brenda Bickerstaff, left, approaches Cleveland Community Police Commission member Alana Garrett-Ferguson, center, after Garrett-Ferguson's comment on activists' influence over the commission. The argument turned heated and the commission meeting was nearly called off.

Cleveland voters empowered the city’s Community Police Commission in 2021 to oversee police officer discipline, training and department policies. But the commission can’t even agree on who should serve as its executive director and spent its most recent meeting arguing about the definition of the word “or.”

That meeting, the purpose of which was to install a permanent executive director, ended in a heated debate over Robert’s Rules of Order, the 150-year-old manual of parliamentary rules for meetings. Eventually, commissioners called in a city attorney after failing to resolve the disagreement.

“Quite frankly, I believe this community deserves better,” said Commissioner Teri Wang. “They entrusted us with civilian oversight.”

This is the latest dispute to trip up the commission, created by the 2015 consent decree designed to overhaul the Cleveland police department after a federal investigation found the department was using excessive, unconstitutional force against the citizenry.

In 2021, Clevelanders passed Issue 24, which gave the 13-member CPC broad authority over the police department.

The commission needs to install an executive director to move ahead with the work voters gave it two years ago. With no one in that role permanently, the commission has not yet started reviewing the department’s decisions on officer discipline, a central responsibility enshrined in the city charter. And there is no system in place for the commission to receive information from the city on the disciplinary decisions it is charged with evaluating.

The Cleveland Division of Police is eight years into its federal consent decree, an agreement to reform department policies on the use of force, search and seizure, crisis intervention, data collection and officer accountability. A report released earlier this year by the police commission found the city had only completed about 39% of those reforms, though the city has argued that it has made great progress and the decree should be lifted.

Once the federal judge currently overseeing the consent decree declares it completed, oversight of the department will largely shift from the Department of Justice and federal court to the CPC.

Members of the public attending the June 14 meeting were openly frustrated with the commission, which has been meeting for six months without discussing a single police disciplinary decision or policy change that’s occurred in that time. During the meeting, a profane shouting match twice broke out between a member of the public and a commissioner.

“If a case is brought to you, to this commission today, can you honestly, truly say you are ready to render a decision? This is nonsense,” Black Lives Matter Cleveland co-founder LaTonya Goldsby told the commission after its meeting was derailed by arguments. “The nonsense, the bickering, the ego-tripping — it needs to stop.”

Robert’s Rules of Order and who’s in charge?

The CPC, like many boards of directors and city councils, uses Robert’s Rules to bring order to meetings. On June 14, 2023, commissioners voted 7-5 to dissolve a hiring committee formed in April and nominate their current interim executive director Jason Goodrick to be their permanent leader.

That’s when commission Co-Chair Jan Ridgeway, a community activist who for more than a decade ran the Garden Valley Neighborhood House, a food pantry in the Kinsman neighborhood, disputed the vote on procedural grounds.

Several of the commissioners who voted "yes" appeared confused or frustrated by Ridgeway's decision to challenge the vote.

Wang, who voted for Goodrick, read directly from the manual.

The issue was left unresolved after the commission called the city’s law department to interpret Robert’s Rules, which includes one provision that requires a two-thirds vote to rescind an earlier vote but also says a majority vote is enough.

Further discussion ensued over the use of the word “or.”

“This is why we need legal — because we don’t know,” said the other co-chair, Audrianna Rodriguez, who voted against Goodrick.

The commission’s bylaws, adopted in March, say a majority vote is required to carry a motion.

In multiple interviews and public comments, members of the commission expressed frustration with their inability to make progress.

“It's just crazy to me,” said Commissioner Sharena Zayed, who lost a son to gun violence and works with a community violence prevention group in Cleveland. “And that is the sentiment I've been hearing from most people in the community that I’ve talked to, they just don't understand what any of this has to do with police reform.”

Ridgeway said she objected because of the way the commissioners brought the vote up, without having it placed on the official agenda.

“It was about making telephone calls to commissioners to back a vote,” Ridgeway said. “In a way that was not publicly transparent, and I thought was unethical.”

It’s unclear what Ridgeway’s objection means for Goodrick’s nomination. Under normal circumstances, the commission’s nomination would next go to Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb for appointment.

Three weeks after the vote, a Bibb spokesperson said in an email the nomination is “currently under review.”

“This is a top priority for the administration,” the spokesperson wrote, “and the Mayor is invested in ensuring that the appointment process is handled with integrity and care.”

Navigating race, gender, power and policing in one of the country’s most segregated cities

In January, at its first full meeting, commission members went into a closed-door executive session to discuss personnel matters, specifically whether to make then-acting Executive Director Jason Goodrick permanent.

The commission punted. It announced Goodrick, who had been running the commission since 2017, would be the “interim” executive director. At a later meeting, commissioners agreed to end his term in April of 2024 and open a search to fill the position permanently.

Details of what was said in that first meeting are private, but according to several commissioners who voted in June to name him permanent executive director, Goodrick’s appointment was held up, in part, because of concerns over an investigation and lawsuit from early in his tenure with the CPC.

Three female employees claimed Goodrick sexually harassed one employee, oversaw a hostile work environment, did not respond to other claims of sexual harassment and had anger management issues.

A city investigation released in 2018 cleared him of violating the law or city policies. Investigators hired by the city’s human resources department found that Goodrick’s accusers, Chinenye Nkemere Thompson, Bethany Studenic and Rosie Jovic, appeared to be attempting to have him removed so they could take over the commission.

The report “strongly recommended” that all CPC staff, including the accusers and Goodrick, receive training in anger management.

Goodrick has denied the allegations. The women later dropped a lawsuit against Goodrick and the city.

“I had tried to put that to rest and just work on the consent decree,” Goodrick said in an interview. “But, apparently, at least one commissioner, maybe others, allegedly wanted to bring that as their first piece of work on the commission, make that an issue.”

The accusations are enough that the commission should search for a new executive director, even if the city’s investigation cleared Goodrick, said Commissioner Alana Garrett-Ferguson.

“I think that the fact that there's an executive director who has been in power for quite some time, who had very serious allegations made against them that had to do with how they treated their staff, which was primarily women, that led to a whole court case, an investigation,” she said. "Even though it was ultimately dismissed because of a lack of evidence or something ... we have to be very, very careful around having that be the foundation of our work."

Time is passing for commissioners to make their mark

The dispute over Goodrick’s appointment may not entirely be about his qualifications or past employment record. It may simply be about time. 

The vote over his appointment largely broke down based on the length of time commissioners will serve on the commission. Five of the seven commissioners who want Goodrick to stay have two-year terms. All five of the people who want to find a new executive director have four-year terms. Except for one commissioner, no one has publicly argued Goodrick isn’t suited for the job. 

Wang said she was concerned by the time a new executive director is found and trained to replace Goodrick, then staff were hired and started their work, she and the other two-year term commissioners may have already left the commission.

“Make a decision if you want to pursue a fully competitive process for this position, then start it,” Wang said in an interview after the vote. “But it had already been... five, six months into this.” 

The charter amendment, known as Issue 24, passed in 2021 with close to 60% of the vote. Mayor Justin Bibb was the lone candidate for mayor to campaign in favor of it.

It took more than a year after the election for the commission to have its first meeting. The committees working on contentious topics like overseeing officer accountability and reviewing department policies in complex areas like search and seizure and crisis intervention have just begun meeting.

The commission has yet to hire its own attorney, a position that all commissioners interviewed for this story have said would be important to help the CPC establish its independence.

One of the ways the CPC can exert its authority is by reviewing the city’s response to officer discipline recommendations issued by the Civilian Police Review Board, which investigates and holds monthly hearings on citizen complaints against the police.

Since January, the chief of police or public safety director has overturned or reduced discipline recommendations in 12 cases heard by the Civilian Police Review Board. The CPC has not reviewed any of those decisions, though it has the authority to overturn them and increase the level of discipline.

“It's a shame that Mr. Goodrick’s employment status has become the focus of the commission,” said Commissioner Wang, who voted to make Goodrick the group’s permanent leader.

Commissioners go to the city for an investigation

It’s not clear that the commission is ready to move past the decision on an executive director.

In February, Wang sent an email to Cleveland Law Director Mark Griffin asking him to file a complaint against unnamed fellow commissioners. Wang and two other commissioners who signed the email — Sharena Zayed and Gregory Reaves — said they were concerned about how commissioners discussed race and gender in the January closed-door meeting.

“During the session, there was also discussion of race, gender and color by commissioners in reference to Mr. Jason Goodrick’s employment status,” they wrote in the email. “For these reasons, we are requesting an initial conversation and subsequent inquiry of what had occurred.”

Reaves declined to be interviewed and Zayed and Wang would not discuss specifics of what was said or by whom.

Griffin replied to Wang’s email and asked to meet at a restaurant in Shaker Square. No action appears to have been taken following that meeting.

“Unfortunately, to date, even with a follow-up from me in May, voicing my concerns, Mr. Griffin has not responded in any way to me or to the other commissioners that were involved in voicing our concerns,” Wang said in an interview.

Wang said she is unaware of any written complaint taken by the city. She said the city did not conduct any interviews with commissioners or Goodrick following the commissioners’ attempt to file a complaint.

The city confirmed the meeting between Griffin and the commissioners took place but did not respond to questions about follow-up actions it may have taken.

“Chief Griffin did meet with them four days later on March 4th — which was a Saturday — and listened to their concerns,” said city spokesperson Tyler Sinclair.

"The nonsense, the bickering, the ego-tripping — It needs to stop."

CPC Community Meeting - June 14, 2023

The June 14 meeting of Cleveland's Community Police Commission was nearly derailed by a shouting match between a commissioner and a member of the public. That dispute begins at around 41:50 in the video above.

The dispute among commissioners over Goodrick’s nomination spilled over into the audience and nearly drove the June 14th meeting off the rails. The meeting was nearly called off after a shouting match broke out twice between an audience member and Commissioner Garrett-Ferguson.

The incident started when Garrett-Ferguson made a comment about some of the community organizers who supported Issue 24. She was making the case, ahead of the vote on Goodrick, to open up the search for an executive director and get more input from the public.

“That is not in any way shape or form meaning we should be in the back pocket of just four families who do not make up the public and the population of a city that has over 300,000 people,” Garrett-Ferguson said.

That’s when Community Activist Brenda Bickerstaff, who was seated in the gallery, stood up and began yelling at Garrett-Ferguson.

“You better watch it! You better watch it!” Bickerstaff shouted as she approached Garrett-Ferguson. “Tell the truth!”

Garrett-Ferguson stood up from the table where commissioners were seated, turned around and began shouting back at Bickerstaff. Other commissioners and audience members separated them.

Ridgeway, one of the co-chairs, ordered the live YouTube feed cut off and attempted to adjourn the meeting. But that wasn’t possible because the commission was in the middle of considering the motion.

Instead, Ridgeway called a 15-minute break and some commissioners stepped out into the hallway to regain their composure.

The meeting restarted, the live YouTube feed resumed. Commissioners voted 7-5 to make Goodrick the permanent executive director.

Bickerstaff and other organizers of Issue 24, from the groups Citizens for a Safer Cleveland and Black Lives Matter Cleveland, later called on Garrett-Ferguson to resign from the commission or be removed.

Garrett-Ferguson said she would not leave voluntarily and Mayor Bibb’s administration said shortly after that it would not be removing any commissioners.

Ridgeway said she hopes for a decision on Goodrick’s nomination by the commission’s next meeting and defended her decision to rely on the city’s lawyers for a ruling, saying the commission relies on the city for legal advice, human resources and funding, among other things.

“It's never really been thoroughly explained,” said Ridgeway. “Everybody tells me, ‘You're independent from the city.’ But how can we be? I think independence is only with the oversight of the police department, and discipline of the police. That's where we are independent.”

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 12.

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