A New Uncertainty Hangs Over Cleveland's Police Reforms

Cleveland police during Republican National Convention. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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The new U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions recently ordered a review of all the consent decrees between the U.S. Government and local police forces. During a speech in St. Louis on March 31st, the same day the order was written, Sessions laid out the rationale for reconsidering existing police reform efforts.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors.  Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down," said Sessions.

The DoJ requested a delay of a consent decree with the City of Baltimore and its police department. The federal judge there rejected the request this weeks and the process will proceed.

There are, according to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich, a few possible outcomes of the DOJ review. The first, which he considers unlikely, is Sessions putting an immediate halt to the consent decree process.

“It's an existing agreement that's in place, it's being overseen by a federal judge and by an independent monitor, there are a lot of institutions in place. So I don't think he would have the power to simply, like, suspend it immediately," says Witmer-Rich,

The two parties to the 2015 police reform agreement are the Department of Justice and the City of Cleveland. It calls for widespread changes of police policy. To be considered in compliance and released from the consent decree, the city needs court approval of the new policies and to have them in place for two years. It’s this part of the agreement that leads to the second possible outcome.

“So if the attorney general really wants to, as he's signaled, pull back federal authority and give more autonomy to local police departments, short of trying to dissolve the consent decree, he could certainly just make judgements, or have his people make judgements, that we think they're in compliance here or we think this is sufficient, it's adequate, when another justice department might have pushed harder on a lot of those points," said Witmer-Rich.

According to the consent decree, the independent monitor reviews the policies and can submit objections to the federal judge who can require changes or say they’re good enough. So far, the city has said it’s committed to reform. But Witmer-Rich said now Cleveland has a way out.

“A consent decree, it's a little unusual, but in part it's an agreement between two parties, and so if both the city and the DOJ decide, 'you know what, we don't think we need to do this part of it anymore or we're satisfied in this area.' That certainly would have a big impact on how things develop," said Witmer-Rich.

The city has established a Community Police Commission. They’ve drafted new use-of-force and crisis intervention policies. But, two years in, there is still much work to be done, like creating bias-free policing policies and improving the handling of citizen complaints. With those challenges still ahead, Witmer-Rich said there’s a third possibility - the city and the Department of Justice both going in front of the court and asking to be released from the agreement.

“If they did try to do it and just say, 'we're not saying we're in compliance, we just think we want to terminate this. We're done,'" said Witmer-Rich. "That would be kind of unprecedented territory and it's not clear whether the court would kind of allow them to say, 'ok, you want out of it, you're out of it, both sides' or whether the court would press them to say, 'no, we need to see this process through."

In the meantime, said Witmer-Rich, a good place to monitor the city’s commitment to reform will be at the Office of Professional Standards, where citizen complaints against the police are processed.

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