Activists Want To Overhaul The Way Cleveland Police Are Disciplined

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Carol Townsend and Jennifer Blakeney collecting signatures for Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, May 23, 2021. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
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Advocates of civilian police oversight in Cleveland are betting this is the right time for a dramatic overhaul of the way officer discipline is handled. And they’re hoping voters agree.

The idea is to strengthen the police oversight bodies that already exist in Cleveland, first by making the Cleveland Community Police Commission (CPC) permanent.

The CPC was created by the 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department and the group could expire when the decree does – possibly sometime next year. But a proposed amendment to Cleveland’s city charter would make it permanent and secure funding for the 13-member panel.

Rachael Collyer, program director for the Ohio Student Association, said the idea for a charter amendment was first proposed by family members of people killed by Cleveland police.

“And we need to have something beyond a consent decree because having been in multiple consent decrees we know they aren’t a solution, in and of themselves,” Collyer said.

The CPC would have ultimate oversight over police discipline and policies. Right now, the director of public safety makes final decisions. The commission’s yearly budget would be at least $1 million and funding for grants would be made available every year.

The amendment also would expand the authority of the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates civilian complaints against officers, and the Civilian Police Review Board, which recommends discipline based on those investigations.

And it would require the dismissal of officers who use discriminatory language while on the job.

“If there were actual accountability for those officers beforehand, then there would be more people who would be still here with us,” said Prentiss Henry, one of the organizers of the campaign and co-executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Those ideas have gotten little support from city leadership so far.

“I guess what they’re talking about is [the Community Police Commission] would become the police chief,” Cleveland Mayor Jackson said shortly after Citizens for a Safer Cleveland launched its signature-gathering campaign to get the charter amendment on the November ballot. “I’m opposed to the charter change they’re proposing.”

Over the past year, in response to calls for reform like defunding the police, Jackson has stood by the consent decree as the city’s roadmap for reform.

“And the community police commission is part of that,” Jackson said. “And its role in terms of policy and oversight is described very specifically in that settlement agreement. So that’s what I support – the settlement agreement.”

As far as the future of the community police commission after the consent decree ends – without a charter change – that’s also unclear.

Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee Chair Blaine Griffin said, during a February budget meeting, that maybe the commission should become a part of the Community Relations Board, within the mayor’s office.

“It’d be a travesty if, at the end of the consent decree, you guys just had to go away,” Griffin said. “But it also is fiscally responsible and important if we actually looked at, is it a great thing if we actually expand the community relations board?”

Griffin, who ran the community relations office before joining city council, added he thought that’s where the commission should have been from the beginning.

But the organizers are trying to bypass city leadership, going directly to their fellow citizens.

Jennifer Blakeney was gathering signatures in a strip mall in the Glenville neighborhood, catching people going in and out of a busy laundromat on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

“Have you had a chance to sign the petition for oversight of the police?” Blakeney asked one passerby, who stopped to sign.

“This is surprisingly the first place I’ve gotten ‘Nos’. Not everyone is cool with voting,” Blakeney said. “I had one woman fill it out and then wouldn’t sign it, doesn’t do that.”

After a couple hours, Blakeney had 12 signatures. It will take close to 6,000 from registered Cleveland voters to get on the ballot.

She’s joined on the petition committee by two women whose family members were killed by Cleveland police, Alicia Kirkman and Brenda Bickerstaff, and by Black Lives Matter Cleveland co-founders Kareem Henton and LaTonya Goldsby.

Blakeney got involved in the campaign after working on a police oversight research team that helped prepare the Cleveland police consent decree in 2015.

“The Community police commission that’s instated now was part of what we had recommended,” Blakeney said.

And she believes that without a charter amendment, the CPC will end with the consent decree.

The process once the signatures are gathered is complicated. City council has to review the amendment, then send it to the board of elections. It’s not clear when that will happen because of council’s summer recess. But organizers are aiming to reach 10,000 signatures, to make up for the probability some will be invalid.

Prentiss Haney, co-executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, is optimistic about getting the charter amendment on November’s ballot.

The goal is to have the signatures collected by the end of June. Then supporters can start convincing people their vote in favor of the charter amendment is the best way to get lasting reform at the Cleveland Division of Police.

“We are the largest community organizing organization in the state,” Haney said. “We have a history and we know how to get this done.”

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