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Cleveland police oversight amendment Issue 24 passes by a wide margin

Supporters of Issue 24 watch as Justin Bibb makes his victory speech. Bibb endorsed Issue 24 early in the primary and won by a similar margin. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
People watching the returns on Issue 24 at a watch party at Academy Tavern in Cleveland's Larchmere neighborhood.

Cleveland voters overwhelmingly passed the civilian police oversight amendment Issue 24, shifting control of police discipline and policies into civilian hands and emphatically refuting arguments by police and city officials that community concerns about the Cleveland Division of Police are being addressed by the federal consent decree.

The charter amendment creates a 13-member Community Police Commission that has authority over police discipline, department policies and officer training. The new CPC takes that authority out of the hands of the chief of police and public safety director. The CPC will also have a guaranteed minimum yearly budget and sweeping powers to start investigations into individual police officers.

Supporters said the days of police officers investigating themselves in Cleveland are over.

“It’s very emotional,” said Brenda Bickerstaff, one of the leaders of the campaign to get Issue 24 on the ballot. Bickerstaff’s brother was killed by Cleveland police in 2002. “It’ll be 20 years on January 6, 2022. So probably tomorrow or the next couple days I’m going to visit his grave. I have not visited since we buried him.”

Dozens of Issue 24 supporters gathered at Academy Tavern in the Larchmere neighborhood on election night. When Justin Bibb appeared on television screens to give a victory speech, cheers broke out throughout the bar. The mayor-elect endorsed Issue 24 early in the primary.

His opponent, City Council President Kevin Kelley, made opposition to the amendment a centerpiece of his campaign, saying it would drive officers out of the department and further deteriorate public safety after two years of increasing violent crime in the city.

The possibility of officers leaving the department is a risk that’s worth taking, said Cleveland activist Fred Ward.

“This is the end of status quo, where you can just follow the protocol without being accountable to the people you serve. That day has ended today,” Ward said. “And this is a beautiful day for the city of Cleveland.”

The vote tally for Issue 24 largely mirrored the mayoral race, with the “yes” vote and Bibb starting the night with a substantial lead from early voting and the margin holding until the end. With 100% of precincts reporting, just 620 votes separated the “no” on Issue 24 tally and Kevin Kelley’s total.

The campaign to get Issue 24 onto the ballot and approved by voters was launched in the spring by Cleveland activists whose family members were killed by Cleveland police officers, along with members of the current Community Police Commission, which was created by the consent decree, and the statewide Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Retired Cleveland Police Sergeant Richard Jackson, former co-chair of the Community Police Commission, expected the biggest impact to be the police department having to conduct more of its business out in the open now.

“Issue 24 will allow smart people, citizens in the community, to get together and say, ‘This is what we need for our community, this is how we need to be policed,’” said Jackson. “Historically, in my 30 years in the police department, in my opinion it appears the police department has done things on a whim.”

One of the first challenges supporters face will be squaring the newly created Community Police Commission with the existing commission created by the consent decree. The amendment requires the city to petition the federal judge overseeing the progress of the city's police reform to make the necessary changes to the consent. If that doesn’t happen, the CPC would continue in its current form until the city is released from the consent decree.

The monitor overseeing that effort said this week, he did not expect the city to meet the requirements of the consent decree until at least 2023. 

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