Supporters, detractors offer pros and cons to proposed police oversight commission
With the future of law enforcement supervision on the line, it is no wonder why many say Issue 24 is among the most polarizing on the 2021 Cleveland ballot.
What’s the issue?
If it passes, Issue 24 would establish an initiative to create the Community Police Commission, appointed by the mayor to oversee a multitude of police activities and actions, including disciplinary measures and hiring of high-level personnel, among many other duties.
The commission would get the final say in establishing any new policing policies, procedures and training. They would also have the power to accumulate public personnel records on any officer accused of misconduct of any kind.
The bill includes a clause giving them sweeping firing powers that extend to all city employees, including the mayor and police chief, if they are uncooperative with a commission directive.
The commission may also launch their own investigations into officers accused of misconduct.
The bill would also give them public funding power: one of their listed duties is to issue grants to “community-based violence-prevention, restorative-justice, and mediation programs to reduce the need for police activity.” The grant budget will be 0.5 percent of the police budget, currently setting it at around $1 million.
The budget for the Commission itself must start at, at least $1 million, and must be adjusted to inflation yearly.
The issue outlines the rules for creating the committee in the full ballot measure.
The 13-person committee would be required to reflect the demographics of Cleveland and be required to include a victim or family member of a victim of police brutality, and may only include up to three members who have any ties to the police department.
Committee members will be paid $7,200 for their position, and be compensated for any committee-related expenses.
Issue 24 also includes some key changes to the Civilian Police Review Board, whose objective is to “oversee police conduct investigations and discipline, report and advise about police-community relations, and oversee police training and recruitment,” according to nonpartisan website Ballotpedia.
The nine-person board would be required to have at least two attorneys who “have experience defending victims of police brutality.” It also bars anyone who is currently or formerly employed by the police department.
The mayor, rather than the police chief, would be granted the power to remove board members.
The bill will also expand the powers of the board to make their own complaints against the department, instead of only being able to act on complaints brought forth by citizens.
While the Police Chief can challenge the board’s disciplinary actions, he must provide sufficient evidence that the board is overstepping with their punishment. The board can decide to overrule this challenge, meaning the police chief must carry out their recommended punishment.
The bill also adds a provision that allows for the immediate termination of officers who are found to use “bigoted content, slurs or language.”
Under the new rules, the budget for the board must be at least one percent of the police force’s budget. Currently, that would guarantee at least $2 million for the board.
All in favor?
Issue 24 was petitioned for by a group called Citizens for a Safer Cleveland.
CSC is actually a coalition of groups in Cleveland including Black Lives Matter Cleveland, ACLU of Ohio, NAACP Cleveland, Ohio Organizing Coalition, and Showing Up for Racial Justice NE Ohio.
Rachel Collyer, a spokeswoman for CSC, said they got issue 24 on the ballot because the city needs “common sense accountability” for its officers.
“The police are no longer policing themselves,” Collyer said. “There is a sense of greater safety and trust in the community knowing that there's accountability and that the police aren't above the law. (With this committee), just like any other public servant, they will experience consequences if they violate the public trust.”
Collyer said she believes that everyone, including the police, will benefit from this issue passing.
“The issue is that it's harder for police to do their jobs right now, because there's a lack of trust from the public,” Collyer said. “There are officers who aren't receiving consequences, and it hurts officers who are trying to do their jobs.
“(This committee) ultimately does really well for a much healthier relationship and for trust to be built between the police and the community, which is, really difficult when people see that there's been no justice, that the police aren't accountable to the law.”
On CSC’s website, they also mention a need for racial justice in Cleveland. After protests across the country last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody, police reform through a racial lense is a vital point for this issue’s supporters.
“But for too long now, we’ve seen police officers assault or kill Black and brown people with no consequences. Even the officers who killed children like Tamir Rice, Brandon McCloud, and Angelo Miller didn’t lose their jobs, and they were never charged with a crime,” the site says.
Collyer said the issue was definitely drafted with this angle in mind, as people affected by those cases were involved in the drafting process for the bill.
“For the families who've been involved in this campaign this is about making sure that no one else goes through the pain that they've been through and that everyone's family can come home safe.”
While the issue did garner enough support to make it onto the November ballot, the committee is getting significant pushback from the law enforcement community.
Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in no uncertain terms, that this bill would be bad for police. He called this issue “nothing more than a citizens’ coup, plotting control over the police.”
He said that opposition coming from a wide spectrum of city officials is a signal to him that this is a bad idea.
“When the mayor, the safety director, our union, the F.O.P. (Fraternal Order of Police) and council people are all on the same page about that, it should speak highly,” Follmer said. “We all don’t get along but we all agree this amendment is terrible for the city of Cleveland.”
Follmer said the main concern is the breadth of power the committee would have.
“It’s giving power to these civilians for discipline and investigations over all police and they can fire any employee, including the mayor, if they choose to,” Follmer said. (The issue) is 25 pages of smoke and mirrors, using the terms ‘police reform’ and ‘accountability.’”
He also noted that complaints and instances of use of force are down in recent years. He feels the money that would go to the board could be used to make improvements to the department or the city instead.
“We’re talking about mental health issues, city watch and community policing,” Follmer said. “Think about all you could do with that.”
Follmer said he is worried that, if the issue passes, many of the 300 officers currently eligible for retirement will leave the force.
“We’re already about 150 people short,” Follmer said. “Going into 2022 we could be down, in the first two or three months, about 400 officers.”
This sentiment was echoed by Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, who said “Officers are going to leave this division in droves — good officers — because they see this as bad, bad legislation,”
During a city council meeting on public safety, Williams further slammed the bill. Drawing a comparison between the police force and military, he made the argument that this would not fly at the federal level.
“The president does not decide what discipline a soldier gets in the Marine Corps or the Air Force. He lets his generals do their job,” Williams said.
“(Issue 24) takes that power out of my hands, out of the safety director’s hands, and puts it in the charge of civilians that have no training in policing,” he said in an interview with cleveland.com.
When looking at opinions beyond the police and the groups who wrote the bill, it is evident that there is a notable split in opinion on this bill.
The two mayoral candidates, Justin Bibb and current City Council President Kevin Kelley, have taken different sides on the issue: Bibb is for the bill, while Kelley is against it.
Both sides of the argument have some support from city council members, and while many social advocacy groups in Cleveland have thrown their support behind issue 24, there are no shortage of detractors.
Whether the bill passes, however, will come down to the voters of Cleveland. With impassioned arguments on both sides, it is sure to be on the minds of voters as they cast their votes November 2nd.