As more attention has been brought to police brutality against BIPOC, communities have been calling for changes to be made to a law enforcement system which often harms the very people it has sworn to protect and serve. The Cleveland Division of Police, for example, has had an especially horrific record when it comes to holding officers accountable for acts of police brutality: 91 families in the Cleveland area have been affected by police violence, and none of the officers involved in those cases have faced any convictions. In addition, the City of Cleveland has paid over $24 million in settlements for police misconduct since 2014, a significantly higher number than in previous years. In an effort to ensure justice is delivered after horrific instances of police brutality, Citizens for a Safer Cleveland is pushing for changes to be made to the Charter of the City of Cleveland, which would give more power to the community to hold officers accountable and allow them the final say in any disciplinary action taken against officers who have engaged in misconduct.
Citizens for a Safer Cleveland is a coalition made up of a number of independent organizations such as Black Lives Matter Cleveland, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio and the Ohio Student Association, alongside independent activists, which aims to strengthen community oversight of police. The coalition is led by families who have suffered losses to police violence, and is pushing for reforms to Cleveland’s policing system in the form of a proposed ballot measure which would give two different commissions more power to investigate cases of police misconduct throughout the city.
The ballot initiative would amend the Charter in two major ways. First, it would increase the authority of the already existing Civilian Police Review Board, giving them the ability to prevent the Office of Professional Standards from declining to investigate misconduct under the belief that another agency has already investigated that particular case of misconduct, allowing investigations to take place without a formal report being submitted and allowing victims of police misconduct to report their experiences without disclosing of their identity.
The initiative will also attempt to fix one of the major problems with the Board: currently, the chief of police is free to disregard all suggestions made to them by the Board when it comes to police disciplinary action. The amendment would force the chief of police to cooperate with the investigations conducted by the Board, and also allow them overrule the chief in some cases when it comes to disciplinary action.
The ballot’s measure would also establish an entirely new police oversight body—the Community Police Commission. The Commission would serve as the final authority on disciplinary matters within the police force, putting the final say on these decisions in the hands of the community instead of the Cleveland Police Department (CPD). It would also have the power to direct the Civilian Police Review Board to investigate officers who have had a lawsuit filed against them or who have had a settlement paid for by the City, and to finalize police procedures and training regimen.
This ballot stipulates that the Commission be made up of Cleveland community members, indicating that it “consist of 13 persons broadly representative of the racial, social, economic, and cultural interests of the community, including those of the racial minority, immigrant/refugee, LGBTQ+, youth, faith, business and other communities, to reflect the overall demographics of Cleveland residents.” It also calls for at least one member to represent such groups as the homeless population, victims of police and gun violence and attorneys with experience in cases involving police misconduct.
These measures would serve as an extension of Cleveland’s current Consent Decree—a decree intending to repair the relationship between Cleveland’s police force and its greater community by identifying the problems existing within the CPD, implementing policies to correct these issues as they are discovered, creating consequences for officers who fail to follow these policies and finding a way to monitor the CPD to ensure these policies are being properly followed.
The most recent Decree required numerous revisions to CPD conduct after a 2013-2014 investigation by the Department of Justice found a number of problems, including, but not limited to, a pattern of using excessive force or tactics which make force necessary when it could have otherwise been avoided, a lack of an effective system to report, document and investigate incidents of police misconduct and a large number of unlawful searches and seizures.
As the Decree is set to expire soon, the ballot measure will provide a more permanent way to ensure the community can hold police accountable. It will also address the Decree’s shortcomings and correct the lack of accountability and transparency within the CPD that persists even after scattered reforms.
“This amendment is a common-sense approach that ensures independent oversight of investigations into police misconduct, and gives final authority on discipline decisions to a board of community leaders. This means that community members, from every part of our city, will have a hand in improving accountability within our police department to ultimately build a safer Cleveland,” states the website for Citizens for a Safer Cleveland.
“It is … more than a step in the right direction,” says Samuel Martinez, one of the co-leaders of Case Western Reserve University’s branch of The Ohio Student Association, or OSA. CWRU’s branch of the organization, which is a statewide, nonpartisan organization focused on bringing people together to cause meaningful changes, has jumped aboard in promoting this initiative, and is planning to engage in local canvassing efforts. According to Martinez, the proposed ballot issue needs 6,000 signatures from Cleveland voters before it can officially get on the ballot.
The petition language was just recently finalized, and now the constellation of organizations that make up Citizens for a Safer Cleveland will work to get the requisite signatures before the summer. Anyone who is registered to vote in the City of Cleveland is able to sign the petition. For those who aren’t registered to vote yet, canvassing groups will have voter registration forms with them.
For anyone who is eligible to sign the petition, more information and a link to directly sign it can be found on the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland’s website. For anyone interested in helping to directly promote this petition, OSA has an open invitation for all students on CWRU’s campus to help with canvassing efforts or come to a meeting, held every Friday at 5 p.m. More information on them can also be found @cwruosa on Instagram.
The measures being proposed in this ballot initiative represent a major step in holding the CPD accountable and making the city safer for everyone. Should these measures pass, Cleveland would have the strongest police oversight body in the country, and could serve as a case study for how the U.S. policing system is best reformed through efforts by the community, rather than police.