Editorial: Cleveland could lead the way for community oversight of the police


Courtesy of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland

Citizens for a Safer Cleveland seeks to make the Community Police Commission a permanent fixture

Editorial Board

Almost a decade ago, officers from six police departments (cue the over-policing of Cleveland) chased a car from downtown to East Cleveland and proceeded to shoot at the car 137 times, killing both passengers. A police officer thought the car might be involved in a drug deal, but after finding nothing on the license plate, still tried to pull the car over for a minor traffic violation. Police officers thought they heard gunshots coming from the car, furthering their “validation” for the chase, only to find no weapons in the car. Instead, they assumed the two passengers, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams—both Black—fit the description of criminals, and shot them 23 and 24 times, respectively, murdering them both. Even after both had been shot, the police officers continued shooting at the car. 

None of the police officers were held accountable. None faced prison sentences. Six officers were fired from their jobs, but the Cleveland Police Department got five of the officers reinstated within two years of their termination. 

Unfortunately, these cases have remained commonplace. And frankly, why are we surprised that this happens when we have six police departments patrolling a two-mile area? Cleveland, East Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University, University Circle, Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Heights all have police departments that patrol the area around University Circle. Moreover, police departments lack oversight and accountability. 

However, we have a chance to change this. 

Following the incident above—sometimes referred to as the “137 shots case”—the Mayor of Cleveland asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to open an investigation into police tactics in the city. The DOJ investigated for nearly two years and found that the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) “engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force.” What followed was a consent decree—a type of settlement agreement—between the federal government and the CDP to address the excessive (and sometimes deadly) use of force, lack of officer accountability and community engagement, and concerns about the use of searches and seizures. Ultimately, the decree established a Community Police Commission, made up of 13 people who either work or live in the City of Cleveland, that is responsible for reviewing CDP behavior and community concerns, as well as making policy recommendations for improvement. 

We are now on our third renewal of the consent decree; that is, we are continuing to have a problem with over-policing, resulting not only in physical, emotional and moral injury, but also in death. Moreover, while this decree has shed light and attention to the problem, it still lacks a level of accountability. As News Reporter Megan Gawronski wrote last week, CDP is not required to listen to or implement the changes suggested by the Civilian Police Review Board. As a result, organizers familiar with the commission have reported insufficient structural and systemic changes over the past eight years. 

To address the gaps in these repeating consent decrees, Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, in collaboration with other local community organizers and groups, seeks to make the Community Police Commission a permanent fixture in Cleveland through an amendment to the city charter. As such, hundreds of local residents—students included—are canvassing for the next month in order to get this new amendment on the ballot in the fall. 

Anyone who is registered to vote in the City of Cleveland is eligible to sign the petition; to be clear, this doesn’t cast a vote in favor of the amendment, but merely gets the issue on the ballot—yes, politics is dense and confusing. This includes students: for students who are registered in their hometown, consider changing to Cleveland—especially if your town consistently votes Republican or Democrat. It’s good practice to vote where you live.  

However, this also includes institutions such as CWRU. Unfortunately, few people pay close attention to local politics, despite it playing a key role in our day-to-day lives. That said, when institutions help promote civic engagement, some people start paying more attention. A powerful institution like CWRU has the responsibility to endorse initiatives such as the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland amendment. These are not partisan or candidate endorsements so CWRU cannot claim it’s inappropriate or forbidden. This is simply an initiative that seeks to keep all of Cleveland—including our campus community—safer by demanding accountability. Days of Dialogue are important, but demands of justice fade when we fail to transition from talking to acting. Here is an opportunity for CWRU to act. 

If this amendment is passed in the fall, Cleveland will lead the country in community oversight of the police. We will move one step closer to telling the truth when we attempt to comfort the families affected by police brutality and violence with phrases like “we are sorry” and “we did everything we could.”