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Cleveland voters boost civilian oversight of the police department

The amendment brings sweeping changes, giving citizens the final say in police disciplinary action

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Cleveland police keep watch during a rally Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

By Robert Higgs

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Voters approved an amendment to Cleveland’s charter Tuesday that will make sweeping changes to oversight of the police department, giving citizens the final say in disciplinary action.

The amendment, Issue 24 on the ballot, gives a Civilian Police Review Board authority to investigate complaints from the public against officers and to order disciplinary action.

A powerful Community Police Commission, which will oversee the review board and have ultimate say in disciplinary action, will also have broad policy making powers and operate independently from the mayor’s administration.

With 100% of the vote counted, the issue was passing Tuesday by a margin of more than 10,200 votes, 59.4% to 40.6%, according to unofficial results from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

The issue, submitted initiative petition by the group Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, rewrites part of Cleveland’s charter to hand oversight of the police department to the citizens officers are sworn to protect.

It’s a proposal deeply rooted in the community’s distrust of police and in a call for accountability that reached a fever pitch after the Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014.

Those calls have continued, fueled by frustrations that despite a federal consent decree governing police reform in Cleveland, the system has not been fixed.

[RELATED: How civilian review of law enforcement can improve police-community relations]

And it echoes the fervor for greater police transparency, rising across the nation since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020.

Supporters championed the charter issue as a move to install independent oversight that will finally ensure transparency, accountability and justice.

The new 13-member Community Policing Commission will be made up of a diverse cross-section from the community, nominated by the mayor and approved by City Council. It will replace the current Cleveland Community Police Commission, which gathers community input for the police reform effort and makes reports and recommendations.

The new, more powerful commission would have the final word on disciplinary action if a review board decision is appealed. Its executive director and staff would also address a broad range of policy issues, ranging from setting training regimens and procedures to auditing police investigative processes and recommending candidates for promotion.

The amendment also moves the Office of Professional Standards out of the police department and under the independent nine-member Civilian Police Review Board.

That board and its staff would investigate complaints against officers and have the power to order disciplinary action.

The current civilian review board, created as part of the consent decree, hears complaints from citizens and makes recommendations for discipline.

Proponents of Issue 24 complained that too often the board’s recommendations are ignored or discipline is too light. Issue 24 would require the police chief and the public safety director to comply with the board’s order in the absence of clear and convincing evidence that the board’s findings are erroneous.

Termination would be the presumed punishment for remarks considered racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant or otherwise bigoted.

Opponents to Issue 24 had warned it would bring disaster – that it will clash with existing labor contracts, other parts of Cleveland’s charter and Ohio laws and lead to litigation.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, speaking recently to City Council’s Public Safety Committee, warned that “(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 … and the citizens of this city deserve better.”

Critics argued the amendment cedes too much authority to an unelected, appointed board that will not have to answer to the people. The commission’s authority, they said, would be too broad, with its power to hire outside lawyers at the city’s expense, demand a minimum budget and mandate that police staff, including the chief, cooperate with investigations or face potential termination.

But the vote Tuesday was in line with a mood across the country that there needs to be greater oversight, particularly in the wake of several high-profile cases where people of color died at the hands of police.

Prior to 2020, Cleveland was one of about 200 places across with some form of civilian oversight. But after Floyd’s death in 2020, more than 130 new jurisdictions sought advice on civilian oversight from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for the association, told and The Plain Dealer this summer.

The question now is what happens next.

The elections board cannot start the official count of votes until Nov. 13. It might not be completed and certified until Thanksgiving week.

The charter amendment’s language says that it takes effect upon adoption of the voters.

The city – the mayor and City Council – have 60 days to address vacancies on the nine-member review board (its current seven members may continue to serve) and the 13-member commission.

The process – including soliciting applications — would have to begin within 30 days, but the 60-day appointment window reaches into January 2022.

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