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Former Cleveland police oversight members: Expect challenges, resistance to reform

The Community Police Commission can dole out discipline to officers, a role once held by the police chief and safety director

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The change in roles and leadership marks a new start for a group that, in the past, fought publicly with city leaders over their commitment to reform.

Olivia Mitchell

By Olivia Mitchell
cleveland.com

CLEVELAND — Past members of Cleveland’s police oversight panel have a message for the new group taking over the reform of the department: Be prepared for challenges and the resistance to change.

The Community Police Commission now has more power than ever, including doling out discipline to officers, a role once held by the police chief and safety director.

The change in roles and leadership marks a new start for a group that, in the past, fought publicly with city leaders over their commitment to reform. In recent years, it clashed with city officials over issues that include accountability, policies and access to information.

To Gordon Friedman and Lewis Katz, leaders of the past oversight commission, the new panel’s work comes with challenges.

“I don’t see any immediate issues with the police other than their overwhelming resistance to reform,” said Friedman, a civil rights attorney. “So, there are a couple of new personalities in the administration, but the attitude to reform has not changed.”

Katz, a professor emeritus of law at Case Western Reserve University, was more blunt.

He said that Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration had no intentions of working with the former commission. He said he believes that Bibb wants police reform, as he touted in his campaign in 2021, but Katz doubts the mayor is willing to put in the effort needed to bring needed changes to the city.

“My feeling was, and still is, that very little has changed, and that the culture of the Cleveland Division of Police remains negative,” Katz said. “I don’t see anything has been done to make it any better.”

The commission was established in 2015, when the U.S. Justice Department and the city entered into a consent decree to improve the division. The decree, which is overseen by a federal judge, came a year after a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Initially, it reviewed police policy and made recommendations to the department, though members said their suggestions often went unheeded. With the passage of Issue 24 in 2021, which was driven by a push for greater reform, the commission’s role changed. The new group, made up of 13 members, can determine punishment and subpoena witnesses and documents.

The city, however, has stressed its work to reform the department. Bibb acknowledged former commission members for their service, and they were invited to speak at the panel’s first meeting in January, said Sarah Johnson, a city spokeswoman.

“Since taking office, the Bibb administration has made progress on improving compliance with the consent decree by establishing the city’s first-ever police accountability team, fully staffing the Civilian Police Review Board, launching the new Community Police Commission and creating new and stronger systems of police oversight,” Johnson wrote in an email to cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.

The greatest tension between the commission and the city came in 2021, when the oversight group sought information and records from the city that took months for officials to turn over. The city’s lawyers called the requests unnecessary and burdensome.

At the time, the then-monitor of the reform process, Hassan Aden, wrote in a report that he saw “little in the [city’s] relationship with the commission that is positive or productive.” The city said Aden’s remarks miscast the situation.

Last year, the commission made recommendations on reducing police chases, as well as pushing against the use of investigative tools, such as drones and gun-shot detectors, which many fear could violate residents’ civil rights.

Katz said more must be done to comply with the consent decree.

“The problem that we saw as we left office is they haven’t implemented (the recommendations) yet, and until they do, we continue to need the consent decree,” Katz said. “To me, the consent decree meant that there was a real possibility of a change in the culture of the police division. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

In filings, the city says it believes it is close to complying with the decree, as it has made progress in training and disciplining officers. The new panel is expected to add to that progress.

Its members, who serve terms of two and four years, are training to learn local, state and federal policies related to policing. It is unknown when the new commission will begin to issue discipline to officers.

Jan Ridgeway, a retired Cleveland librarian and activist, is serving a four-year term.

“We come from different areas of the community,” Ridgeway said. “We have someone there with a disability. We have an Asian American. We have a Latino, and we have a member of the LGBTQ community.”

Ridgeway said her personal goal on the commission is one of the group’s primary goals: to strengthen relationships between community and police and to develop safe and effective policing policies for the department.

Sharena Zayed is serving a two-year term. She said her 15-year-old son died in a shooting in March 2020. She was the board chair of Stop the Pain Inc. and has experience in community outreach and engagement.

As a member of the new commission, Zayed is focused on creating innovative and effective policies for the department and executing constitutional policing. She is aware that it will take time before the city comes from under the consent decree.

“I don’t think it’s anything that should be done hastily,” she said. “It should be very strategic.”

Katz said the group’s role is an extremely important one for residents and the reform of the department.

“I think that the welfare of Cleveland, and the success of the consent decree, is in (the new members’) hands at this point,” he said.

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