Hours before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd, a coalition of Cleveland social justice organizations formally launched a ballot initiative that would amend the city of Cleveland's charter to create stronger civilian oversight of the division of police.
Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, the newly formed group, will collect signatures in the coming weeks with the goal of putting the measure before voters on the November ballot.
Broadly speaking, the charter amendment aims to increase transparency and accountability for police misconduct. Among other things, it would strengthen the powers and resources of the civilian review board and eliminate the situation where the chief of police and public safety director disregard that body's disciplinary recommendations. It would also automatically make termination the presumed disciplinary response for racist, sexist or other bigoted conduct or language by officers on the job.
"Just as we have a civilian commander in chief of the military and a civilian secretary of defense over the military, so also, when you have a paramilitary
organization in your community, you must assert strong civilian control," said local attorney Subodh Chandra, who authored the amendment on behalf of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland. "This initiative represents that assertion by the people of Cleveland over the police."
Chandra said that recent history has clearly demonstrated a lack of accountability for police misconduct. Last summer, for example, a scathing memo
by Hassan Aden, the consent decree monitor, found that former Safety Director Michael McGrath was consistently too lenient when meting out punishment for police misconduct. McGrath regularly failed to justify his disciplinary decisions and rarely imposed appropriate discipline for integrity-related offenses, (i.e. when officers lied.)
Chandra said that the current ballot initiative moves beyond the frustration and debates over why the lack of police accountability persists and toward a solution: greater civilian control.
The civilian review board would be empowered to investigate incidents of deadly force, and their findings would be entitled to a presumption of correctness.
"The police can no longer just blow off the recommendations of the board," Chandra said.
Chandra also noted the importance of making termination the proper discipline for bigoted conduct and language. He cited the 2010 case of Juan Ortiz, a 16-year-old Hispanic boy with Down Syndrome whom Cleveland officers incorrectly apprehended in a west side chase. Scene reported
that as his parents and neighbors tried to tell officers that they had the wrong guy, and that Ortiz had Down Syndrome and spoke only limited English, officers hurled racist insults at them, calling them "wetbacks" and telling them that if they couldn't speak English they should go back to where they came from.
For six years, police leadership imposed no discipline in that incident, despite the recommendations of the civilian review board. Finally, officers were given a slap on the wrist, said Chandra, for "unprofessional language."
"This initiative says no more," Chandra said. "For that type of conduct, officers should be fired because we do not want a bigoted police force."
In a press conference Tuesday, local activists celebrated the initiative as a step toward greater police accountability, especially as officers have eluded appropriate discipline for misconduct for so long.
Alicia Kirkman, the mother of 17-year-old Angelo Miller, who was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2007, said the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland initiative would "help heal the wound" caused by police violence.
Latonya Goldsby, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, said the charter amendment would implement a permanent structure of police accountability and civilian oversight in Cleveland.
"We cannot allow police to police themselves," she said.
The organizations Stand Up For Ohio, Black Lives Matter Cleveland, NAACP Cleveland, Showing Up For Racial Justice-NEO, and the ACLU of Ohio are all supporting the ballot measure.
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