CLEVELAND — Supporters and opponents of Cleveland’s proposed charter amendment, Issue 24, which would dramatically shift oversight of police discipline and operations, traded points and counter points on Wednesday morning in a hearing before the City Council’s Safety Committee. The proposed charter amendment, among other changes, would create a new civilian review board comprised of appointed members that would be tasked with ordering police discipline.
Opponents said the stark shift in executive power toward the unelected panel would give those members a broad level of power and investigative authority, serving as the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to officer discipline and operations at the Division of Police. These changes, opponents argue, would harm the democratic process instead of improving it.
Supporters, however, contend the measure is necessary to improve transparency, reduce police misconduct and further improve the department’s relationship with the community.
“All we’re doing is saying that there is one final group of people overseeing the safety director and chief and a final check as to whether [an officer’s] discipline was sufficient,” said Subodh Chandra, a civil rights attorney that assisted with the drafting of the proposed charter amendment. “We want to make sure certain voices are heard because right now they have been cut out of the process. Every single provision is a reaction to an actual real, ongoing problem.”
In his statement to members of the Safety Committee, Police Chief Calvin Williams argued that the proposed charter amendment would undo the positive changes that have come out of the 2015 consent decree with the US Department of Justice. Chief Williams said complaints against officers have dropped by more than 50% since the city entered into the decree and use of force has also dropped significantly. Cases, where officers used deadly force, have also dropped, Chief Williams said.
“We are trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist to the magnitude that this amendment says it does exist,” Williams said. “This legislation takes that [disciplinary] power out of my hands as a chief and out of the safety director’s hands and puts it in the hands of civilians that have no training in policing and what we do from day in and day out. The citizens of this city deserve better.”
Supporters and opponents of the proposed charter amendment also traded barbs on some of the finer details of the proposal, including the due process rights of officers. Williams said if the charter amendment were to be passed by voters in November, it would directly conflict with the current collective bargaining agreements that the division of police has with local police unions. Paul Forsgren, a resident of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, spoke on behalf of several residents in the neighborhood while expressing concern as to the implications of the amendment.
“We believe that we have come so far with the consent decree and that issue 24 is frankly the wrong answer to a problem that is already being solved. We all want police reform.“I believe Issue 24 attempts to move control and accountability from the division of police from our elected officials to an unelected and appointed board. It eliminates checks and balances,” Forsgren said. “Having a board of civilians that frankly is not going to be trained in law enforcement and has overriding power on all decisions at the police department, is just very concerning to me.”
He also expressed concern that the measure would further exacerbate the difficulties the division of police has had in recruiting new officers.
“We can’t order people to be Cleveland police officers. If you make it so onerous to where they are afraid to do anything they’re just going to leave,” Forsgren said.
Issue 24 has also been a talking point in the mayoral race as Justin Bibb has expressed support for the measure. His opponent, Kevin Kelley, opposes it.