Cleveland police reform panel picks up pace after slow start

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Posted: Feb 27, 2016 11:53 AM
Cleveland police reform panel picks up pace after slow start

CLEVELAND (AP) — Members of a volunteer commission responsible for making recommendations about how Cleveland police officers treat citizens say the panel is finding its footing after a rocky start.

The creation of an independent Community Police Commission is included in an agreement called a consent decree between Cleveland and the U.S. Justice Department to reform a department that the DOJ concluded had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people's civil rights.

Rhonda Williams, an outspoken civil rights activist and history professor at Case Western Reserve University, is one of three co-chairs of the commission and has emerged as its de facto leader. Problems at the start weren't unexpected, she said.

"It's not a conflict-free process," Williams said. "Nor should it be."

Citizen groups have been formed in other cities with DOJ agreements, but only Seattle and Cleveland have consent decrees that require the formation of police commissions to help drive reform efforts.

Cleveland's consent decree, which is expected to cost the city $11 million in the first year of implementation, is administered by an independent monitor who leads a team of experts on policing issues. The monitor answers to U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., who has broad powers to enforce provisions in the 105-page agreement approved last June.

The consent decree required that the 13-member police commission, which was sworn in last September, have a diverse membership that represents minority communities, activists, faith-based organizations and civil rights groups.

Ten members were chosen by a selection committee appointed by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. The other three members are Cleveland police officers selected by their respective unions. While commission terms are four years, the police department is expected to operate under the consent decree for at least five years.

Commission members said in interviews recently that early struggles could be attributed to a group of relative strangers learning together how to create an organization out of whole cloth. One member quit because of the time demands; there were personality clashes and bickering among some commissioners; and it quickly became apparent that the commission needed more outside help to organize itself and proceed with the work.

Matthew Barge, the court-appointed monitor, said the commission has been finding its "sea legs" and agreed that it needed more resources at the onset. That problem is expected to be resolved in the coming weeks after approval of a city budget that gives the commission $750,000 for 2016 to hire staff and to pay for consultants and policing experts.

The most discordant voice on the commission has belonged to Steve Loomis, president of Cleveland's largest police union. In an interview last week, he once again called the commission a "farce" and complained that Williams and other black activists on the panel are "anti-police."

"They can at least have the appearance of some form of impartiality," Loomis said.

Williams said she's an "unapologetic advocate for police reform."

"I am more than willing to work with reform-minded police officers who want to work toward progressive change," Williams said.

Williams said police reform is an emotional issue and added that the commission is doing good work and is committed to making "impactful change."

At a commission meeting on Wednesday, which Loomis did not attend, no anti-police bias was evident during a discussion about use-of-force policies in the face of a mid-March deadline to submit initial recommendations and a summary of citizen comments.

The three youngest members of the commission — all of whom are black and were selected for their perspectives on the often hostile relationship that exists between Cleveland officers and the black community, expressed genuine interest in hearing not only from residents about police use of force, but also from police officers.

In Seattle, problems persist three years after its police commission formed, said Barge, the Cleveland monitor who is also a member of the Seattle monitoring team. The Seattle commission has struggled to "fully represent the diversity of views within the community," Barge said. He cited the Seattle commission's opposition to police body cameras despite a community survey that showed overwhelming support for their use.

"It has been disappointing to many within the community that the commission has, at times, been more concerned about politics than truly collaborating with stakeholders to achieve real-world, common-sense reforms," Barge said.

He praised Cleveland's commission for focusing on reform since its inception.

Lee Fisher, a former Ohio legislator, attorney general and lieutenant governor, is the elder statesman on the commission and leads a committee that is preparing recommendations on bias-free policing. Fisher expressed frustrations about the lack of resources and time demands, but thinks the commission's efforts will ultimately help make the Cleveland police department a model for the world.

"Our goal should be nothing short of that," he said.