Is Cleveland finally making progress in police reforms?

Cleveland's Community Police Commission has struggled with concerns ranging from lack of resources and time demands.

Tony Dejak/AP
Rhonda Williams, right, speaks at a Community Police Commission work group community meeting, Thursday, in Cleveland. The creation of Cleveland’s independent Community Police Commission was one of the key components in an agreement reached between the city of Cleveland and the US Justice Department after the DOJ in December 2014 issued a blistering report that said Cleveland police officers had shown a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.

The panel responsible for recommending reforms to Cleveland Police department is finally finding its footing, despite having experienced a shaky start, panel members said.

The 13-member panel is an independent Community Police Commission, required as part of the reforms in the May 2015 consent decree between Cleveland and the US Justice Department (DOJ). After an investigation, the DOJ concluded the city's police force had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people's civil rights, the Associated Press reported.

Cleveland is required to issue progress reports every six months while the consent decree remains in effect. The recommendations include strict new rules for use of force and data collection, bias-free policing policies, new training and an advisory committee on mental health, a new Community Police Commission, and new recruiting policies.

Last December, the city submitted its first six-month progress report to the judge overseeing the decree listing several milestones.

“One of the bigger differences you see are officers reaching out to members of the community more, taking time to actually talk to them,” Deputy Police Chief Joellen O’Neill said according to WKSU radio.

"We did receive some community policing training last year and we’re building on that this year. ... A lot of the big changes from the consent decree they’ll see more of next year in 2016 once we get into the training. But they’re learning to take a different attitude towards people.”

The Community Police Commission's early obstacles stemmed largely from the fact that most of the members were strangers to each other – making it difficult to form an organization. As the AP reported, 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.

Rhonda Williams, a civil rights activist, history professor at Case Western Reserve University,  and one of three co-chairs of the commission, says that early problems weren’t unexpected.

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

Steve Loomis, president of Cleveland's largest police union, is skeptical that the commission can move forward. Last week, Mr. Loomis called the commission a "farce,’" accusing Williams and other black activists on the panel of being "anti-police,"the AP reported.

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

Responding to the accusation, Williams defended the commission's work, saying that said police reform is an emotional issue

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

Some of the challenges identified by commission members include a lack of resources, but that might change as the city is expected to approve a budget that gives the commission $750,000 for 2016 to hire staff and pay for consultants and policing experts.

City official have also taken other measures as part of reforming the troubled police department, such as the firing of six officers and the suspension six others who were involved in the 2012 fatal shooting that left two unarmed civilians dead. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, “legal experts see police department's internal administrative process as playing an important role, too – in part because it involves a different set of standards.”

Department of Justice consent decrees have become an increasingly common tool for reforming police departments in several cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and New Orleans.

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

The decree required that the 13-member police commission 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, while the other three members are Cleveland police officers selected by their respective unions.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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