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A Safer Cleveland

Our movement was born out of our shared grief. Our voices reminded voters that the police should never police themselves.


November 2 was a sore day for the left across the country — in the Virginia gubernatorial election, a near-miss in New Jersey, and in down-ballot races in Buffalo and elsewhere. In Minneapolis, Question 2, which would’ve replaced the police department with a radically different Department of Public Safety, lost by nearly 20,000 votes. 

In Cleveland, our story was different. Nearly 60 percent of Clevelanders voted “yes” to Issue 24, the “Safer Cleveland” ballot measure for police accountability and civilian oversight. Issue 24 enshrines into our city’s charter our current police advisory board and gives it greater independence, authority, and representativeness. The measure stipulates independent investigations of police in cases of misconduct, opening the door to holding officers accountable for their actions, rather than giving them a slap on the wrist and paid time-off. As our campaign sought to remind voters, police shouldn’t be expected to police themselves. 

Additionally, Justin Bibb, a progressive candidate for Cleveland mayor and early backer of Issue 24, won by a similar margin. The new, Issue 24-mandated board is appointed by the mayor, making Bibb’s election doubly significant. 

But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. These victories were many years in the making, made possible only after sustained organizing against the state-sanctioned violence that took many of our loved ones. And it took reminding Cleveland voters of important milestones that gained national prominence and made this movement what it is today.

Since 1989, by our count, more than 70 families in our city have lost a loved one to police violence, including mine. On November 22, 2014, my 12-year-old cousin Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann. He was playing in the park and posed no threat. After shooting him, the officers didn’t bother to render first aid or check for signs of life. He died the next day. Seven years later, we still haven’t gotten justice. In the meantime, our trauma lives on. The image of Tamir’s murder, shown on local and national television for years, remains etched in our minds. 

Some families have been fighting for even longer than ours. Alicia Kirkman lost her son, 17-year-old Angelo Miller, in 2007. Brenda Bickerstaff lost her brother Craig in 2002. Others, such as Emmanuel Franklin, have come to join us more recently; his son, Desmond, was shot and killed by a police officer last year. With the stress, depression, and grief that we carry, not everyone is able to share his or her story publicly. Many are still living like it’s the day they lost their loved ones.

Our movement for a Safer Cleveland was born out of our shared experiences. As we’ve struggled through grief and trauma, we’ve realized we’re not alone. We’ve connected with each other, broken bread with each other, and built a kinship that advocates for justice together.

In December 2015, I joined a core of grassroot community organizers to form Black Lives Matter Cleveland. From the beginning, our focus has been on shifting the balance of power in Cleveland’s policing and criminal legal systems. In affirming that Black lives matter, we’ve affirmed the value of due process and shared governance. In our vision for a safer Cleveland, we aspire to and have achieved checks and balances on public servants that allow justice to be served. Yet the road to this moment had twists and turns — and reminder after reminder that the federal government and the courts can only do so much in our struggle for Black lives in Cleveland. Our voices were needed at every step of the way.

Before and after Tamir’s murder, several other high-profile cases snowballed to get the attention of the Department of Justice. One galvanizing moment for our movement came in 2012, when a Cleveland officer jumped on the hood of a car with Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams inside, unloaded his firearm, and then reloaded. In total, 13 officers fired 137 bullets. At the trial of Michael Brelo, testifying officers pleaded the fifth, and the judge ultimately found the perpetrator not guilty. (A new Netflix documentary chronicles the depth of this miscarriage of justice.)

In response to this and other policing and system failures, DOJ conducted an investigation into the practices of the Cleveland Division of Police, which led to a finding of a pattern or practice of unconstitutionally excessive force — and an agreement from the city that reforms were needed. In May 2015, then-Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson signed a federal consent decree with the DOJ. This was Cleveland’s second agreement with federal authorities, following a long history of troubling and discriminatory policing practices. The current decree comes with a range of reforms, including mandating a community police commission. 

The decree became a rallying point for directly impacted families to advance accountability, including mine. Following the decree, we attended hearings convened by Solomon Oliver, the federal judge charged with overseeing the implementation of the decree. At each hearing, and every ensuing police commission meeting, we shared our stories and pressed our demands for justice. 

In 2018, a community policing working group released a lengthy report outlining plans to implement community policing measures in conjunction with the decree. Directly impacted family members who were part of the working group found the report lacking. In response, we redrafted it, whittling it down to eight pages to present to the commission. That process led to increasing conversations around instituting a more permanent, impactful commission. These conversations picked up steam as the decree approached its expiration date in 2020 — later pushed to 2022

Through it all, we saw how law enforcement and city officials lobbied and used bureaucratic subterfuge to undermine the implementations of the decree. As Policy Matters Ohio has reported, the city has reached compliance with only 37 percent of the elements of the decree. We also saw that the commission never had the powers to implement its recommendations, which are just that — suggestions. The commission doesn’t have the power to discipline. Instead, its members send their recommendations over to the police chief and public safety director, who often disregard them. 

For example, this September, an officer and former police union head was disciplined for social media posts about sports figures who were outspoken about police accountability. The commission recommended a six- to 10-day suspension, more than a year after a complaint against him was filed. The public safety director threw it out — and gave the offending officer only a one-day suspension. Clearly, this is not what accountability looks like. Something more was needed.

As we developed what became our Safer Cleveland initiative, we looked at the three systems that the city ostensibly has in place to enforce police accountability: the police department’s Office of Professional Standards; the Civilian Police Review Board, which oversees individual cases of misconduct; and the community police commission, which was established by the consent decree and serves as the final body to impose discipline in police misconduct cases. We sought to strengthen and maintain these structures while giving them independence from law enforcement. In designing a new board, we also sought diverse communal representation. In petitioning for Issue 24, we called for the inclusion of formerly incarcerated people, those with experience in homelessness services, civil rights advocates, and others with a stake in community safety and equity. At the root, our goal was to solidify the community voice that we had generated through our organizing — itself, drawing from a range of impacted experiences. 

The Safer Cleveland campaign carried this spirit forward. By advancing our demands in the form of a ballot initiative, we were able to hold a popular referendum on policing in Cleveland. In organizing terms, this meant thousands of conversations. Earlier this year, more than 15,000 Clevelanders signed their name to put Issue 24 on the ballot. After the City Council approved the ballot measure, we partnered with a number of community-based, civic, advocacy, and faith organizations to host neighborhood dialogues. These dialogues allowed us to raise broader questions: What form of oversight do citizens deserve over our public institutions? How can harm and violence be met with justice and healing? What kind of social services — around homelessness, mental health, drug addiction, and poverty — can allow our communities to thrive without the involvement of police?

For Black and brown people, these are personal conversations. When we come home from work, we’re constantly looking over our shoulders and praying to return home safely. As a mother of a Black boy, I know the introductory role that police play for young, Black men into the criminal legal system. Over the past decade, these conversations have gone national with the movement for Black lives. Still, they bear repeating and refreshing whenever we talk about the role of the police, including in the Safer Cleveland campaign.

Now that Issue 24 has passed, we expect the new board to start up in late spring. The measure functions as a modification of the existing DOJ consent decree; a federal judge needs to sign off on the modification, at which point the city charter will be modified and the measure can take effect. Mayor-elect Bibb will take office in January, and we intend to keep organizing to hold him accountable to his campaign promises. His transition activity is a promising start; I’ve been appointed to the public safety task force transition team, which is coordinated by Melekte Melaku from the ACLU of Ohio, our partner. 

The ultimate success of Issue 24 is up for us, as a community, to decide. With this movement, we’ve taken public safety and justice for our loved ones into our own hands. We have ushered in a new era of policing in Cleveland, one that will begin to transform the culture of policing and serve as a beacon for the rest of the country. We have the opportunity to reimagine what public safety looks like to create a safer Cleveland for all of us. Now, it’s time to get to work.

Image: Unsplash