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How federal police reform could affect justice in Cleveland

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 12:34 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - National police reform is caught up in a political stand-off. If resolved, hotly debated changes would affect day-to-day policing in Cleveland and elsewhere.

As communities across the country marked the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, Capitol Hill remains divided over how to ensure justice for all.

Lawmakers failed to meet President Joe Biden’s deadline but Ohio’s senators say there’s still hope for a deal.

Police officers, like the rest of us, need to be held accountable,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“My hope is that we can find that path forward,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said.

Competing partisan proposals do share key concepts: providing for more body-cameras, officer training, and data collection, especially in cases where lives are lost.

But two major policy questions are holding up a deal:

- exactly when can an officer use deadly force?

- And does the law overly-shield those who make fatal errors in judgement?

The latter, qualified immunity, divides largely along party lines. Brown and most Democrats favor making the change; Portman and his Republican peers are opposed.

Roger Smith is the administrator of Cleveland’s Office of Professional Standards. It falls under the Public Safety Department but is independent of the city’s police. It’s tasked with investigating non-criminal complaints against the police.

Asked what he would like to see Congress do, Smith said, “the most important thing they can do, number one, is pass this bill.”

Cleveland is already under a federal improvement plan, known as a consent decree.

But, Smith sees added promise in a new law, one the replaces qualified immunity with clearer standards for when force is acceptable and what happens when fatal mistakes are made.

“I think it will absolutely prompt officers, in the course of their duties to think more, and to make closer, on the spot evaluations of what it’s right for them to do,” he said.

Smith dismisses concerns raised by Republicans in Congress that removing qualified immunity would make it tougher for departments to fill open positions and lead to a wave of meritless cases against officers.

A potential compromise on Capitol Hill would open police departments up to more legal liability rather than individual officers. Smith said that would help, but not as much.

George Mason University Prof. Laurie Robinson served on the federal task force that looked into reforms after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. She said if and when Congress can reach a deal, changes won’t be felt immediately.

“It will take time to bring real change,” she said, noting success requires long-standing cultures within departments to change.

Many of the 21st Century Policing Task Force’s suggestions, like a directory to ensure ‘problem cops’ can’t escape their past, are in the current proposals. But even if Congress passes reform, its power to force municipalities to follow new standards will be limited.

Cleveland is likely to do so according to Robinson and others. The city gets substantial federal grant money, cash that could be pulled if it doesn’t comply.

But, Cleveland is an outlier. Of the 18,000 police agencies in the country only about 1,500 receive federal grants.

“Incentives, in my experience, work better than penalties,” Robinson noted.

Robinson said staffing may also limit how adaptive smaller departments can be. Sending officers to training may not be possible for departments run on a skeleton crew. Lack of manpower could also make it difficult to track and compile all the new data Congress may seek.

Not every police reform advocate is pinning hopes for progress on sweeping national changes.

Subodh Chandra, counsel for Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, played a leading role in drafting a proposed change to the Cleveland City Charter.

If it lands on the ballot and gets the approval of voters, the measure would make the Community Police Commission permanent. And, it would dramatically increase the commission and Civilian Police Review board’s authorities over law enforcement practices, hiring, and discipline.

“There’s such a disconnect between civilian community values and values as expressed by the leadership in the accountability process,” Chandra said, “that we need to bridge that gap and we need to make sure that civilian values control.”

Chandra argues the consent decree served as a good start but has proven to be too weak. He is a fan of Capitol Hill Democrats’ reform proposals, specifically removing qualified immunity. But, Chandra worries that proposed change and others will be watered down as part of political dealmaking.

Chandra and Citiizens for a Safer Cleveland will need to collect 6,500 signatures to get their proposed local change on the ballot.

The mayor stands in opposition. Administrator Smith, said he could support some elements of the amendment, but several of the changes need more scrutiny and consideration before moving forward.

A voicemail left with Cleveland Police Department’s Public Information Office seeking comment for this story went unreturned.

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