CLEVELAND — There was a time when Brenda Bickerstaff believed the Justice Department could fix this city's police department.

When Bickerstaff's brother was shot and killed by police in January 2002, the Cleveland Division of Police was already under federal investigation, and officials had interviewed her as part of the probe. She remembers thinking she had found the people who were going to help her family get justice.

But 20 years and two federal probes later, Bickerstaff thinks it's time for residents to take the lead in transforming the only police department in the nation that has entered into federal oversight twice.

She is now part of a group of Black women pushing a reform effort that includes, among other things, a November ballot initiative for a civilian oversight panel that would have the authority to fire problem officers.

“We have to understand the Department of Justice is not our savior,” Bickerstaff said. “The people of Cleveland have to take charge of this reform. If we want this reform to work, if we want to have the relationship that the police and the community is supposed to have with one another, we have to take charge of it.”

While cities nationwide have struggled with police killings, Cleveland’s record is particularly stark. Since 2000, 48 people have been killed by Cleveland police officers. In August 2000, the Justice Department launched an investigation of the department and examined a number of shootings and other police use-of-force cases from 1998 to 2000.

The probe, which found patterns of spotty investigations of police use-of-force cases and officers unnecessarily escalating violent situations, ended with the city entering into a voluntary agreement to revise its use-of-force policy, expand training, and commit to a more thorough review process for police shootings.

That agreement ended in March 2005. In September of that year, 15-year-old Brandon McCloud was shot 10 times in the bedroom of his home by detectives searching for evidence in the armed robbery of a pizza deliveryman. Police said that McCloud came at them with a knife. His death, and the deaths of four others between March of 2004 and December of 2005, led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, who eventually determined that all the shootings were justified.

In 2013, Justice Department investigators were back in the city after police fired 137 times into the car of an unarmed Black couple during a chase that began after officers mistook the sound of a car backfiring for gunshots. While federal investigators were in the city, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed on a rec center playground by a police officer who said that the boy’s toy gun looked real. Rice’s November 2014 death sparked nationwide protests over police killings and the treatment of Black Americans.

That December, the Justice Department issued a scathing report finding that Cleveland officers engaged in a pattern of firing their weapons even when people posed no threat, used lethal force out of proportion to the resistance they met from suspects, and unnecessarily escalated incidents. The city agreed to a second consent decree that mandated five years of federal oversight of the police department. That consent decree was extended to 2022 after the city failed to meet the goals in the agreed-upon timetable.

Now, as city officials eye an end to federal oversight next year, Bickerstaff and other activists are looking to build more oversight into the system by empowering residents through two civilian-led oversight panels that would have the authority to overrule the city’s police chief and fire bad officers. The proposal, on the ballot in November, comes as Cleveland, like many other U.S. cities, deals with a spike in violent crime.

If passed, the ballot initiative would amend the city charter to take the power to investigate misconduct out of an office within the police department and give it to the Civilian Police Review Board, which has existed since 1984 but would gain new powers under the amendment. Now, the board can only make recommendations on discipline. The amendment would empower it to investigate complaints against officers and directly mete out punishment. The police chief could disregard the board’s directives, but the amendment would give the final say over whether an officer is disciplined or fired to a 13-member civilian-led Community Police Commission, a board that was created by the 2015 consent decree but that is set to expire when the decree does. Members of both boards would be chosen by the mayor and the City Council.

The idea is to take the investigative and disciplinary processes out of the hands of police officials and place them with the community. But civilian-led review boards aren’t novel, and few have had success. In fact, Cleveland established one of the nation’s first civilian police review panels in 1984, after three controversial police shootings. But time and time again, activists and federal investigators have found the board unable or unwilling to fulfill its duties. The 2014 Justice Department report that found a pattern of excessive use of force by police laid some of the blame at the feet of the Civilian Police Review Board, which federal officials discovered hadn’t reviewed a single use-of-force case in years.

Boards have mixed results

More than 160 police departments have some form of civilian oversight. That number has been steadily growing in recent years, but still represents a tiny fraction of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. The results obtained by these oversight bodies have been mixed at best, but as a 2021 survey released by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement shows, their authority is often highly restricted.

The survey found that 38 of the 64 oversight groups that responded have no independent investigative authority, but instead must rely on police departments to voluntarily turn over materials that show their officers acted inappropriately. The survey, which was funded by the Justice Department, also found that more than half the groups had no power in the disciplinary process, not even the ability to recommend discipline. And even those oversight boards able to recommend action could have those recommendations rejected by police chiefs and arbitrators.

A Washington Post investigation found that police departments often find ways to undermine oversight boards and that many of these bodies just aren’t set up to handle the job. In Louisville, the civilian board had no standing to investigate the police who shot and killed Breonna Taylor. In Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin was still on the force even after civilian oversight boards there had fielded 12 complaints of misconduct against him before he killed George Floyd.

The Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative, which is being spearheaded by Bickerstaff and other Cleveland residents who have lost loved ones at the hands of police, would give the Community Police Commission, not the police chief, the final say, although the police union could still appeal disciplinary decisions to arbitrators. That, the campaign says, would make the city’s civilian review boards among the most powerful in the country and avoid the pitfalls of most of the weaker civilian review panels.

Many of the city’s power brokers have come out against the measure. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson (D) said that it would effectively make a 13-member commission the city’s police chief and that such a move would ultimately make the city less safe by taking power out of the hands of the mayor and police chief and instead have public safety dictated by a committee of 13.

Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association union, said the ballot backers are ignoring all of the reforms that have taken place since the Justice Department resumed oversight over the department.

“Since the consent decree has been around we’ve been more than accountable,” Follmer said. “We discipline more cops than anywhere in the state, we hand out the most suspensions in the state, we have cameras on, we’re watched all the time. And I’ve had our attorneys look at this thing and we think there’s legal problems with it, because our contract pretty much says we get disciplined by the chief and the safety director.”

Crime and accountability

Of the six mayoral candidates who spoke with the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board, only one said he supported the measure. Four came out against it. Former congressman Dennis Kucinich (D), who served as mayor in the late 1970s and is seeking to return to city hall, has frequently lambasted the effort, citing the rise in violent crime in the city. Kucinich says that what the city really needs is more police officers to stem the violence.

Subodh Chandra, the lawyer for the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative, said that Kucinich and other critics are trying to conflate two separate issues.

“That’s a non sequitur,” said Chandra, a civil rights lawyer who has represented the family of Tamir Rice and others killed by police.

“You can have this police accountability while at the same time trying to have a more effective police force to stop violence in our community,” Chandra said. “And we don’t, as citizens, have to accept that somehow there will be an increase of unchecked violence if we hold police accountable. That is simply a false proposition.”

Chandra, who worked as law director for the city of Cleveland in the early 2000s and negotiated the 2004 agreement with the Justice Department, said it’s become clear to him that an empowered community, not the Justice Department, could successfully address the problems with the Cleveland police department.

“It will take a full generation to try to squeeze out the white supremacists, the people who don’t believe in accountability and the people who think that the badges and guns entrusted to them allow them to do whatever the hell they want,” Chandra said. “That’s one of the reasons we needed this charter amendment, because the Justice Department isn’t going to be here forever and isn’t going to able to do all of it for us. And we saw during the Trump administration just how quickly that support can erode.”

Chandra was referring to how the Trump administration abandoned consent decrees, which it viewed as federal overreach. Under President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland has reauthorized the practice.

But the ballot initiative comes as Cleveland and other cities deal with a rise in violent crime, and there are growing signs that voters’ appetite for police reform has been suppressed by fears of increasing lawlessness. Follmer, the Cleveland police union president, said he’s hopeful the measure will fail. Amid the recent rise in crime, he says, the community has rallied around the police.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that have seen that we have changed and we have a number of supporters out there, so I hope it would not pass in the city of Cleveland,” he said. “And I reject this idea that after the Department of Justice leaves, things are just going to revert back. No one wants the Department of Justice back here again.”

Citizens for a Safer Cleveland advocates like Alicia Kirkman say data shows the need for a drastic change. According to an analysis by the news website FiveThirtyEight, Cleveland paid out nearly $30 million in settlements in police misconduct cases over 11 years. That amount dwarfs settlements paid out by cities with larger police departments, such as Memphis, Atlanta and Miami.

“Everybody gets a settlement,” said Kirkman, whose 17-year-old son Angelo Miller was killed by police in 2007. “That’s how you know when something is wrong, because who gives out free money?”

Kirkman’s son was killed by veteran police officer John Lundy, who said Miller was breaking into cars on the night he was shot. Lundy said he fired eight shots at Miller only after the teen tried to run him over with a car. Kirkman said that on the recording of the 911 call of the incident, her son can be heard saying, “I’m not doing nothing,” contradicting Lundy’s version of events. While she thinks it’s possible that Miller had broken into a car that night, she doesn’t believe her son would have tried to run over anyone.

“I could have paid for whatever they say he stole,” Kirkman said. “I have a job. He was 17; he could have got a job. He could have worked it off. Instead I paid for a $10,000 funeral, and now I have to deal with depression and trauma for the rest of my days.”

The year after Miller was killed, Kirkman moved from the east side of the city to the west side. She said she couldn’t bear driving by the spot where her son was killed. The police department ruled that Miller’s killing was justified, but the city settled a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family for $35,000. Kirkman said the lawsuit wasn’t about the money, but about seeking change.

“Keep your money,” Kirkman said. “Just lock these cops up.”

'All the same politics'

Not all reform advocates are convinced the charter amendment would bring increased scrutiny to the police. Charmin Leon, a retired Cleveland police officer who is now a vocal advocate for reform, said she believes a newly empowered Community Police Commission would be vulnerable to the same pro-police politics that have kept other reforms from being effective.

“The big drawback with this initiative is that they really focus on their pain points instead of looking at it in a holistic way,” Leon said. “They were focused on taking control out of the hands of the administration that they blame for killing their loved ones. But they didn’t look at changing how the commissioners are chosen. They are still going to be chosen by the mayor and the council, and so all the same politics are going to be at play.”

Chandra, who as the city’s law director had a role in deciding which officers were disciplined and how, said that from his experience in government, bringing the process out into the open would force the political machine that has protected rogue officers to respond to the will of the voters.

Even though members of the oversight panels would be appointed by the mayor and council, the public would have more insight than ever before into the process of police accountability, he said.

“What I believe is, if this passes, we will start to see the chief making discipline decisions for misconduct toward civilians in a way that aligns with civilian values and civilian culture,” he said. “And that’s what we need. We need police accountability using civilian values, not paramilitary values. It’s the same reason we have a civilian commander in chief.”