On Tuesday, Clevelanders will vote on Issue 24, the much-discussed charter amendment that would bolster police accountability through structural changes in city government. The amendment would create a Community Police Commission composed of civilians who would have the final say over matters of police discipline and policy. Put simply, Issue 24 is necessary because the consent decree and other reform efforts have failed to produce accountability within the Cleveland Division of Police.
While we strongly support a “yes” vote, ThirdSpace Action Lab (TSAL) has noticed that the conversation around Issue 24 has become increasingly disconnected from the lived experiences of Clevelanders most impacted by police misconduct. This was evident in the City Club of Cleveland’s Oct. 22 panel discussion of Issue 24, in which racial disparities in policing took a backseat to debates about the text of the amendment. If our community truly believes in the recent declarations of racism as a public health crisis, we should view Issue 24 through a racial equity lens. We must consider structural changes to policing as a crucial part of a much broader, ongoing movement for racial justice by and for communities of color.
As a Black-owned grassroots research, strategy, and design cooperative, TSAL is intimately familiar with the historical role that racism has played in constructing the inequalities that exist in Cleveland today. We believe the passage of Issue 24 is an example of the sort of necessary experimentation needed to address our city’s most pernicious and deeply-entrenched socioeconomic problems.
Systemic racism in policing is one of the most brutal forms of racism, because momentary encounters can lead to death — as we have seen in the killings of Tanisha Alexander, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tamir Rice, and others. However, this is far from the only manifestation of racism in a city ranked as the worst city in the United States for the health outcomes of Black women, where infant mortality rates for Black babies have been at a national high for fifty years. Black youth in Cuyahoga County make up 42% of the total population of children, yet represent 90% of the institutionalized youth justice system population.
Despite a growing understanding of racial disparities in Cleveland’s systems of policing, housing, healthcare, and more, the discussion of Issue 24 has largely overlooked the fact that these disparities brought about this amendment. Discussions of police reform and accountability should not myopically focus on the finer points of policy wordsmithing. Instead, we must focus on the root question: will we continue to accept a system that does not produce public safety or police accountability for Black Clevelanders?
Rather than simply critiquing the text of Issue 24, opponents should be expected to put forward their proposals to remedy systemic racism in policing. And when the oft-repeated threat is made that police will leave the force if a civilian board is put in charge of discipline, it must be acknowledged that we are being presented with a false choice between unaccountable, racially-inequitable policing or no policing at all.
Regardless of whether Issue 24 passes, it is a proposal that embraces the urgency and the spirit of last year’s protests and calls for action, and follows in the footsteps of similar efforts across the country. Despite any imperfections, Issue 24 truly grapples with the problem of systemic racism in Cleveland, and should be lauded as such. As our city moves toward a new administration, we should recognize the need for similar proposals around housing, healthcare, community development, transportation, and more. Public officials should not be afraid to put race and the racial disparities that Clevelanders experience daily at the center of these conversations. This moment deserves nothing less.
Peace + Love + Soul Power,