Mark Gillispie

CLEVELAND: Members of a volunteer commission responsible for making recommendations about how Cleveland police officers treat citizens say the panel is finding its footing after a rocky start.

The creation of an independent Community Police Commission is included in an agreement called a consent decree between Cleveland and the U.S. Justice Department to reform a department that the DOJ concluded had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.

Rhonda Williams, an outspoken civil rights activist and history professor at Case Western Reserve University, is one of three co-chairs of the commission and has emerged as its de facto leader. Problems at the start weren’t unexpected, she said.

“It’s not a conflict-free process,” Williams said. “Nor should it be.”

Citizen groups have been formed in other cities with DOJ agreements, but only Seattle and Cleveland have consent decrees that require the formation of police commissions to help drive reform efforts.

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

The consent decree required that the 13-member police commission, which was sworn in last September, 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 Mayor Frank Jackson. The other three members are Cleveland police officers selected by their respective unions. While commission terms are four years, the police department is expected to operate under the consent decree for at least five years.

Commission members said in interviews recently that early struggles could be attributed to a group of relative strangers learning together how to create an organization out of whole cloth. One member quit because of the time demands; 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.

Matthew Barge, the court-appointed monitor, said the commission agreed that it needed more resources at the onset. That problem is expected to be resolved after approval of a city budget that gives the commission $750,000 for 2016 to hire staff and to pay for consultants and policing experts.