On Monday morning, Jeff Follmer, president of the largest police union in Cleveland, Ohio, held up a picture of Kareem Henton, a Black activist from the city. His T-shirt read: “No tears for dead cops.”
“This is one of the petitioners that is for this campaign,” Follmer, who is white, told the cameras.
He went on to argue that Issue 24—a city charter amendment that would create a civilian-led police commission to serve as final arbiter on police discipline and set policy for the department—was really about revenge, not accountability.
“This group does not like the police,” Follmer told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday.
The union boss, who was re-elected as president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association last November, was speaking about Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, an umbrella coalition of social-justice organizations in the city that helped get the amendment on the ballot.
“They’ve all had problems with the police. They are not friends of the police,” he inveighed.
If the remarkable new ballot proposal Follmer is so alarmed about passes, he has suggested that a new oversight group made up of cops’ worst enemies would have more power than the mayor and police chief to control discipline—and would impose a “one-sided” process. In a police department that already has roughly 150 vacancies and another 300 officers eligible for retirement, he claimed, the amendment would also trigger an exodus of officers and chaos for the city.
“I’m a factual person, I don’t throw bullshit out there,” Follmer told The Daily Beast. “We get down 400 people, we’re f-cked.”
Since the summer of 2020, threats of officers leaving cities in droves and crime rising in their absence have hung over conversations about police reform and in some cases led to cities like Atlanta and even liberal Burlington, Vermont, seemingly backtracking on their efforts. Now, a desperate police union in Cleveland is throwing the kitchen sink at what amounts to a seismic reform on the ballot Tuesday, even as activists say a department with a history of horrific brutality needs to quit the fearmongering and accept reality.
“Many of the problematic veterans are going to retire, which is fine,” Henton, an organizer for Black Lives Matter Cleveland and a member of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, told The Daily Beast.
Henton explained that his T-shirt was meant to get at a larger point about the lack of empathy often shown toward victims of police violence by the police department. (He claimed that the back of the shirt read: “Till they value black lives.”)
He also dismissed Follmer’s threat of a police exodus as “scare tactics.”
Opponents of the ballot measure note that Cleveland already has a volunteer police commission that facilitates community participation while the city’s police department is under federal oversight. But Henton and other activists argue the city is “far from the change” it needs.
After all, final calls on discipline still lie with the police department, and “police can’t police themselves,” Henton said, echoing 16 months of renewed activist rage at police racism and misconduct in America.
“When you get more than a slap on a wrist, then you won’t do it again,” he told The Daily Beast.
On Monday, Follmer claimed the amendment “scares” him and argued it would lead to more crime in the city. He also called out Justin Bibb, a nonprofit executive running for mayor who supports the amendment, as another potential foe to embattled local cops.
Bibb did not respond to a request for comment. His opponent in the race, Cleveland City Council President and fellow Democrat Kevin Kelley, who is firmly against the amendment, declined to comment for this story.
But proponents of the amendment, including members of Citizens for a Safe Cleveland, said voices like Kelley’s and Follmer’s are misrepresenting an attempt to create lasting reform in a police department with more than its share of so-called bad apples.
The local police department entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2015. A DOJ investigation at the time found the city’s department featured “structural and systemic deficiencies and practices” and concluded cops there used “unreasonable force,” and had “insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community,” according to a findings letter.
The investigation came on the heels of notorious police shootings of Black residents, including the November 2012 shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in a hail of 137 bullets, and the November 2014 shooting of Black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun.
In 2002, the feds had opened up a previous investigation into the department that closed in 2004 after agreement on reforms.
Johnny Hamm, a captain in the Cleveland Division of Police, told The Daily Beast that he believes good police officers in the department do want accountability and reform. However, he argued the city already has a functioning forum to hear the concerns of residents, and in particular marginalized residents, and get their input thanks to the CPC.
“They’ve been doing a really good job of that,” Hamm told The Daily Beast of the CPC, noting recent policies related to bias that the commission has helped the department rewrite. But he said Issue 24 would effectively give the commission “control” over the police department.
“It’s just too far,” he said.
Although Issue 24 would also include pro-police groups on the commission of people deciding discipline matters for cops, Hamm said, those seats would likely be filled by union types, which he said don’t always represent the best interests of the police department or the city. He feared that Issue 24 would create a commission with two “extreme” voices on either side.
“I don’t want the unions having control of the police and I don’t want the marginalized having control of the police,” he said. “We just need average folks. That would be the perfect solution.”
“Officers want accountability more than anybody,” Hamm added. “But they also want fair and consistent treatment.”
Despite Hamm’s praise of the CPC, Lewis Katz, a law professor and co-chair on that very commission, told The Daily Beast that Issue 24 was “desperately needed,” and that as it stands the commission has “no authority” right now. He said the commission was also hamstrung by how much the police department wants to engage with it, which he said is often very little.
The Cleveland Division of Police did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think the only answer is permanent oversight by civilians. The department has been running itself for as long as it’s existed and it hasn’t done a good job,” Katz told The Daily Beast. “The only way it can change in Cleveland is by changing the system.”
Richard Rivera, the former member of a city police oversight panel in Miami from 2018 to 2020, and a former New Jersey police officer who has served as an expert witness in misconduct cases, told The Daily Beast that it is very rare for a civilian-led group to have a final say on police discipline matters.
He said it amounted to a drastic departure from most groups, which often make recommendations that are taken seriously in some cases, but also outright ignored in many others. While Rivera suggested the efforts in Cleveland could prove successful if Issue 24 were to pass, he stressed the importance of having the police department involved in the process of training and preparing membership. He recommended taking members of the commission on calls and exposing them to their training to help them better understand what the life of a police officer is like.
“This can’t be handled in an ad hoc fashion,” he said. “For it to really work, it would have to be a collaboration.”
But Latonya Goldsby, the president of Black Lives Matter Cleveland and a board member of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, said those opposing Issue 24 tend to harp on the Department of Justice’s current oversight of the police department as proof they don’t need more scrutiny.
What they often leave out, she added, is the fact that the police department has a spotty record of actually complying with the Department of Justice’s requests. According to a July 2021 analysis by Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive think tank in the state, the police department has only complied with 37 percent of the 255 provisions in their consent decree with the Department of Justice.
Goldsby said she fears that once the Department of Justice is no longer monitoring the police department, which will likely happen after 2022, the CPC and other changes will be done away with.
“Issue 24 is an opportunity for us to actually create transformative police reform in the city of Cleveland,” she said.
She also pushed back on claims by some that the measure on the ballot this week is somehow akin to “defunding the police” (because a portion of the police budget would be dedicated to funding the commission that Issue 24 would create). “We’re not trying to get rid of the police. We are trying to improve the quality of policing within our city,” she said.
Goldsby said she has been motivated to push for Issue 24 because of the impact of police violence in her own family. After all, she is the cousin of Tamir Rice.
“The tragedy of losing Tamir at such a young age. It was devastating to our family,” Goldsby said.
She noted that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed Rice, was never criminally charged and only fired in 2017 because it was discovered that he lied on his job application. “That’s what brought me into this work as an advocate for police reform and police accountability,” Goldsby said.
After consulting with similar efforts to give civilians more control in cities like Seattle, Goldsby said, she hopes Issue 24 will pass—and inspire other cities to use ballot initiatives to accomplish their own goals.
“I hope that this does have a trickle effect across the country, because it is needed.”