People marching with big banner

Photo by Paul Becker

Mayor Ginther and many others are calling for a civilian review board to investigate and rule on police misconduct, but recent history from other cities has shown many civilian review boards to be mostly ineffective.

Take Minneapolis, which has had several civilian review boards come and go over this century. Since 2012, over 2,600 complaints were filed against police, but only 12 resulted in discipline, the most severe punishment being a 40-hour suspension, this according to the Communities United Against Police Brutality, a twin-city advocacy group.

The fundamental problem is, almost all civilian review boards in the US can only recommend how police should be punished. Out of the 200 civilian review boards in our major cities, only a handful have the authority to make final decisions on punishment.

Final say on punishment is instead delivered by a department’s chief of police or a city’s safety director.

If Minneapolis had a civilian review board with the final authority on how police should be disciplined – such as removing an officer from duty – would George Floyd be alive today?

Keep in mind Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvinfaced 17 misconduct complaints from citizens before he murdered Floyd.

With all this said, Columbus is long overdue when it comes to having a civilian review board. Mayor Ginther and his civilian Safety Commission headed by Janet Jackson have promised they will negotiate with local FOP to form a civilian review board when the current police contract ends later this year.

Local activists, however, are shaking their heads, saying “So what?”

They have been telling people for years – there’s no way our city government and the police will allow a Columbus civilian review board to have the ultimate authority to apply necessary punishment, which could possibly and finally scare the entire department into serving and protecting like professionals.

“It won’t have any power, it won’t,” insists Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata director of the local People’s Justice Project. “People just think it will help. But it’s just a civilian review board. It’s not a government agency. The cops don’t have to listen to you, and more than likely they won’t. That’s why we always say, ‘community control of the police.’”

Columbus only has to look up the highway to Cleveland to see how inadequate a civilian review board without the authority to administer punishment can be. What’s more, Cleveland’s board has been compromised with members who either have worked for the city or received some type of city contract in the past, say Cleveland activists.

When Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014, officers on the scene wrestled Tamir’s then 14-year-old sister to the ground, handcuffed her, and placed her in the back of a cruiser where for an hour she watched police and medics try to save her brother’s life.

The civilian review board recommended one of the officers who dealt with Tamir’s sister be suspended for 6 to 10 days, which was subsequently cut in half by the department.

For that fateful year, a Cleveland news station found the review board had only ruled on 36 cases out of 441 cases of alleged police misconduct.

Cleveland’s Black Lives Matter co-founder Kareem Henton says the city’s review board lacks staff and funding, among other fundamental issues.

The greatest problem, however, is what everyone knows but the city would never admit to publicly, Henton says. The city and the police department simply refuse to allow any civilian review board to have greater power than them.

“There’s no desire whatsoever, and no willingness to change it, because the police and city don’t want to concede that power,” said Henton. “They want to be able to protect their own. They want to continue things as they are, where police can say, ‘We have investigated ourselves and we found we have done nothing wrong.’”

Henton says Cleveland’s BLM has many times demanded the city appoint citizens to the board (or their family members) who have been victimized by police.

“You know the city is never going to put a grassroots person in that position that’s truly of the community, because they know that person won’t be able to be bought, or not have those political allegiances and alignments, so they wouldn’t be able to control them,” he said.

And not only is the board compromised, but arbitration, as well, says Henton. When Mayor Ginther and his safety commission begin negotiating with the FOP for a civilian review board it is likely to go to arbitration (a third party) to be finalized.

Henton says arbitration in Cleveland, when ruling on civilian review board recommendations for punishment, has 75 percent of the time ruled in favor of the officer.

“When you find out what their backgrounds are, you’ll find that many have a background with law enforcement or local government,” he said. “You are not going to find an arbitrator who represents citizens that you and I are going to find ideal.”

Sundiata, director of the local People’s Justice Project, believes if enough pressure, enough critical mass, is placed on the city, then a citizen review board with the authority to dish out final punishment on bad cops could someday be a reality, which also would mean the community is gaining more control of the police.

“They are making moves now (Mayor Ginther, for instance),” he said. “This is how history works. It’s bound to happen.”