The Constitutional Case for Issue 24 and Citizen-led Police Accountability

click to enlarge Protesters in Cleveland on May 30, 2020. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Protesters in Cleveland on May 30, 2020.

Issue 24, the controversial Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative, proposes a 13-member Community Police Commission for the City of Cleveland. This civilian institution would have “final authority” over police and thus hold cops accountable for lawless law enforcement. The statute is city-wide, but constitutional in scope.

Police officers don’t swear oaths to their union contracts. Every single cop swears an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. They are “law enforcement.” But, ultimately, the Constitution is the law that they’re supposed to enforce. Article Six plainly states that the Constitution “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Therefore, cops should understand constitutional law well enough to enforce it at street level.

Our constitutional rights set the norms from which cops should not depart. I need only cite two martyrs to the truth that police can’t police themselves—Tamir Rice and George Floyd. “Who watches the watchmen?” Well, the CPC provides an answer to that classic rhetorical question.

The CPC is a miniature of our constitutional scheme of government that puts American citizens above public officials. The theory of popular sovereignty underpins our democratic republic. “Popular sovereignty” means that we citizens reign; public servants rule in our name. Just as American citizens delegate powers to the three branches of government, the CPC would, in effect, delegate street-level police powers to Cleveland cops.

I mentioned police-union contracts. The Constitution denotes police officers’ true employee handbook. We the People are the collective boss, for our tax dollars pay public servants’ salaries. The CPC would make sure that cops answer to the people that they purportedly serve and protect. It would thus put local citizens in their proper place, as collective boss of the City of Cleveland.

The Constitution denotes our national employee handbook as well. The Preamble is our statement of purpose. Articles 1-3 spell out the duties and limitations of our federal employees. Article Four focuses on our state-level employees. The Tenth Amendment reserves power to the people. To understand the Constitution as an employee handbook is to heed Lord Acton’s warning: “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This “employee handbook” traces its lineage to the corporate bylaws of early colonial America. As with any valid contract, the Constitution requires the informed consent of all parties concerned. This particular contract has two essential parties: U.S. citizens on the one side, and all manner of public officials on the other side. We the People validate the social contract whenever we consent to it. We literally “ordain and establish” the Constitution. Also, recall that The Declaration of Independence, one of our founding documents, states: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”

We Clevelanders do not consent to 137 bullets nor to extrajudicially murdered 12-year-old boys.

We Clevelanders do consent to police officers who apprehend suspected criminals with minimal violence and who understand that the suspect is innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. We consent to police officers who understand that bringing persons before a judge is their only commission.

We Clevelanders consent to the republican form of government guaranteed by Article Four. But what is a “republic”? According to James Madison, a mastermind of the Constitution, a republic is “a form of government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.”

The CPC frames Cleveland as a republican form of government, at least regarding the police. It would represent the people of Cleveland by mandating good behavior in cops.

By voting yes to Issue 24, we Clevelanders would consent to police officers who respect us as their collective boss.

Taru Taylor is a Cleveland resident who has worked for police reform with various local organizations.

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