Justice

GOP Governor With 2016 Ambitions Takes On Ohio’s Police Crisis As Tamir Rice Investigation Drags On

CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

The fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers was weighing heavily on then state Sen. Nina Turner (D) when she wrote Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) a letter in November requesting that he do something to help. Just over four months later, after creating a task force to issue recommendations, the governor and likely presidential candidate signed an executive order last week calling for statewide standards for law enforcement.

As police brutality in Cleveland has its turn in the national spotlight after cities includingFerguson and Baltimore, Kasich created a new group to issue standards for the use of deadly force and police recruiting and hiring. Turner, who co-chaired the task force, told ThinkProgress his readiness to take action is an example of what happens when lawmakers put partisan politics aside to address issues afflicting local communities.

“There comes a point in time when we need to lay down our political affiliations to do what is in the best interest of the people that we serve,” Turner said. “What is happening in Ohio is a model for doing that. This is not about political affiliation. This is about doing the right thing on behalf of communities in this state so we can bridge the divide so people feel like they are living in a just society that hears their cries.”

In November, Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers who mistook a toy gun he was carrying for a real weapon. Just a few months earlier, 22-year-old John Crawford III was shot and killed by police officers inside a Beavercreek, Ohio Wal-Mart for carrying a BB gun. Turner said that as a member of the task force, she traveled across the state and spoke with community members including Crawford’s father who discussed their distrust of law enforcement.

“The trust has been broken between the community and law enforcement and you can’t have a just society, and you can’t solve crimes for that matter, if the society doesn’t believe in the police,” she said.

After Rice’s death, the Department of Justice investigated the Cleveland Police Department and found that officers routinely used unjustifiable force against criminals, suspects and innocent victims of crimes — like Rice’s sister, who was allegedly handcuffed after officers shot and killed her younger brother. In December, the DOJ imposed an independent monitor on the Cleveland police to look into the use of lethal force — an issue that will also be addressed statewide by the newly announced advisory board.

Both law enforcement and community members on the advisory board will work to create uniform standards, something currently missing in the state. Specifically, the group will address the lack of diversity in law enforcement and look into hiring more women and people of color. The state’s chief justice has also agreed to reexamine the grand jury process as a jury determines whether to indict the officers who shot and killed Rice.

While Turner admits she and Kasich do not often agree, she said the governor was able to look beyond partisan politics when he issued an executive order taking actions to repair the state’s justice system the same day the task force presented him with its report.

“He has very much been a man of his word,” she said about Kasich. “He was very clear that we have to change this and we can’t turn a blind eye. He’s not going to rest until he has some action towards bridging the divide between the police and the community.”

As police protests sweep the country — from Ferguson, MO to New York and Baltimore — communities across the country are looking at the best ways to rebuild trust between community members and police. The actions taken in Ohio could be used to improve cities and states elsewhere, Turner said, especially as Kasich launches a presidential campaign and is projected into the national spotlight.

But as the country waits for more information about the circumstances that led to Rice’s death, his relatives are questioning why the criminal investigation still remains pending five months after the shooting, longer than it took the police task force to complete its own investigation, despite the confrontation being captured on video.

While the state isn’t pressuring law enforcement to move forward with the Rice investigation, which has already taken longer than investigations into similar police killings in Ferguson and Staten Island, members of the task force say their recommendations will help prevent another fatal encounter.

And Kasich, who recently said his chances of running for president are high, has apparently come a long way from 2011, when Turner and the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus implored the governor to diversify his Cabinet, which was all white and had only five women. At the time, Kasich told Turner, “I don’t need your people.”

When he announced the plans to increase transparency and accountability in law enforcement last week, however, his tone had significantly changed. He praised those in Baltimore who stood up to peacefully protest law enforcement, saying they did what needed to be done.

“It takes training and certain standards to get this done and my message is nobody is going to walk away from this,” he said. “The governor of this state is not going to look the other way. We are going to heal our communities and we are going to get ahead of the curve… It is not acceptable to have these divisions between our friends in the African American community and law enforcement. We will bridge this gap.”