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While advocates seek stronger police accountability, others demand more stringent enforcement

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Posted at 8:55 AM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 17:09:42-05

CLEVELAND — We are nearly two years since the death of George Floyd spurred so many communities to rethink the role of those who enforce the law. But then America experienced its largest rise in homicides ever, and the narrative began to change.

But for Samaria Rice, the mission will never change.

“I just really pick the joy over the pain," Rice said, "because I’m still living here on Earth, and I don’t want to have to just be in pain all the time.”

It’s been seven years since Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy and Samaria's son, was playing with a replica toy gun outside a rec center in Cleveland. Police were called. Within seconds of arriving, an officer shot Rice twice. Rice died the next day. The officer was never indicted.

On this day, Samaria Rice sits with three residents of her city who have also lost a family member during incidents with police. Brenda Bickerstaff lost her brother, Craig, in 2002. Alicia Kirkman lost her son, Angelo Miller, in 2007. Emanuel Franklin lost his son Desmond less than two years ago.

“I walk this walk," Franklin said, "because I have to.”

The walk they walk is one of activism. Last year, that activism led to new policy in Cleveland, one of many American cities reckoning with how they enforce the law.

The death of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a national discussion on the power of police. That year, according to Ballotpedia, nearly half the states in America took some form of legislative action. Twenty cities and counties put accountability measures on the ballot, and all passed.

Last year, 12 measures went to a vote, and nearly half failed, including in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed.

“Right now, everybody’s living in a dichotomy," said Thaddeus Johnson, a former law enforcement officer in Memphis who now works as a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

“Everyone feels like there’s two choices," Johnson said. "Either we get rid of the police, or we have a stronger police presence.”

For more than two decades, incarceration rates and crime rates nationally dropped. But the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive spike in homicides that hasn’t stopped. It’s led many to demand more stringent enforcement.

“Both sides think that they’re right," Johnson said, "saying, ‘We need more police, we need to unionize. We need to provide them more protections. They need more immunities.’ And one group says, ‘Let’s strip it all away because that allows police officers not to be held accountable.’”

Advocates in Cleveland say there doesn't need to be a choice.

"People say, 'Oh, there’s too many homicides!’" Bickerstaff said. "And I agree. There are too many homicides. But don’t smooth over accountability. Everybody has to be accountable.”

In Cleveland, the debate played out around Issue 24. Advocates like Rice, Bickerstaff, Kirkman, and Franklin pushed for reforms that would establish a Community Police Commission to oversee police conduct. The commission would serve “as the final City authority on whether the discipline of police officers … is sufficient.” The plan saw major pushback, even from the city’s then-mayor Frank Jackson.

“Tragedy pimps, that’s what they are," Mayor Jackson told The Outlaws Radio Show. "They take our tragedy and pimp it to their own benefit, as if they care.”

“I don’t understand what the pushback is," Rice said, "when it comes to a cease-fire on Black and Brown people, period. It’s a conversation America needs to have.”

Issue 24 passed in November. But it’s not the end. Nearly three months later, the advocates continue to campaign because they don’t believe the city will follow through.

“If we don’t stay on it, it’s not gonna happen," Kirkman said. "They want to see us disappear. They want us to stop.”

Accountability is just one avenue. Voters and leaders in communities across the country are wrestling with the best way to enforce the law. It’s easy for issues to get buried. But not if it means something deeper. Not if it produced a pain that can never be covered.

“We may make pain into power," Rice said, "but my life is still destroyed. I’d rather have my son back than deal with any of this. It’s a lot to deal with.”