Rev. Napoleon Harris, senior pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, approached the microphone ready to speak his mind. He wasn’t there to make any friends, he admitted.
Looking up at the stage and speaking to Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond and Mayor Justin Bibb, he listed ways in which police reform hasn’t worked.
“We fought to get oversight, they still killed Black folks. It don’t work,” he said. “We fought for body cameras. We watched that execution on body cameras. It don’t work.”
Harris said policing needs a “reboot.”
He said police think they’re above accountability, above the law, and above reproach.
“It’s a culture that’s bigger than you,” he told Drummond. “And you’re a part of that culture.”
Cleveland-area residents addressed Drummond and Bibb in a discussion about Tyre Nichols and police brutality. The Word Church hosted the event, titled “Not Another Memphis,” at its Warrensville Heights campus Monday night.
On Jan. 7, five Black Memphis Police officers assaulted Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man. He was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days later. All five officers have since been charged with second-degree murder, among other charges.
Criticisms of police culture and how it may embolden officers to dehumanize Black bodies – especially Black men – was a recurring theme at the event.
Many people who spoke at the forum said they were tired of having the same conversations year after year.
At the forum, Bibb and Drummond sat alongside Rev. William Myers, a pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church and a professor of New Testament and Black church studies at Ashland University. Jennifer Wainwright, the church’s staff writer and a mother of five Black sons also sat onstage for the discussion.
Wainwright said the officers in Memphis were wearing body cameras, yet they brutalized Nichols. She asked about the culture of police departments that makes officers think it’s OK to do what those Memphis officers did.
“I’m getting emotional because I can’t help but think about the Black men in my family,” Wainwright said. “So is there something implicit in the training that says when you see a Black face… you dehumanize, they are weaponized, their skin is criminalized. How do you, as police officers, how do you police each other?”
Drummond told the more than 100 people at the church that he was “shocked, confused, surprised,” when he saw the video of Memphis officers brutally beating Nichols.
He agreed that the culture and standards of a police department need to be set by the chief of police and work their way down to officers, who need to understand misconduct will come with consequences.
Drummond said that some of the training he went through when he was in the Police Academy in 1989 would not be acceptable today. The department has drastically changed since then, he said.
“At that particular time (1989), the way we were trained was completely different. Expectations were completely different,” he said. “Some of the things we did back then, and just to be very candid and very honest, we’d probably go to jail for now, but it was accepted back then.”
Myers wondered why they keep having to have these conversations. He sat in a similar forum in 2014, after a Cleveland police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“How is it that we continuously come to this point, and especially now?” he said. “How is it that the whole United States, the whole world, watched that situation with George Floyd, watched policemen get convicted and go to jail, a very unusual thing, and we still are at this place?”
Drummond said he will hold officers accountable if he learns of misconduct. Bibb brought up the new Community Police Commission several times, saying their strengthened authority on police oversight and policy will ensure accountability and a culture change within the department.
After the forum, Timothy Roberts told Signal Cleveland he was curious to see whether there was any kind of perspective change in city leadership.
Roberts said he grew up attending these kinds of events with his father, who was a police officer, and hearing about the same issues.
He said he would have liked to see more collaboration between the church community, city leadership and police to find solutions.
“They ended up butting heads a little bit more than what I was comfortable with today,” Roberts said. “Just because we’re here for a solution, not to just continuously talk about the same issue.”