To Win Battleground of Ohio, Republicans Must Address Police Brutality and Reform

05/26/2015 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Allison Shelley via Getty Images

For the last quarter of a century, National Action Network (NAN) and I have championed and advocated on behalf of many victims of racial violence and misconduct at the hands of police. From Rodney King in L.A. in the 1990s, to the marches we organized for Eric Garner in Staten Island, to eulogizing and rallying on behalf of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, we have worked tirelessly in this area. Along with pushing for things like access to health care for all and corporate accountability, police reform has been a fundamental focus of the work that we do. But in all those years, I've never seen a situation that will force a national election to deal with policing as I do now at this very moment.

Over the weekend, as news broke that that Judge John P. O'Donnell acquitted officer Michael Brelo for his role in the 2012 fatal shooting of an unarmed Black male and female in a car in Cleveland (about a dozen officers fired a total of 137 rounds at the car), protests immediately broke out. As the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio grapple with how to proceed forward, it's important to remember that this precise area of the nation is the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Translation: GOP candidates will actually have to deal with policing as an issue.

The Justice Department has reached an unprecedented settlement with Cleveland over what they said was a pattern of unconstitutional policing and excessive use of force. In fact, the Department began its investigation into Cleveland police just a few months after the 2012 shooting for which officer Brelo was just acquitted (no other officers were charged with manslaughter).

The citizens of Cleveland, and Ohio for that matter, were reminded of the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun (his mother has marched with NAN in Washington, D.C. and New York). Half a year after Rice's death, the case is still under investigation.

Incidents like this and acquittals like Brelo's are simply inexcusable. The NAACP, faith leaders and others have all publicly called for me to lead efforts going forward to say that protests must be nonviolent and geared towards reconciliation, but with the goal of real change.

Ohio has always played a significant role in elections. It is a critical state that must be won by Republicans in order to win the White House next year. The Governor of Ohio has all but announced that he's running for the presidency, and again, Cleveland is the site of the GOP convention next year. These three facts alone mean that Republicans can no longer stay silent on policing issues even though they largely ignored Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore and more.

When they come to Cleveland to convene, they will be coming to a city and a state under high mobilization around this issue. They cannot choreograph a convention in a city that the Justice Department just cited, and they cannot choreograph a convention in a state with such graphic cases of police brutality. They simply cannot win Ohio without dealing with police misconduct in that state from the killing of John Crawford III in a Walmart store, to Tanisha Anderson who died while in police custody (her death was ruled a homicide), and all the way up to Tamir Rice.
As we escalate calls for national police policy, and cases to be handled by special state prosecutors or the Justice Department in order to take politics out of the equation, we call on GOP candidates to tell the nation where they stand on these critical subjects. Ignoring the challenges will not make them go away. Acting as if Americans are not concerned with the current state of things will not win you votes.

People elect leaders that can lead -- not ones who dance around problems. If Republicans think that they can go to a critical state to hold a convention without addressing police brutality and reform, they might want to think again.

I say to all 15 or more GOP candidates that have largely remained quiet on this topic, as you begin primaries and head to Cleveland, remember the words of legendary boxer Joe Louis: You can run, but you can't hide.