In a split with City Council, which voted unanimously in March to consider a set of recommendations put forth by its Human Rights Commission, Ann Arbor Police Chief Jim Baird questioned the need for increased civilian oversight of the AAPD in a memo to members of council last week. Baird also explicitly opposed the implementation of a civilian review board and alternate dispute resolution mechanism until a third-party audit of the AAPD is completed.
Baird’s memo comes as the council is expected to finalize and formally vote on implementing recommendations from the HRC — which is composed of local residents appointed by the mayor and receives assistance from University of Michigan law students — in the coming month.
Efforts to reform oversight of AAPD increased after the 2014 fatal shooting of local resident Aura Rosser by an AAPD officer. The Washtenaw County prosecutor ultimately chose not to indict the officer involved in the shooting, though many local residents criticized the transparency of the investigation.
A study of best practices in police departments across the country and a public engagement process — in which Baird participated as interim chief — culminated in a 42-page report in late 2015 from the HRC. The report recommended an independent audit of AAPD practices, the creation of a civilian oversight board to indepdendently review complaints against police officers, an emphasis on community policing and the implementation of crisis response teams.
Leslie Stambaugh, chair of the HRC, said she was not surprised by Baird’s opposition to the implementation of increased civilian oversight. Nonetheless, she said she intends to continue to push for an oversight board and is confident that it will ultimately be implemented.
“I imagine that very few police chiefs would welcome review boards with civilian powers,” Stambaugh said. “He’s hoping the consultant will say, ‘Hey, you don’t need it, everything is fine.’ ”
In his memo to the council, Baird said the Rosser shooting, while tragic, was justified and does not reflect any broader issues within the AAPD. Baird also noted the only other incident mentioned in the HRC report took place in 1995, when AAPD undertook a search for a serial rapist in Ann Arbor. He said no improper police conduct occurred then either.
“(The shooting) was tragic for Ms. Rosser, the officer involved, as well as all who care about either of them,” Baird wrote. “It was tragic for the community as a whole. However, it was a completely justified and reasonable response to the situation the officers encountered that day.”
Baird also refuted assertions by the HRC report that AAPD lacks transparency in handling complaints against officers. In 2014, 38 complaints were brought by citizens against AAPD officers, with 10 being sustained following investigation. In 2015, 30 such complaints were made and four sustained.
Baird noted he has personally initiated complaints against his own officers based on anonymous information on social media.
“I have personally initiated complaints against unknown employees for information posted on social media sites,” he wrote. “The Ann Arbor Police Department has routinely demonstrated that they have earned … trust.”
While supporting the recommendation of an independent auditor for his department, Baird argued there is insufficient evidence to support the other provisions of the HRC report, and he suggested a premature implementation would undermine his officers. However, he remained open to reconsidering his position following the review results.
“Because the commission’s report blends the national discussion with the Rosser incident, I have concern that there may be an appetite to address national issues and concerns with local policy,” Baird wrote. “To presume that the Ann Arbor Police Department’s practices are not ‘positive’ and that a review board is the best way to ‘ensure future adherence’ absent any supporting reference is ill advised.”
Stambaugh also agreed with Baird that AAPD has consistently performed professionally, but she argued this does not make increased civilian oversight unreasonable.
Stambaugh noted that numerous cities similar to Ann Arbor — including Austin, Texas — already have civilian oversight boards in place that are similar to the one recommended by the HRC.
“(Baird) simply thinks his police department is very good, and it is very good comparatively, but the police should not be policing themselves,” Stambaugh said. “We didn’t say the police department is awful. We said this would improve overall community-police trust.”
City councilmember Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4), who also served on the HRC, said the term "oversight" can be misconstrued as critical of the police department when the actual goal is to foster better communication between the police and community.
“Oversight is a difficult word to use,” he said. “We’re looking to form a possible group to create better community and police interaction to ensure we eliminate those gaps that exist in understanding both ends of the spectrum.”
Krapohl believes a consensus that would be agreeable to both Baird and the community can be found, saying Baird is still fundamentally in favor of improving community relations.
“I think (Baird) doesn’t like the (oversight committee) idea, but he’s not — from my conversations with him — opposed to a more interactive committee or group that again shares information and looks to how to create a better understanding between the police committee and the community they serve,” Krapohl said.
However, some residents have been skeptical of the HRC’s efforts since 2015, arguing the recommendations will not impose sufficient transparency on AAPD. Some also expressed worry that the proposed oversight board will be turned into a rubber-stamp body once council formalizes its powers to appease the AAPD and its police officer union.
Shirley Beckley, an Ann Arbor resident of the past 74 years, said the public’s ability to ask questions and give input at public forums regarding police reform was severely limited in 2015, and she is ultimately pessimistic as to whether meaningful change will pass. Beckley added she is also skeptical of Mayor Christopher Taylor’s commitment to meaningful reform, noting all HRC members are appointed by the mayor.
“You don’t have a forum to talk about police brutality … and not allow your community to freely talk,” Beckley said, pointing to questions at forums that had to be written in advance and chosen by moderators. “We can piss and moan all we want, but I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.”
Correction: a previous version of this article indicated that Rosser was unarmed, when she actually was carrying a knife.