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During the second community forum on the Division of Public Safety and Security’s policing practices, the Advancing Public Safety Task Force at the University of Michigan discussed the preliminary status report, which was released on Feb. 26. The report discusses trends in the U-M community’s experiences with DPSS and historical safety and security practices of DPSS researched by the Bentley Historical Library

Community members were also invited to ask questions during a Q&A session. 

The task force, which is chaired by Earl Lewis, LSA and Public Policy professor, and Daphne C. Watkins, Social Work professor, aims to examine the public safety practices on the Ann Arbor campus, as well as the U-M community’s relationship with DPSS. The team was created to listen to community members’ thoughts and concerns about DPSS and is one of several anti-racism initiatives proposed last fall following demands from the Graduate Employees’ Organization strike.  

The subcommittees of the task force are focused on understanding the structure of DPSS, learning about how DPSS engages with the community, drafting guidelines for best practices for public safety and collecting data related to DPSS.

The first community forum, where anyone in the U-M and Ann Arbor communities could share their experiences with DPSS, took place in February. The final report from the task force’s findings is expected to be published at the end of April. 

The Bentley Library’s report summarized the history of DPSS and the U-M community’s past relationship with DPSS. Based on the report, there is a history of investigation into policing and safety practices dating back to the 19th century. 

“The Bentley report reminds us that this is a story that has more than one chapter, and that there is a 19th century chapter where students on campus really questioned their relationship both with the law authority in Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor City Department,” Lewis said. “As we move into the 20th century, we are not the first task force that the University has seen fit to organize. The first one was in 1980. There was a subsequent task force in 1989, a third one in 1997 and a fourth in 2012.”

Watkins said the task force is still in the early stages of their work. They have had several meetings with campus safety experts, campus organizations and student groups and are still working through all the information gained from these meetings, Watkins said. Watkins said trouble gathering information from the University has led to delays. 

“We have experienced some challenges early in our work trying to gain access to some data and some information,” Watkins said. “Some of the work has been held up, and we believe this is due to the decentralized nature of information tracking at the University of Michigan.”

According to the Bentley Library’s report, after lapses of communication from  hospital security in late 2012, the Board of Regents voted to create DPSS in order to centralize safety and security units on the Ann Arbor campus. Prior to this unification, information and data gathered by various security components were not organized, which contributed to the task force’s struggle to gather information. 

According to the status report, during the first public forum, approximately 175 people attended and 26 people spoke. Several people showed appreciation for DPSS, while others said they felt like their complaints weren’t taken seriously. Some parents said the task force was the University’s effort to “defund the police,” a slogan more widely adopted after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 that urges local governments to direct resources away from police departments and toward governmental social work agencies or community organizations.

According to the report, 432 people responded to a confidential community input survey that asked about people’s experiences with DPSS. Some said they felt safe around DPSS forces, while others were concerned that officers are armed. 

Lewis said one finding from the survey that stood out to him is that many people associated DPSS with police. While DPSS does have a police force, it also provides safety resources for the campus more broadly, including through a crime hotline and a housing security department. 

“One of the more interesting, if not surprising discoveries, is that for a lot of people, DPSS is equated with the police,” Lewis said. “The overall structure of the 300 and plus individuals that work in the broader DPSS, at least in the survey materials, ended up being reduced to the story of experiences with the police one way or another. That is something for us to understand as a task force as to what DPSS is symbolically.”

Watkins said DPSS has a very broad range of responsibilities.

“DPSS is so much more than just the police,” Watkins said. “They also cover museum security, dispatch and technology, emergency management, hospital security, guest services, administration and housing security.”

When asked by an audience member about whether the task force is researching this tendency to associate DPSS with police, Lewis said one of the task force’s subcommittees is looking into agreements between various police departments and DPSS. 

“Task force Subcommittee A looks at the structure and tries to figure out the cooperative agreements and jurisdictional boundaries on who has responsibilities for calls, and what happens if a call brings together representatives of three or four agencies, who is first in line,” Lewis said. “There are cooperative agreements between the University of Michigan Police Department and DPSS, the Ann Arbor Police Department, as well as the Washtenaw County (Sheriff’s Office).”

Rachel Dawson is a member of the Independent Community Police Oversight Committee and of a subcommittee on the task force. When asked about how ICPOC handles complaints related to DPSS, Dawson said the group works with DPSS to participate in an investigation.

“As far as complaints that come to the oversight committee, they are first reviewed by the chief of the police, they are then reported to the oversight committee,” Dawson said. “We will do a full-fledged investigation of the complaint, looking at the evidence surrounding the case based on information available to us via the police report and in the formal complaint. We will then give a recommendation to the department.”

When asked by an attendee about research on excessive force by DPSS, Dawson said they are trying to gather as much data as they can but might not be able to find information prior to the creation of DPSS in late 2012. 

“Several committees are looking at the actions and interface of the police department and various methods, including the use of force,” Dawson said. “We do have issues gathering data, so the available data is limited at this point. We are hoping to at least be able to examine that at minimum going 5 years back. We don’t know if we will have data much beyond that point because the department was decentralized and there were different reporting structures prior to 2013.”

Kimberly Yourick is a parent representative on the task force and a former police officer. Yourick said DPSS would have to build strong connections with the U-M community for community policing — a method of policing that advocates for sustained partnerships between the police force and the communities they serve — to be successful. 

“The burden, in a sense, is on DPSS is to reach out and have a lot of community outreach to students, to faculty, to staff, and building strong relationships and a culture of care,” Yourick said. “When the new students, faculty and staff come in, the consistency is that DPSS is always focused on community policing and really developing strong relationships and bonds with the campus community.”

Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.

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