After years of citizen protests and government consideration, Ann Arbor officials are finally moving forward with the first phase of a proposal to review the practices of the Ann Arbor Police Department.
At its Feb. 21 meeting, City Council approved a $200,000 contract with Hillard Heintze LLC, a Chicago-based security consulting firm, to assess community perceptions of AAPD and its practices and make recommendations for the implementation of a civilian review board.
Though the firm's plan states that it will "provide recommendations for a model and implementation plan for Civilian Oversight of the APD (sic)," any potential civilian board would likely not have any oversight power other than non-binding recommendations — the city charter charges City Council and the city administrator have sole oversight over the police department. According to Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5), however, part of Hillard Heintze's research will be to assess how an advisory board could work in tandem with the council.
"Ultimately as a council person, I look for a board like that to give me advice on actions to take,” he said. “You know if there are complaints about an action or an officer, certainly I want to know what Chief Baird says about it, but I also want the independent group to be able to provide me their interpretation of what happened and how to best proceed."
And even after the firm makes the recommendations for implementation of a civilian advisory board, its enactment would still have to be passed by a vote from the council. Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) expects the measure to go through.
"I would like to believe that I would be very confident in supporting (the recommendation) and that my fellow council members would be very confident in supporting the recommendations of this group," she said.
Though Jim Baird, the Ann Arbor police chief, wrote in a memo to the council last June he would support a civilian review board if it were recommended by a third-party audit. He maintained, however, he did not personally view the body as necessary.
"Following an audit of the Ann Arbor Police Department is the logical time to evaluate whether a Civilian Police Review Board is warranted," he wrote. "The commission’s report does not identify or even suggest systemic issues within the ranks or leadership of the agency that would warrant such a step."
At the time of this publication, Baird could not be reached for comment on whether his opinion on such a review board had changed.
Relations between civilians and police across the nation reached a tipping point in August 2014 after a white policeman fatally shot unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. After the November 2014 shooting death of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser by a police officer, which was ruled as justified self-defense, local protests against police violence rallied around Rosser as a symbol for those affected by similar incidents of police violence.
One of the main functions of an advisory board would be to review complaints made against police officers and provide advice to the council and AAPD regarding next steps. In the memo, Baird also defended the complaint process, saying it could not be as transparent as a report from the Human Rights Commission suggested it should be.
"Due to the nature of the work officers perform and the conditions they perform it under, much of it must remain opaque," he wrote. "However, we should always be in a state of self examination to determine if there are areas where we can be more transparent."
Councilmember Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) said he thought a civilian advisory board would be a way to shift the examination process from the police department to an independent body.
"The complaint process is done internally through the police department," Krapohl said. "I don't want to say exactly off the top of my head –– complaints are brought in and then they are reviewed by senior officers, but all complaints are taken seriously, reviewed and investigated. We're hoping through the audit, you know, how can we improve this process? That has been something –– maybe not everyone feels comfortable coming into the police station to make a complaint, and I think that's understandable."