In hopes of improving the University of Michigan Division of Public Safety and Security’s current practices, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins announced more details regarding the 20-person task force — named the Advancing Public Safety at the University of Michigan Task Force — last week.
So far, the task force has held two meetings: the first welcoming all new members, and the second discussing how to convey the task force’s eventual findings to University administrators.
The task force will examine DPSS’s current practices and training related to community engagement, according to the University Record. They will also discuss the role of the University of Michigan Police Department Oversight Committee. The task force is chaired by Daphne C. Watkins, professor in the School of Social Work, and Public Policy professor Earl Lewis.
Experts at the Bentley Historical Library will conduct research on DPSS’s previous policing methods to help inform the task force.
In a statement to the University Record, Schlissel said it is important for community members to both be and feel safe on campus.
“I have great confidence in DPSS, but our aspirations to excel as a world-class university require that we examine and strive to continuously improve in everything we do, including the important responsibility of public safety,” Schlissel said.
The creation of the task force comes after the Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike in September, resulting in a weeks-long standoff with the University’s administration. GEO’s list of demands for the University included a diversion of funds away from DPSS. The creation of the task force was one of the agreed upon stipulations in the University’s agreement with GEO after the University sought a court injunction to end the strike.
The task force also comes after multiple instances of police brutality by the Ann Arbor Police Department and Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, which generated significant community backlash and which activists pointed to as local examples of racism inherent in policing during racial justice protests last summer. DPSS often works closely with the AAPD and the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office but was not involved in either incident.
Rackham student David Helps, a member of both GEO and the new task force, said GEO’s demands came from ongoing consultation with members of various communities across campus and the task force represents progress.
“We need to recognize that policing and public safety have always been contentious topics around the community,” Helps said. “The task force is a recognition of that problem and the first of many steps in addressing it.”
LSA senior Thomas Vance, another member of the task force and a member of the student organization Students of Color Liberation Front, said he thinks DPSS should be disbanded entirely. The Students of Color Liberation Front pushed for the Michigan Ambassadors program to be shut down last semester because armed AAPD officers accompanied the ambassadors patrolling campus. According to Vance, the first task force meeting was not focused on abolition.
“The vibe at the meeting was very off,” Vance said. “It was very reform-focused, rather than having an emphasis on replacing and abolishing.”
If DPSS were to be disbanded, Vance said the University would need to implement racial bias training and workshops.
In October, the University announced the continuation of other anti-racism initiatives in addition to the task force. These include a scholarship in honor of George Floyd — the Black man who was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking nationwide protests — and the hiring of additional faculty members to join the University’s anti-racism research network.
Helps said discussions of racism in policing must be central in the task force’s discussions.
“We have ample evidence to show that race, ethnicity and religion play the central role in policing,” Helps said. “At every stage in the criminal justice system, racism is a major factor in terms of people’s treatment.”
The task force is composed of University students, faculty, staff and parents. LSA senior Sav Nandigama, vice president of Central Student Government, is a member. Two members of DPSS — Executive Director Eddie Washington and Deputy Chief of Police Crystal James — also serve as members. Members were chosen through both recommendations and self-nominations.
Vance said he hopes Washington and James are open to the feedback of other members.
“There’s no such thing as pure objectivity, because everyone comes to a conversation with some sort of personal experience,” Vance said. “But my hope is that Crystal and Eddie are receptive to concerns from members and can critically evaluate DPSS from a neutral position.”
Helps urged the University to remember that the issues people around the country are facing are the same issues the University must combat within its own communities.
“We might like to think that Ann Arbor is a safe and cozy bubble that exists apart from the world, but we are certainly of the world,” Helps said. “The task force is an important step towards grappling with tough issues, but it can’t end with the task force — this conversation needs to continue much longer.”
The task force plans to generate a final report by the end of April.
Daily Staff Reporter Ashna Mehra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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