On the eve of the fifth anniversary of a police shooting that sparked major calls for reform and oversight in Ann Arbor, The Michigan Daily sat down with Michael Cox, Ann Arbor’s new police chief, to discuss his priorities for the department and the challenges police officers face. This transcript has been abbreviated and reordered for reader clarity.
The Michigan Daily: Why is community policing a priority for you?
Michael Cox: Interacting with the public in ways that don’t have to do with normal police work is important and builds trust. It helps us figure out what the community wants. It helps the officers get to know the community, and the community gets to know the officers.
If or when something does happen that people might be upset with, when we begin the communication of explaining why it happened or even apologizing, it will be accepted or people will take what we say more at face value. When you don’t have trust, it’s pretty deep and you don’t trust anything anyone says, but when you do, you’re able to overcome problems and talk and move forward. Without trust, people get stuck sometimes.
TMD: What about when something does happen that people may not like? How are officers trained to de-escalate situations?
MC: People can make complaints almost anywhere. That’s a normal course of life, and I’m not justifying it, but we can’t promise that there’ll never be any complaints about people. That’s just not realistic. It doesn’t match up with the world. … As far as building trust and de-escalation, well, we train in de-escalation, so they’re trained and certainly know how to de-escalate. And there are other things that we have now probably that didn’t happen years ago.
Recently the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and Ann Arbor Police Department, all our hostage negotiators and our teams that deal with pretty high profile, like SWAT situations, have now a person from the community mental health department assigned to the group. So, when we go out to an incident, which was a very high profile or at least a very dangerous incident, we have people, personnel from the community mental health department that certainly that’s their profession to deal with people that might have mental health issues. That didn’t exist before.
TMD: What do you think about reforms like body cameras or bias training? Do you think those are effective?
MC: The fact is, we all have biases. Understanding that is really important, so you don’t act on them, or at least you identify that you could be acting on them. And that addresses the issues of how you can be doing something you think you’re totally right, but yet, it might seem as though you’re biased or prejudiced, and that’s important.
TMD: The Independent Civilian Police Oversight Commission was essential to calls for reform in Ann Arbor. How much have you worked with them so far? How much do you anticipate working with them?
MC: I think the oversight committee can be a good. Not a neutral party, but a mitigator between the perception of police and their activities and the reality of what we can do and can’t do, as far as getting that information out to the public. And I think that could be really a very good thing for them, as well as, sometimes, when we do things… the black and white is simple, but the gray — when we’re close to a gray area or something — that’s where interpretation is important. And I think that they can give us a great deal of input on how to deal with the gray, or more importantly (saying) “Yes, you might have been right by doing what you did, but you should deal with this gray and maybe come up with something, a policy or change the way you do business because it’s perceived as negative or is perceived badly.”
And by giving us any input, maybe we can change some of our policies and procedures as a result of this communication back and forth, particularly when they get input directly from the public, and maybe not from a complaint about what’s in our budget, but just from general things, in general, about what people think about policing. So, I think it’s a beginning process of this. But I welcome the process in as long as we have a communication — a dialogue — about what we’re doing, and we can explain to each other our concerns. I think that’s the key. I think it’s important, and we’ll do quite well to continue to communicate.
TMD: What do you think are some of the largest problems facing police officers generally right now?
MC: It’s still a tough environment for police where you come to work, just wanting to do your job and do the best you can, and you’re bombarded with — when you talk about biases, police can be on the subject of those biases as well as actually being biased sometimes. … Just because you put on a uniform, sometimes people, you know, dehumanize you, like you’re an entity or thing. You’re a person, and you want people to say “hi” to you, you want people to speak to you as well. You want to be liked. … In Ann Arbor, the people here are very good, but just, in general, there’s a perception that all police officers are bad or you know that they are out abusing people or violating rights, and the reality is that it’s just not the case.
TMD: How do your personal experiences with police brutality inform your understanding of the need for police reform?
MC: I’ve not been here long, but I’ve worked in Boston for over 30 years, and I’ve had some personal experiences about certainly being misidentified for a suspect when I’m just trying to work like anybody else, and so I understand that, and I also understand the need for change. One of the things I think I harken back to — you know, good people coming to the police department. There’s a lot of good people here. Good people, no matter what organization they’re in, they won’t stand by and let a lot of bad things happen. They want to make change. They want to make changes from within.