Hundreds gathered at Eastern Michigan University Wednesday evening to attend a town hall discussion addressing issues of policing in the community, with a panel consisting of law enforcement and community leaders.
For two hours, the panelists — consisting of Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn), Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie, American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Mark Fancher and local community member Miles McGuire — fielded questions from county residents on police force and community relations and the necessary steps to improve police accountability.
Fancher argued the most important factor in quality of policing is the internal culture of the departments in question — something training wouldn’t be able to shift.
“If that is the culture that exists within a department, then it doesn’t matter about the training because that’s what is happening on the street,” Fancher said.
Clayton agreed with Fancher that the rigidity of institutional culture limits the impact training can have on a new officer’s attitude and behavior toward minority citizens.
“You have to have a comprehensive means of approach to it,” he said. “In some law enforcement agencies, not all, we have to change the fundamental assumption that these people are more dangerous than those people, and it’s not just an assumption that occurs in the law enforcement profession; it is an assumption that permeates all of society.”
Clayton emphasized the importance of culture within law enforcement, a facet that is more entrenched and a greater challenge to face.
“It requires cultural change in an organization. It requires cultural change in a profession and that takes a lot of time,” he said. “You will see in progressive agencies that that behavior has changed. It’s not just the training, it’s the policy and the supervision.”
McGuire noted a distinct divide in the people of the community, and not just between residents and law enforcement. He believes people need to remain proactive in closing this gap and that relations with the police will improve in tandem.
“What we face is a division as people. A Black Lives Matter march is not just for African-American people, but for all of us as people to change what is going on.”
Catherine Weathers, an Ypsilanti resident, commented on how police forces form a close-knit group, questioning whether this would obstruct their ability to report the actions of rogue officers from among their ranks.
Fancher replied that he believes it is not sufficient for the police to be “good,” but they also need to proactively engage with rogue officers.
“If the police are the ones who started the mess, then they are the ones who need to clean it up,” he said. “Now, because of the circumstances, a good police officer has to take it upon him or herself to change that insular culture that exists within the law enforcement world.”
A question from an EMU student asking how community respect of police can be improved raised pointed discussion from the panel on the issues of community policing and citizen oversight, with disagreement on whether such reforms would bring meaningful improvement to community-police relations.
Mackie argued the lack of patrol officers on the streets leads to more occupational stress among the police, which can be expressed during exchanges with citizens, making community policing a challenge.
“We need more police officers,” he said. “We used to have more than 600 sworn police officers in Washtenaw County, and, like the rest of Michigan, it is below 500 now. We talk about community policing, and Ypsilanti has been a leader in community policing for decades. It helps communities be safer and helps officers get along with people, so we need more.”
Clayton pushed back against Mackie’s suggestion, arguing that a high standard of professionalism should be maintained by officers to improve public perception of law enforcement, regardless of resources and the number of active patrol officers.
“Community policing is not a program but an operational philosophy,” he said. “It has to be part of your organization’s ‘who you are.’ Frankly, whether you have 10 officers or 100, the 10 that we have should be operating in a certain way that is consistent with the principles of community policing, and that is how you start to change the perception.”
Clayton also said the implementation of citizen oversight of police could potentially be useful, though he cautioned that it would not be an outright solution to underlying issues of community mistrusts.
“Citizen oversight is not the silver bullet; it is a tool that we should not be afraid of in certain situations for us to move in the right direction,” he said.
EMU student Johnny Sailes, an Ypsilanti resident, thought the event was a success but felt the topic of police brutality should have been talked about at greater length.
“I think it should have been talked about a little bit more,” he said. “This whole panel was started because of police brutality, so because it was a main issue I feel like that should have been addressed a little bit more.”