Ann Arbor City Council’s March 5 decision to contract Hillard Heintze LLC, a Chicago-based security consulting firm, to review Ann Arbor Police Department practices elicited a variety of responses from Ann Arbor students, activists and other stakeholders.
The decision to audit the police department was a result of two and a half years of protests and complaints regarding the Aura Rosser case, in which a Black woman was shot by a white police officer, David Ried, who was responding to a domestic violence call.
Prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie said in a statement in Jan. 2015 no criminal charges will be brought against Ried, citing “lawful self-defense,” but activists across Ann Arbor have advocated for more police accountability and transparency to avoid another incident. For example, Radical Washtenaw, a local activist group, wrote in its booklet, “People’s Retort to the Prosecutor’s Report,” the death of Aura Rosser and the exoneration of the police officer responsible is part of a national pattern of racism and questionable police practices.
“Aura Rosser’s killing and the official exoneration of Ried is part of a national pattern of disregard for Black lives,” the booklet reads. “Ann Arbor, one of the 10 most economically segregated cities of any size in the nation, is not exempt from racism and patterns of police violence. Indeed, Ann Arbor is America.”
Though Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) said there is no major progress happening yet, the city’s Human Rights Commission meeting on March 8 provided a glimpse of what may follow in the next few months.
In the meeting, Kenneth Bouche, chief operating officer of Hillard Heintze, stated reform in community policing is impossible without direct engagement from the community.
“In order to move forward, in order to enter a new era of policing and to solve the problems we have seen over the last several years, (reform) has to be collaborative between government, between police and between the community,” Bouche said at the meeting.
Bouche then expanded on how the proposed citizen advisory board for the AAPD should also be built upon collaborative spirit, explaining that adversarial oversight boards around the country do not actually modify police behavior or improve community-police relations.
“Whatever you build, it’s not going to be adversarial, it’ll be cooperative,” Bouche said. “It’s designed to be a positive way because what we see around the country is, adversarial oversight only solves some of the problems.”
Debra Kirby, senior vice president of law enforcement counseling at Hillard Heintze, explained her team will conduct onsite data collection for at least one week every month and analyze the results offsite. Consultants will conduct interviews and ride-alongs with police officers, research policies and data, and talk to community members about their concerns, holding at least one public forum. Kirby said her team is aiming to complete its report by late June.
“Our goal at this point in terms of the assessment is to really be objective and let the facts show what they show,” Kirby said. “We look at what are national practices, we listen to what this community wants, we identify what are the specific needs of this community and at the end of this assessment phase, we’ll come in with recommendations for the people here to determine, assess, evaluate whether we’ll take this forward.”
When asked whether Hillard Heintze plans to do what is “right” as opposed to what the majority of the community wants, Bouche responded what his team is looking for is constitutionally correct policing that takes into account what every subset of the entire community — be it marginalized, rich, immigrant or undocumented — wants from the police.
“When we say that the community should direct how the police polices its community, it doesn’t mean the majority should direct how everyone is policed,” Bouche said. “When we say community, we don’t mean majority, but an inclusive community.”
Libby Hunter, a representative of Radical Washtenaw who was present at the meeting, wrote she was pleased to see real steps toward the improvement of community-police relations.
“I was surprised because they spoke quite powerfully about how the (Human Rights Commission) was going to have to really get involved, and how community involvement was crucial to their process,” Hunter wrote. “They repeated multiple times, in different words, how community involvement was key. You could see the facial expressions change on the faces of the HRC as they began to understand that these people meant business.”
HRC Chair Leslie Stambaugh said consultants from Hillard Heintze also engaged with the city’s leadership, the AAPD — including Police Chief Jim Baird — and the court system from March 7 to 9. Baird wrote a memo last June describing his opinion that a civilian advisory board was unnecessary.
Baird said he was also impressed with Hillard Heintze’s attitude. Baird maintained that he still views the advisory board as unnecessary, but reiterated he would support such a plan if it were recommended from Hillard Heintze.
“(Hillard Heintze) will be well positioned to make a recommendation on what type of community board would work well in Ann Arbor,” Baird wrote in an email interview. “I have met with team members from Hillard Heintze and believe that their assessment and experience will be instrumental in designing and implementing such a board.”
Though the creation of a civilian advisory board will most likely pass a council vote, its role may be limited, because the board’s recommendations will be non-binding. Only City Council and the City Administrator have oversight power, per the city’s charter.
Public Health student Vikrant Garg, a representative for Students4Justice, a group fighting racism on campus, criticized what he saw as a minimal role for an institution with great potential. He argued this was a classic case of those in power being unwilling to give the people actual decision-making power.
“I think we need to reimagine governmental structures that can be held to account in a system that currently fails marginalized folks, especially black trans women,” Garg wrote in an email interview. “The problem is when institutional accountability measures are just advisory existences, rather than those with actual perceived power.”
However, Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) stated in a previous article Hillard Heintze is looking for a way for the advisory board and City Council to work alongside each other.
“Ultimately as a council person, I look for a board like that to give me advice on actions to take,” Smith 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.”