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The Advancing Public Safety at the University of Michigan Task Force held its first community forum Tuesday evening to provide a place for community members to share their experiences with the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security. Approximately 20 faculty, students and parents shared their thoughts on the effectiveness of DPSS, defunding the police and the overall safety of the Ann Arbor campus. 

The task force is co-chaired by LSA and Public Policy professor Earl Lewis and Social Work professor Daphne C. Watkins, both of whom were present at the meeting. 

DPSS Executive Director Eddie Washington and DPSS Deputy Chief Crystal James are also members of the task force and were present at the meeting, according to Melissa Overton, DPSS deputy chief of police and public information officer. Overton also told The Daily that DPSS encouraged their staff to watch the event. 

The team was created to examine current DPSS practices and listen to the community’s concerns, offering recommendations for improvement. The task force is one of the several anti-racism initiatives formed last fall following related demands from fall’s Graduate Employees’ Organization strike

Christal Mannikus, a parent of a U-M student, said she feels her child is safe on campus because of the police presence and is against defunding the police. 

“Personally, my wolverine and I feel the campus is safe because the police are on the campus in Ann Arbor,” Mannikus said. “We must not forget, police presence deters crime. We get lulled into thinking we don’t need them. It is logical that less police presence, and or, unarmed police makes us more vulnerable and attracts the victims to criminals.” 

An increased police presence does not always result in a decrease in crime. When the New York Police Department reduced the number of officials they employed, the frequency of crime went down. Unarmed police do not necessarily make people more susceptible to crime, as many countries where police officers do not carry firearms have less fatal police shootings than the United States.

LSA Chemistry lecturer Alex Poniatowski said he supports paying DPSS officers competitive salaries to ensure the best hiring procedures are used and police training is realistic.

“What I’ve learned in meeting, observing and talking with our officers informally is that DPSS, to me, seems fairly disarmed and forward-thinking compared to other counties I’ve lived in,” Poniatowski said. “I would advocate for continuing to pay the best salaries and benefits in the state of Michigan to our DPSS personnel to recruit the best officers, collect the strongest job applicants through the most thorough interviewing of job candidates and ensure their intentions as high-quality professionals and to ensure training for the entire division.”

Desiraé Simmons, co-director of Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, said she thinks it is important to understand privilege as it relates to people’s level of safety around the police. 

“I just think it is important to recognize … when you say you don’t feel safe unless you see police around (relates to privilege),” Simmons said. “I have never been in a part of Ann Arbor where I felt unsafe, in police presence or not. (But that is related to privilege and) I think that is really important to say.” 

Other students described negative experiences they had previously encountered with DPSS. One student said they remembered hiding in a basement with others during the 2019 active shooter scare. The student said they received mixed messages about whether there was truly an active shooter, making them unsure of what to do. 

It was later discovered the incident had been caused by a group of students popping balloons, which other students believed to be the sound of gunshots. Someone in contact with the student notified DPSS that a group of students was hiding in the basement of a campus building, but officers never went to get them. 

“Even though they knew that we were down there, they had reports of us being down there, no one came to get us,” the student said. “We were down there for an additional period of time, experiencing a lot more pain than we needed to. And I find that is really gross negligence on their part. It was really frustrating. It was a really scary time. We left that basement not knowing what the truth was, not knowing what was going to happen to us, and to this day I still find that really frustrating.”

At the time of the active shooter scare, DPSS sent out multiple messages via the emergency alert system giving the ‘all-clear’ once the campus was determined to be safe, according to Overton. Overton told The Daily these alerts were sent out, in part, in hopes of telling students it was safe to leave their current location. 

Overton also said DPSS identified ways for the department to improve following the active shooter scare and implemented many of them, including more training for dispatch officers and improving their emergency alert system. 

“We were very lucky that we had staff already out at the location of the incident and we were there so quickly,” Overton said. “We couldn’t be happier with the response from the community, the neighboring agencies, because if this ended up being a real situation, this is exactly what we would hope for.”

Another student said they had a negative experience with DPSS when filing complaints of harassment when living in a campus residence hall. Even though they had evidence and reported the harassment multiple times, the student said DPSS never looked into the complaints even after the student met with DPSS, leaving the student scared to enter and exit their room.. 

Overton said complaints of harassment are handled by the University’s Office of Institutional Equity. Harassment is not a crime under Michigan law unless it meets the definition of stalking, in which case DPSS can investigate. Community members can also submit complaints or compliments for DPSS on their website

Input from the community forum will be used as preliminary findings of what DPSS is doing well and what needs improvement. A final report with the findings will be publicly presented at the end of April. 

This story has been updated to reflect information provided to The Daily on Feb. 12 by DPSS about division policies. 

Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.

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