The Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission met at Larcom City Hall on Tuesday night to discuss an advisory report on improving police-community relations. The commission, which reports directly to the Ann Arbor City Council, opened the meeting to the public. More than 30 community members attended, over half of whom voiced concerns about the 42-page report released last month.
In the report, the commission calls for the formation of an independent civilian review board, the hiring of an independent police auditor and the formation of crisis intervention teams. The discussion of the proposals comes at a critical time for the city’s police force, as James White, an assistant chief with the Detroit Police Department, will take over as the department’s new chief in January.
Commissioner Dwight Wilson, who said he met extensively with various local organizations and community members before drafting the report, emphasized the importance of community input.
“We cannot set aside the fact that police cannot be expected to police themselves. Right?” Wilson asked, to loud applause from the audience.
However, Nearly all of the community members who spoke criticized the resolution because of insufficient power delegated to citizens. Public Health student Rebecca Ahmad-Robinson, a member of the advocacy group Ann Arbor to Ferguson, specifically questioned the decision to allow the mayor to select the review board.
“(The report) is lacking teeth in a lot of ways,” she said. “The language has been changed multiple times so that it looks more like a watered down civilian review board. We would seek to empower the civilian oversight board to participate in the hiring and firing of police officers.”
The commission set about writing the report last November, motivated in part by the police shooting of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser, and the subsequent scrutiny of the city’s police department and national conversations about police brutality. Rosser’s name was invoked multiple times by community members during the meeting, but Ypsilanti resident Michelle Barney, a representative of the NAACP, cautioned the commission against leaning too heavily on Rosser’s legacy as an immediate motivation.
“You have been engaged in a make-nice process,” Barney said. “You look like you’re doing something so that we don’t have riots in the streets, so that we don’t have Ferguson, Chicago (or) Baltimore.”
Shirley Beckley, an Ann Arbor resident and an organizer with Ann Arbor to Ferguson, echoed that mentioning Rosser cannot cover up the recommendations’ shortfalls.
“You mention Aura’s name several time in the opening, and then propose a review and not an oversight. Anything less than community control of the police is worse than nothing,” she said.
The evaluation of community involvement on the resolution shifted to a critique of the meeting’s format itself. Though the agenda only allowed for comments from the public, speakers demanded replies from commissioners as well. The audience’s insistence ultimately pushed Linda Winkler, the vice-chair of the commission and acting chair, to motion for time specifically reserved for questions and answers.
“This is important enough to me as a Black community person and a person who cares about this town, that we have dialogue,” Beckley said. “When you don’t talk to us, it just makes us feel like we’re not important, and this is just something that you designed. I know how hard Dwight Wilson worked on this report. Don’t throw us off like that because you’re going to do nothing but anger us. We’re trying to work with you. I’m not going to sit here another 70 years and see this happen in my community. Please talk to us.”
The resulting extra time for discussion centered around the commission’s concrete takeaways from the forum and commissioners emphasized that all concerns voiced will ultimately be passed on for City Council's consideration. Though the report is only a set of nonbinding considerations, commissioners and community members agreed that the commission, the community and White, the incoming police chief, need to engage in more discussion before the report appears on the council’s agenda.