In creation of police review board, residents find new optimism but remain vigilant
Following Monday night’s City Council meeting, city staff and community members are largely satisfied with the council’s commitment to thorough representation and the decision to limit city and police influence on structuring the new police review board. However, the public remains concerned about how community members will be appointed to the task force and the possibility that the task force won’t grant investigative powers to the review board.
Ann Arbor City residents formed Transforming Justice Washtenaw, a local organization dedicated to ensuring transparency during the creation of the review board, after the city first initiated its review of the Ann Arbor Police Department process. TJW member Julie Quiroz highlighted the group’s main accomplishment at Monday’s meeting — creating a primarily citizen-based review process and limiting the city staff and police to serve solely as advisers to the task force, which she said was a really “important victory.”
The task force will have 11 voting members, all of whom will be Ann Arbor residents. Though city staff and police will not have voting rights on the task force, City Administrator Howard Lazarus emphasized the importance of their guidance to ensure lawful and appropriate practices, justifying the appointment of two councilmembers as non-voting members of the task force.
HRC will propose the recommended list of members for the task force to the City Council on March 19. The target date to vote on the task force’s charter — outlining the roles, responsibilities, and structure of the commission — is planned for Sept. 4.
“As this task force considers the roles, responsibilities and authorities of the commission, the staff will be there for finance, policing, legal — all there to provide some guidance and structure to the discussion to make sure that what the task force recommends are legal and sustainable and emulate best practices,” Lazarus said.
Based on the amendments made to the resolution Monday, councilmembers said they were committed to recruiting representative residents of the Ann Arbor community. TJW hopes these task force members will draw from a variety of minority groups most impacted by unchecked policing and ideally include social work and mental health professionals.
“(City Council) did make a commitment to representation, so we want to hold them to that commitment,” Quiroz said in an interview. “We’re also really glad to see the amendment that really made a commitment to representation of communities most impacted by policing and most understanding of what’s needed –– that includes residents themselves, Black, Latino, Trans and that includes people who are practitioners of restorative justice, social workers and others who can bring a deep understanding of issues to the task force.”
However, Human Rights Commission member Dwight Wilson raised concerns about convincing members of minority groups to join the task force. Based on his past interviews with minority residents for other positions, some citizens are apprehensive about being in the public eye and risking their careers and livelihoods.
“I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and consistently those of color, especially Black men, they have said to me that they don’t want to be out front and they don’t want to be targeted,” Wilson said. “There’s such a lack of trust that they don’t even want their name on a list and it’s sad.”
Though the HRC primarily deals with concerns of social justice and diversity in the community, the amendment to give the commission the power to elect or confirm task force members was not passed. Instead, HRC will review the pool of applicants and recommend 11 selected residents to the City Council. Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, said he was unsatisfied with this decision, since it could jeopardize the representative nature of the task force.
“I’m a little disappointed because I think the attempt to include the HRC in a more powerful position was meant to ensure that our desire for a broad cross section of the community was accomplished,” Eaton said. “While I’m disappointed, I believe we are still going to end up with a fairly good task force because elected officials know they are answering to this broad community.”
Once HRC brings the recommendations to the council, Mayor Christopher Taylor will appoint who will sit on the task force. Wilson raised concerns about placing this deciding power in the hands of the mayor and limiting the power of the HRC, whose members are also selected by the mayor.
“The makeup (of the HRC) would be much different if the mayor did not hold that power in the city charter, and there’s no doubt that who he approves is not who I’d approve,” Wilson said. “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt because I’ve met with him on several occasions and it seems to me that he wants to do the right thing.”
The task force’s primary responsibility will be to write a charter outlining the structure and guidelines for the final commission. Eaton emphasized the need for proper demographic data-collection abilities to make informed decisions once the resulting board is formed.
“I hope that the commission will also look at policies and practices and training. I am very hopeful that they will look at demographics,” Eaton said. “Who is it that’s getting pulled over in traffic stops? There’s a lot discretion that an officer exercises when they’re enforcing the law and we want to make sure it’s not focusing on people for gender or race.”
Quiroz highlighted the commission’s role in enforcing preventative measures, such as ensuring proper police training.
“We need to understand does Ann Arbor have a commitment to de-escalation training and what does that look like?” Quiroz said. “Police officers can be trained to come into a situation and either throw someone to the ground or they can be trained in ways to deescalate and diffuse the situation. And we don’t really know what that training looks like… Whether you think a police officer is a good person or a bad person isn’t the issue. It’s about having a system of checks and balances that is preventive and builds community strength not starting with police.”
Some say, however, the realm of what police can legally do still leaves room for misconduct. Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5, emphasized the need to broaden the scope of these policies and training measures through a restorative justice approach.
“The broader question of was there harm, how can that be repaired, are there policies or training changes we need to make to prevent similar harm in the future?” Warpehoski asked. “Those are the kind of questions that open up a more expansive approach to reviewing police activities and more along the lines that a restorative justice approach would take toward these interactions.”
Though city staff and community members agreed on the general policy and training review functions of the commission, both groups were split on what level of investigative power should be granted to the commission. At Monday’s City Council meeting, the council did not pass the amendment allowing for the commission to access confidential information for their police investigations. Originally, only public data was to be made available for investigative purposes; however, city and community members proposed the commission needed all relevant information to make informed reviews of complaints against police.
The task force will now take on the discussion of investigative power and propose their recommendations to the City Council in their charter.
Eaton said he was disappointed with this decision, and felt it will take a toll on how the task force tackles the issue and responds to the council.
“If you count the votes on council, which is the group that will eventually approve or disapprove of what this task force recommends, you can see there is division on that particular issue and that’s unfortunate because this task force is going to know that we disagree with how much authority a commission should have in investigating police complaints,” Eaton said. “It was a compromise and there’s still a lot of potential there but we sent a bad message to the task force that there isn’t broad support for real independence.”
Wilson highlighted the consequences of a commission lacking investigative power, such as being under the control of internal affairs and subsequently, the police.
“It saddens me because if the community cannot do investigation, then that means we will be at the mercy of internal affairs,” Wilson said. “Among the hundreds of people that I interviewed were police detectives and policemen on the street and each one of them told me you cannot trust internal affairs because internal affairs is being paid by the police and therefore is not effectively objective, so we need some type of objectivity.”
According to Warpehoski, the council aims to provide the commission with the utmost level of information possible without jeopardizing confidentiality and violating privacy laws.
“Whatever extent we can find a way to provide them with a high level of access to information, I think we should,” he said. “We don’t want to violate state or federal laws that prevent disclosure of information about minors or other people protected. We want to make sure that people who raise concerns, we can protect their privacy.”
With issues surrounding confidentiality, Eaton is sure the commission can be trusted with classified information, just like city staff is. Without this information, Eaton emphasized the commission will not be able to grasp the full situation and make an informed decision.
“We trust our staff to maintain confidences, and we trust our council members to maintain confidences, and to believe that we cannot trust a commission member to maintain confidences is kind of insulting to our residents,” Eaton said.
Wilson suggested at least one member of the commission should have access to any necessary confidential information.
“It may be what we need is a single person who is the director that at least will have access to everything, and she or he will need to have confidentiality — somebody needs to see everything,” Wilson said. “If not, then there’s no trust.”
Despite disagreements, Lazarus underscored the council’s overall support of moving the process forward to create a task force and subsequent commission.
“I think the fact that they took time to go word for word through the resolution and amendment shows they’re committed to this,” Lazarus said. “They didn’t agree on everything, but in the end they voted unanimously as a show of support and I think the resolution provides a good structure for us to move forward.”
City staff and community members are continuing to work together to find a balance between each party’s requests for the task force and commission.
“We got to this point because of the good work of the community in insisting on a good process and I trust that we will get to that end product with that same influence from activists in the community,” Eaton said.
Though the commission serves to review the police, members of the council assure their support and appreciation of the police and hope for further improvement.
“This process doesn’t mean that we’re going to find that our police are doing everything wrong, it's just going to give us enough information so that we can make improvements. We have a really excellent police department,” Eaton said. “I believe if we are doing proactive policing rather than reactive policing, that the officer has the ability to develop those personal relationships with the community that they don’t have time to do when they’re running from one call to the next.”
Overall, Lazarus highlighted the city staff and community’s aim to meet the same end goal — a functioning commission that will keep the police in check and build more trust within the Ann Arbor community.
“I remain excited about the path forward … it has been a challenge in many ways. I think the staff and I have kept true faith and allegiance with the community as we’ve gone through developing a scope of work and receiving a report from the outside consultant and translating that into action,” Lazarus said. “I think we all need to take a breath and appreciate the magnitude of what we’re doing and jump into it enthusiastically.”