Law students reflect on AAPD discretion with ride-along program

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 9:40pm

On the corner of two major streets just outside downtown Ann Arbor, Police Officer Christopher Hoffman parks behind a tree that conceals his squad car to passersby, about 10 feet away from the intersection. He focuses intently on the cars passing through, never once taking his gaze off the road. It’s a Saturday night and this is his usual haunt when it’s “slow” during his 12-hour shift.  

He’s looking for cars that go through one of the four stop signs that mark each road at the intersection. Several cars commit a “roll-stop,” only braking slightly before passing through, but he decides not to stop any of them.

“I’m looking for the ones that speed through, without stopping at all,” he said.

Ten minutes pass, and a car speeds through the stop sign. Gas to the pedal, Hoffman turns on his sirens and chases after the car. The car pulls over in a vacant lot, and after asking the driver a few questions, reviewing the video footage from the camera on the front of his police car and checking the driver's record — clean for the past seven years —Hoffman decides to let her off with a warning.

“She’s visiting her sister and isn’t under the influence, plus she has a squeaky-clean record,” he said. “And I’m feeling generous since it’s my first day back (after two weeks of unpaid paternity leave).”

The Daily was allowed to participate in a ride-along, a program in which police departments invite citizens to shadow a police officer for a shift, or part of a shift. Participants must sign a waiver and are assigned to ride with an officer based on a rotational schedule. The program allows citizens to “see firsthand the daily workings of law enforcement and gain a better understanding of the challenges and rewards of being a police officer.”

“A lot of people look at police work as kind of a secretive-type thing and it’s not, we’re just average people. We’re trying out there to do a good job,” Hoffman said. “And I think the ride-along program lets people see that, lets people see why we do what we do, our motivations. So, I think it’s good to bridge a community gap that there is.”

One University of Michigan Law School elective, Policing and Public Safety, taught by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy and former U.S. Attorney Saul Green, requires students to engage with the police during the semester either by completing a ride-along with an area police department or by attending a police-community meeting. The requirement was designed to expose future lawyers to the daily implementation of the law and help them understand what it is like to be a police officer.

Law School student Samantha Jackson, whose father is the deputy sheriff of St. Clair County, took the elective because of her familial connection to law enforcement. Even though she’s been exposed to police work from a young age, during her ride-along with the Wayne State Police Department, she said she learned just how much each department can vary.

“In my town, my dad has so much pride in his career and is really passionate about helping people, and that’s the kind of perception I grew up with,” Jackson said. “And it wasn’t until I stepped out of that town that I saw the corruption that many police departments suffer from, the unfair treatment, how it’s just so incredibly different — every single police department can really vary a lot.”

Professor of Law Eve Primus, who teaches Criminal Procedure, a popular elective at the Law School, encourages her students to participate in ride-alongs , but does not require them to take part. 

“When courts interpret laws or interpret the constitution, and when the legislature makes laws, they do it in light of what they think are concerns that police officers face, so I think it’s important for students to have exposure and to meet with police officers to form their own judgments, whether they think those concerns are accurate, or valid, or things the law should or shouldn’t take into account,” Primus said.

Law School student Thea Marriott said aside from providing legal perspective, ride-alongs allow people to amend misconceptions about police officers. 

“I think it’s a really beneficial thing to do,” Marriott said. “I think a lot of people have sort of an imaginary idea in their head of what the police actually do, and a lot of it is more social-community work than policing robbers or something like that.”

Law School student Asma Husain believes understanding how the police work is an important part of being a lawyer, because police officers are the facet of law enforcement that people interact with most often. 

“Criminal law and policing is the vast majority of the average person’s interaction with the legal system, and most people don’t interact with lawyers, they interact with the police,” Husain said. “I think it’s a responsibility of people who deal with the law to see (the legal system) from the perspective that people are most often going to, and being aware of not just what police are doing for communities but the amount of power they have over communities and how they’re using the law.”

In the Policing and Public Safety elective, about half of the students chose to participate in a ride-along. Jackson said that most of them had positive experiences, and it increased their respect for the work police do.

“Some of my classmates expressed that they had a more negative perspective of the police, but after the ride-along, they still saw problems, and it didn’t completely change anything, but they had a little more respect and understanding for the work that police try to do, as imperfect as it can be,” Jackson said.

One problem discussed frequently in the elective was the copious amount of discretion police have.

“Police have so much discretion,” Jackson said. “You know, we have these laws, tons of laws, but they’re not perfectly enforced and unfortunately they’re often not evenly enforced. That’s the cynical view, and there’s a lot of truth to that. We literally don’t have the resources, no community, no police department, has the resources to fully enforce every single law, to catch every person speeding on the highway. So they have to make choices, and it’s interesting to see what forms those choices and to be aware of it and to speak up if you disagree.”

In recent years, this amount of discretion has come under fire, with activists suggesting it disproportionately harms communities of color. AAPD has recently been the subject of public scrutiny as the city attempts to implement accountability measures—almost four years ago, a white AAPD officer shot and killed Aura Rosser, a Black Ann Arbor resident. Earlier in February, City Council passed a resolution allowing for citizen oversight over the formation of a police review board.  

After participating in a ride-along at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, Husain said she can understand how the amount of freedom police officers are granted could affect communities of color in unassuming ways.

“I think I had kind of an outsider’s perspective of the statistical disparities in what happens to communities of color in dealing with the police and what that looks like,” Husain said. “But I think seeing how the police operate on a day-to-day basis, I got a more informed view of how that might happen and what attitudes might perpetuate that, and not even to be too forgiving, but it’s not a matter of, ‘Oh, here are the police who go out saying I’m going to be looking at people of color harsher than I am going to be looking at your typical white citizen.’ I think seeing that from the officer’s perspective as well is useful, especially if you’re working on remedying those problems and actually coming up with viable solutions.”