Community looks back on policing reform efforts in AAPD

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 11:31pm

Community members gathered outside of City Hall to remember Aura Ross at a vigil in November 2017.

Community members gathered outside of City Hall to remember Aura Ross at a vigil in November 2017. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

This article is part of a Michigan Daily series reflecting on the five years since Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser was fatally shot by police officer David Ried while responding to a call on Nov. 10, 2014.  Rosser, a Black woman afflicted by a mental illness, was a 40-year-old mother of three. On Jan. 30, 2015, the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s report justified Ried’s action as “lawful defense.” No charges were brought against him. 

The city of Ann Arbor has undertaken a variety of reforms in the half-decade since an officer shot and killed Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser in 2014. However, as police brutality remains a widespread issue nationwide, efforts to improve transparency and increase accountability have led students and experts to call for more to be done.

LSA junior Jasmine Penny explained that as a resident adviser in Martha Cook Residence Hall, she deals with police in an official capacity. But as a Black female student, she avoids unnecessary interactions with the police.

“As an RA, just about anything that goes wrong, you call the police,” Penny said. “So, you have to have a sense of trust in them. But when I’m out of the building, I feel a little more on guard. It’s not that I’ve personally had a bad interaction with the Ann Arbor police, but just in my history of growing up, you don’t fully trust the police. You stay more on guard and tend to avoid unnecessary interactions.” 

Penny noted that both nationwide and at the University, law enforcement has been the subject of complaints about over-policing.

“I think it would take a very long time to bridge the gap, because of the distrust in general,” Penny said. “Especially if we live in a lower-income community, we might not trust the police to come out and help, but that’s also on the police to up their standards on how they handle things.” 

Training in police de-escalation tactics is a reform measure supported by members of the law enforcement community and experts. According to Ann Arbor Police Department Chief Michael Cox, AAPD officers receive training in de-escalation, as well as implicit bias training. A new addition to training, however, is incorporating an awareness of mental health. Cox said AAPD and Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department officers are working with community mental health departments to recognize and de-escalate situations with citizens who have mental health issues. 

“Not only do we have that for that unit, but we have access to those people 24 hours a day,” Cox said. “So, when officers go to a scene and we run across people that may be challenged with some type of mental health issue, that we have resources to call to help us deal with people.” 

Students, activists and advocacy groups across campus and the city have called for overarching criminal justice reform, citing police brutality as a reflection of a biased system. Law School professor Eve Primus explained the issues are interconnected and require multiple focuses. 

“Structural reform in the criminal justice system involves lots of different actors. Obviously, when you have a system that’s as complex as the criminal justice system is, and has as many inherent problems as the criminal justice system does, any reform — to be effective — is going to have to address all the different branches involved,” Primus said. “Police is one component of that. I do think police reform is important, but it’s once piece of a larger puzzle.”

Primus said the community plays a large role in any type of police reform.

“It absolutely is the case that community trust of the police will affect the police’s ability to do the job that they want to accomplish,” Primus said. “If the community doesn’t trust the police force, that will have adverse impacts on the police force’s ability to investigate and solve crimes.”

Public Policy senior Chris Young is an Ann Arbor native and remembers the protests after Rosser’s death. He emphasized community engagement as the key to trust-building and said community engagement requires an honest effort from all stakeholders. 

“I think it comes down to informal communication, and that’s not something that can be required, because if you’re a police chief or a city councilmember and you go to your local police force and say, ‘I want you to do X number of hours of community engagement,’ police are going to check-in and check-out,” Young said. “It needs to come from a genuine willingness on both sides to make things better for the community in terms of attitude.”

Cox, who was officially sworn in in September, previously worked in Boston for over 30 years. In an interview with The Daily, Cox said a significant part of reform is rectifying the idea that police are only present in emergencies or dangerous situations. 

“Getting officers out in participating more community policing — I didn’t invent it, but it’s certainly something that Ann Arbor hasn’t done in quite a while,” Cox said. “I don’t know if we call that a reform, but that’s certainly something we’re practicing.  

One of the first concrete actions taken after Rosser’s death in November 2014 was equipping the city police with body cameras, which passed City Council in a month following pressure from student and community protesters. This September, Ann Arbor signed a $373,000 contract for new police body cameras built by Axon Enterprise, Inc. because of frequent malfunctioning errors of the existing cameras in the past year. 

Cox commented on the benefits of body cameras, despite their costliness. According to Cox, they are a useful tool to review emotionally-charged situations from a more objective perspective.

“Humans’ memories are not as reliable as what we think all the time,” Cox said. “Cameras are just tremendous at helping us resolve a lot of those kind of cases because we have evidence that we normally wouldn’t have.”

Young said Ann Arbor was not insulated from the same issues happening across the country, adding that reforms must go beyond equipment.

“Even though I’m a policy student, I don’t think policy is the way to go about those things,” Young said. “I remember when body cameras first started to be used more, and people were thinking that this would be the end of all of these issues, and we can see very clearly, half a decade later, that’s not the case.”

Cox said police officers should adapt new methods as the profession develops, comparing it to other fields such as medicine.

“You know, just in general, some of our policies and procedures may change in the future, but I'm in the middle of reviewing all of those that we have quite a few,” Cox said. “So it’s going to take some time.”

Despite the efforts at reform, Penny said she is still concerned for the future.

“I’m not optimistic for the future, because even though there are now the body cams, there are still unnecessary Black shootings,” Penny said. “If that’s still happening in 2019, where are they going to go from here?”

Penny emphasized that increasing diversity among law enforcement does not just mean race, but background experience and familiarity with the community. 

“If you don’t trust the police, you’re not going to want to be a cop. So, it can’t just be a blanket increase of Black officers or people of color, but it would have to be an increase of trust as well,” Penny said “These people need to know what the disparages of those communities are, and not people who are just like, ‘Oh, I lived on the outskirts of the east side of Detroit, so I’m going to be a Detroit cop.’ But you don’t really know what’s going on in the east side, you just know what you hear.” 

Cox said the perception of police officers nationally impacted the department’s efforts to increase diversity among its ranks and attract high-quality recruits.

“One of the things I think I harken back to — you know, good people coming to the police department,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of good people here. Good people, no matter what organization they’re in, they won’t stand by and let a lot of bad things happen. They want to make change; they want to make changes from within.”