Key figures in police accountability reflect on progress of last 5 years

Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 6:17pm

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Design by Betsy Stubbs

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. 

In the five years since the 2014 police shooting death of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser, the city’s law enforcement has worked to undertake reform and increase transparency. While certain city leaders and activists have since left town or moved to new positions, work to increase accountability for law enforcement continues, both in Ann Arbor and elsewhere. 

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor was sworn in less than 24 hours after Rosser was shot. In response to the shooting, he posted on a public statement on Facebook, saying that, while “appalling racial injustice and disparity continue to degrade our society and must be fought at every turn,” he also saw the reaction of Officer Reid, the officer who shot Rosser,  as justified because he believed his life was in danger. 

In a recent interview with The Daily, Mayor Taylor cited specific programs that have been enhanced in response to Rosser’s death. He specifically discussed Ann Arbor’s renewed emphasis on training and implementing more body cameras among police officers. The city approved upgrades to police in-car and body cameras in December 2014.

“The Ann Arbor Police Department takes training very seriously and has always taken training seriously,” Taylor said. “After the death of Ms. Rosser, we emphasized training in connection with mental illness, bias and de-escalation. We also at the time did a process obtaining body cameras, and that process was accelerated. We (are) now on the second or third generation of body cameras, just recently. That’s an important part of maintaining public confidence.”

In February 2016, James Baird was appointed as police chief. In 2018, Baird announced he would step down from his position in Ann Arbor. Currently, Baird serves as the Chief of the Breckenridge Police Department in Breckenridge, Colorado.

In an email interview with The Daily, Baird noted reforms implemented throughout his tenure, including body camera implementation, de-escalation and implicit bias training and a national accreditation process. He discussed how Rosser’s death inevitably impacted the actions he took during his tenure, specifically in the realm of supporting officers while simultaneously building community trust. 

“I suppose it would be inevitable that an incident of this magnitude would have an effect on how I ran the department, especially considering how rarely lethal force had been necessary in Ann Arbor, primarily balancing the competing priorities of building trust in the community with the need to support the officers doing an incredibly difficult job under increasingly trying circumstances,” Baird wrote.

Taylor also discussed the new police chief, Michael Cox. Cox held multiple roles in the Boston Police Department before his appointment as Chief of Ann Arbor Police.

“He has a long and important history. He has emphasized his desire to expand community policing, and make sure that officers are engaged with all members of the community,” Taylor said of Cox.

During his selection process, Cox disclosed that, in 1995, he had been the victim of an assault and subsequent cover-up by fellow officers. Cox was beaten while undercover, after officers believed he was a Black gang member suspected for a fatal shooting. Cox has since said he is “very aware of bad policing.” 

In an interview with The Daily, Cox discussed his commitment to community policing, and specifically getting individuals to interact with police in order to build trust. 

“The goal is really just to get the officers out into the public so we can build some more trust,” Cox said. “We’re going out and revitalizing those and meeting people and introducing the officers to them.”

In response to Rosser’s death in 2014, student activists from various organizations began to take action. Notably, University of Michigan alum Austin McCoy, was a Ph.D. student in the history department when he became a student organizer with activist group Ann Arbor to Ferguson. He participated in demonstrations following the shooting.

“I spoke at the rally, and then from there, folks began to organize a group that would try to address this issue surrounding Aura Rosser’s murder shortly after,” McCoy said. “I was already involved with many of the organizers on campus, but this was the first time that many of us began to work with folks in the community to try to, at least, change the way policing was done in Ann Arbor.” 

While changes were enacted in response to the protests, they were not as substantial as what organizers were seeking, McCoy said. 

“There were some reforms,” McCoy said. “I think people in City Council and even the mayor began to, at least, highlight the notion that white supremacy sort of exists, but they admitted it generally, and in a very abstract manner. They weren’t ever going to say that Aura Rosser’s murder was the result of structural racism.” 

McCoy is now an assistant professor of world history and African-American history at Auburn University. He reflected that though he, like many other organizers at the time of Rosser’s death, has moved on from U-M, activism must continue, as the issues they touch are pertinent to this day.  

“Most of us aren’t there anymore, but that doesn’t mean that those issues still aren’t salient, and it doesn’t mean that the mayor, folks on city council, the police department can now relax, because unfortunately Black folks … are just one terrible encounter with a police officer away from death,” McCoy said.