Police chief candidates pledge to work with oversight commission, pursue community policing as head of AAPD

Sunday, May 19, 2019 - 9:46pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Ann Arbor City Council interviewed three candidates to lead the Ann Arbor Police Department during a work session Friday morning, asking about previous law enforcement experience and plans for working with the recently formed police oversight commission.

Michael Cox of Boston, Bryan Jarrell of Arizona and Ann Arbor’s Jason Forsberg are the three candidates vying to fill the position vacated by Police Chief Jim Baird in March 2018. Robert Pfannes has been serving as interim police chief since that time but will retire on Friday after 21 years of service.

During their public interviews, Forsberg, Cox and Jarrell each addressed a variety of topics ranging from management styles and innovation in policing to dealing with people who suffer from mental health problems and substance abuse.

The issue of the new chief working with the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission came up frequently during the interviews. Since its creation last fall, the body was the subject of months of debate over its structure and authority. Each of the candidates said working with the commission and developing community ties would be essential.

Forsberg lauded the commission, saying it would be a tool for building trust between community members and police officers.

“I think the policing commission is a great opportunity to begin bridging that gap,” Forsberg said. “We really only do begin building trust by having transparency — having accountability within the ranks. But we do a lot of great work right now that, I feel like, people just don’t know about.”

Cox said Boston already had a police oversight commission, and that, as a member of the department’s internal affairs, he worked with the group “quite often.”

“There’s a lot of anxiety, both from the officers and sometimes from the public perspective about oversight, and I look at it as a sense that — you hear ‘transparency’ used a lot — but the fact is, we don’t really have anything to hide,” Cox said. “I think in policing we don’t always educate the public or educate folks on what we do or how we do it, and the oversight commission is just an opportunity for that education process to exist in a more transparent way.”

Jarrell said the commission would increase accountability and improve the department’s performance.

“I completely support the mission and the purpose of the commission,” Jarrell said. “Somebody asked me back home, ‘Don’t you think that’s going to be a problem?’ and I said, ‘No.’ The way I plan on selling it to the police department is, if you turn your homework in to your teacher and you know that they’re not going to look at it, how good of a job are you going to do? You’re probably not. If I know that somebody is going to be looking at the work that we do and evaluating what we do, doesn’t that help us do a better job?”

All agreed improving trust in law enforcement should be a priority for the next head of the AAPD.

Cox said it is up to law enforcement to admit when they are wrong as well as explain why they are right when they determine they had acted appropriately in certain situations.

“We have a lot of challenges in policing right, in policing in general,” Cox said. “Most of it really comes from public perception. Some of it’s our own doing, and then some of it maybe not so much. I think it’s really important for officers to really understand what people want out, what we’re here for, the customer service portion of policing and the value that we bring to people in the sense that we’re public servants, but the fact is that people want to be respected and treated well.”

Jarrell identified public mistrust as one of two primary challenges facing law enforcement.

“The first one is the loss of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and recruiting and hiring, and I’m going to tell you those two things are absolutely connected and interrelated. You don’t hire and recruit the right people to put into the neighborhoods, you’re never going to gain the trust of the people that you’re serving.”

Forsberg echoed both Jarrell’s and Cox’s thoughts.

“I think one of the most significant challenges police officers face is earning the trust of the community,” Forsberg said. “I think that at times there is a lack of trust within the community for the motivation of what police officers are doing. I think we believe that our motivations are in the right place, but I think there are ways we can bridge the gap between how we are and how we would like to be seen.”

Forsberg noted the need to increase diversity in law enforcement, saying the majority of graduates from the police academy were “young white men.”

“What we noticed when we go to recruit at the police academy for police officers, there’s a lack of diversity of people that are graduating from the police academies,” Forsberg said.

Forsberg highlighted a plan to create a non-sworn officer position, called police service specialist cadet, which would allow someone to get experience working in the department and then, after a year, become eligible for sponsorship to attend the police academy.

Jarrell said he plans to work with local chapters of the NAACP to increase diversity in hiring in addition to using national databases to find potential officers who may be based outside of the state.

Cox said the ability to recruit police officers was impacted by public perception of law enforcement.

“I think we need to do a better job through engagement with the public of reaching out to, certainly, younger people to get them interested in policing,” Cox said. “I think there’s a whole group of this generation of kids out there that want to give back in every way possible. There’s no better job to give back in than in policing, but yet that is not what the narrative is out there. There’s less and less young people who want to do this job.”

Councilmembers also asked Jarrell about how he would approach immigration enforcement at a time when federal agencies are cracking down on people without citizenship status.

“My position on immigration was, ‘I don’t care what your immigration status is or your documentation status is, as long as you’re not committing some other crime, I don’t care,’” Jarrell said.

Jarrell said he had received pushback from some people who felt undocumented immigrants should be prosecuted for crossing the border illegally, and that he had received hate mail for his stance.

“I’ve learned two things in my career: Number one, I’m not going to make everyone happy, and number two — knowing number one — I’m going to do what I think is the right thing so I can sleep at night,” Jarrell said. “I felt I did the right thing and the department supported me, the town supported me, the administration as well as (Prescott Valley City) Council, so I felt pretty confident that I’d done the right thing.”

Cox told City Council he was not interested in politicizing the debate over police officers’ role in immigration.

“One of the good things is that, as a police chief — although it is very political — we’re not politicians, so I don’t think we should engage in that conversation; but the conversation about protecting the citizens that work in that community, that’s something we should do,” Cox said. “I think, certainly, whether it’s with you all or whether it’s with the mayor, having conversations about what you all think it best for the community, well, that would go into how we enforce or not enforce things. But I don’t think, publicly, that it’s my role or would be my role to spar with the federal government, so to speak.”

Previous experience in law enforcement was a constant topic of discussion during the interviews. Jarrell noted mistakes he had made in his tenure as police chief in Prescott Valley, including an incident when he misplaced a handgun and was suspended for two days. He also described different controversies he had faced, including dealing with connections between law enforcement and a motorcycle gang that got into a bar fight.

Councilmembers asked Cox if he believed it would be difficult to transition from working in a large city like Boston to a city of Ann Arbor’s size. Cox said he did not think it would be very hard and noted that his son had gone to school at the University of Michigan, so he already had ties to Ann Arbor.

“Size is relative, I guess, but it’s what you’re using it for,” Cox said. “I worked as a zone commander ... it was an area that had about 120,000 people, and it had about a little less than 200 officers. It would be very similar to being here as far as size.”

Jarrell, who has family in southeast Michigan, said regardless of whether or not he was named chief of AAPD, he planned to move back to the region.

“My wife and I are coming back to Michigan regardless. Actually, we’ve already sold our house, and we have a closing date, so we’re coming back one way or another,” Jarrell said. “I tried retirement once and I didn’t like it. I don’t think I am ready for it just yet either.”

Forsberg said he was excited to continue his career at AAPD, regardless of the position.

“I really love the city of Ann Arbor,” Forsberg said. “Whether I’m deputy chief or chief — hopefully chief — I plan to spend my entire career here.”