Police oversight commission provides a voice for the community

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 2:38pm

The Independent Community Police Oversight Commission at a meeting in Larcom City Hall in October.

The Independent Community Police Oversight Commission at a meeting in Larcom City Hall in October. Buy this photo
Alex Baker/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. 

When Lisa Jackson, community activist and University of Michigan alum, first applied for a seat on Ann Arbor’s newly formed Independent Community Police Oversight Commission this February, she understood what tensions the city was seeking to fix.

According to Jackson, the creation of the Oversight Commission — on which she now serves as chair — was inextricably linked to the death of Aura Rosser, a Black woman with mental illness who was shot and killed by Ann Arbor police responding to a 911 call, five years ago Saturday. In the wake of Rosser’s death and the investigation that followed, the community demanded increased police accountability and community oversight of police authority. 

“I think most people could say that perhaps there were many segments of the community that didn’t trust the police very much,” Jackson said. “But after that, I think if you didn’t trust the police, you probably felt that your mistrust was well placed.”

Jackson acknowledges the incident caught many in the community off guard, particularly for a city like Ann Arbor, where previous to 2014, a police-involved shooting had not occurred for more than 30 years. But for Jackson, the anomaly of Rosser’s death made it all the more poignant.

“I think, because it happened that one time, it was hugely powerful,” Jackson said. “It confirmed what a lot of people felt — that the police don’t value people of color very much, or people with mental psychological disorders much, or people whom they perceive to be less valuable than other people. I’m not saying that’s true. What I’m saying is that there was a perception, and then that incident confirmed that perception.”

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie was prosecuting attorney on the case. In a 12-page memo released in January 2015, Mackie determined the officer who killed Rosser had acted in self-defense and labeled the incident as “justifiable homicide.”

In the months following Rosser’s death, a concerted effort was made by the police department and the city to reform the policies of local authorities. Body cameras were made standard for all officers. Police instituted new training on de-escalation and implicit bias. In March of this year, 11 local volunteers, including Jackson, were named to the Commission by Ann Arbor City Council. About a month later, the committee went to work. 

The members of the commission see clear areas for reform in Ann Arbor.

Jackson, who previously served as Board President of Ozone House — a nonprofit that supports and gives shelter to homeless and high-risk youth in the Ann Arbor area — said she felt she had a unique perspective to bring to the commission. In deciding whether to apply to the commission, Jackson recalled her work at Ozone House.

“I know that homeless kids come in contact with police disproportionate to other kids,” Jackson said. “I know that they’re super vulnerable. They need help. Well, lots of times, that’s not necessarily the sort of encounters that they have with police right now. So that was the driving force for me, to think about how those kids are treated and how we can do better by them.”

The committee only emerged several years after Rosser’s death, and was the product of months of collaboration between community activists and elected town officials. 

Several months after Rosser’s death, the city’s Human Rights Commission spent $200,000 to contract a report from Hillard Heintze, a risk management firm specializing in law enforcement consulting. While the report deemed AAPD to be a “professional organization staffed with committed officers,” it encouraged the city to develop a practice of community policing, namely by way of an independent oversight commission.

“When significant policing incidents occur, from the Aura Rosser shooting to officer-involved vehicle accidents, they become discussion points in the overall community dialogue,” the report read. “However, the AAPD’s voice — regarding facts, action and outcomes — is often absent from such discussion, because the department does not routinely engage in community meetings or other forums regarding policing actions.”

By surveying the Ann Arbor population, another key finding of the Hillard Heintze report was the desire for transparency in police policies and practices, a sentiment that existed prior to the Rosser’s death.

“Many also seek to have a stronger understanding of police practices, internal investigations and their outcomes,” the report said. “Some community members and their representatives said the lack of transparency and responsiveness to their issues generates concern over whether the police are accountable to the public and, in turn, how that affects police behavior.”

In the months and years following Rosser’s death, Ann Arborites pushed for the creation of an oversight commission staffed by members of the community.

One community member named Dwight Wilson, who serves as chair of the Human Rights Commission Subcommittee on Police Oversight, volunteered more than 2,000 hours studying police oversight boards. He used his own funds to travel to California, New York and Washington, D.C. to speak with local officials and oversight commissioners in other cities. Later, Wilson served on the task force formed by the city to evaluate the possibility of forming a police oversight commission for Ann Arbor. 

In a speech to City Council in October 2018, Wilson was vocal about the need to move forward with an oversight commission, posing it as “the last shot we’re going to get for the next 20 or 30 years to do things right.” 

To a mixture of laughter and applause from those in attendance, Wilson summed up his message to city officials:

“The last thing that I want to really see is double-watered-down Kool-Aid being passed off as being Scotch,” he said.

In a written statement to The Daily, Wilson said while blame cannot be assigned fully on either side, the new commission ensures police-related deaths or other incidents will be investigated fully and fairly.

“It may be true that no one should be happier than the majority of the police force who genuinely try to do what is honorable,” Wilson wrote. “I have no idea how many officers cross the line, but relatives and friends who are law enforcement officers are clear that they know of no force, including their own, where 100% of the officers walk the straight line. Their reputations are protected when the disreputable are held accountable. As for the victims of killings, brutality and disrespect, police oversight is our best hope.”

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the process of building the oversight commission was one of cooperation between city government and residents. Not only were community members like Wilson instrumental in pushing for the commission’s formation, but elected officials likewise pushed for new police training and reforms.

“I would characterize us as working together on this,” Taylor said. “After the death of Ms. Rosser, which everyone internally and externally views as a tragedy, we in City Hall and the community wanted to make sure that our officers had the training they need. They were well-trained before, we wanted to make sure that these areas were again emphasized, because these are issues of growing importance and growing vulnerability.”

As for the reasons behind the push for augmented police training and department transparency, Taylor said he had no doubt as to what set those events in motion.

“The conversation around policing, the Human Rights Commission request for an external review, the receipt of that review, the recommendations of that review, I think those were absolutely conducted in response to the death of Ms. Rosser,” Taylor said.

The creation of the commission was not without disagreement. Community activists repeatedly criticized city officials throughout the process, citing complaints about who was allowed to serve on the task force that laid the groundwork for the commission as well as the powers that would ultimately be granted to the body

In March 2018, City Council blocked local activist Shirley Beckley from sitting on the task force, citing a statement she had made more than two years earlier. Frustrated by the lack of consequences for David Ried, the Ann Arbor police officer who shot and killed Rosser, Beckley told City Council in November 2015, “If you won't at least fire Officer Ried, then ... let’s string him up.”

At the March 2018 meeting, Beckley refused to walk back the comment. 

“Back then it was very hurtful to see a Black woman killed and not helped, especially when she was a mental health patient and you all know that,” Beckley said at the March 2018 meeting. “My ancestors have been strung up, lynched, run over, babies cut out of their bellies, families separated. We’re still looking for families. I’m not going to apologize for my anger. Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’ve been here 75 years. No, I haven’t seen any progress. We have made progress to have a task force and I’m happy about that. It doesn’t really matter if I’m on there or not. The fact that you did it is a plus, and I’m very happy about that.”

The resolution establishing the commission was steeped in controversy as well. Taylor offered up his own version of a draft put forward by the citizen-led task force to avoid legal gray areas and comply with the city charter and Ann Arbor Police Department’s collective bargaining agreement. After the task forces oversight commission proposal was rejected by councilmembers at an October 2018 City Council meeting, members of the audience walked out, chanting, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” City Council ultimately moved forward with Taylor’s version, despite concerns from community members that the mayor’s iteration lacked teeth and would be unable to provide effective oversight.

 

However, now that the commission is up and running, Taylor said a more effective conduit for communication has been created between police and the larger community. 

“What the Police Oversight Commission has been doing for the past couple of months is learning,” Taylor said. “You have civilians whose job it is to serve as an interface between the community and the police department, to oversee the police department by way of introducing a community voice into the policies and practices of the police department, understanding what the police do and why they do it, communicating that to the community and understanding the impact and consequences and perception of those policies and practices and communicating that back to the police.”

But since its formation, Jackson said, the commission has done much more. On a given day, Jackson and her fellow commissioners may meet with police or community members or share ideas with commissioners from similar oversight boards across the country. Jackson herself has even reached out to several student groups at the University, including the Black Student Psychological Association, of which Jackson is a former member, to determine how interactions between students and police can be aided by the commission.

One group supportive of the push towards transparent policing is the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, a student organization advocating for the rights of undocumented students and community members. LSA senior Barbara Diaz and LSA junior Sandra Perez are both members of SCOPE and look at the oversight commissions that have been created in Ann Arbor and elsewhere as a means for improvements to be made in the relationship between undocumented people and local police.

“I think there’s always going to be that underlying anxiety,” Perez said. “Whenever you see, you know, someone in a uniform — because it is what they do, or what they’re required to do is abide by the laws of the government, the laws of local law enforcement, there’s always going to be that concern among the undocumented community.”

But Diaz said in many cases, resolving the issue of mistrust between undocumented communities and local police requires resolving more foundational issues than police reform. 

“When you’re talking about immigrant communities, undocumented communities and feeling safe with trusting public government institutions such as the police, I think it really does come down to immigration reform as a whole,” Diaz said. “Just because, at the end of the day you are still undocumented. From growing up, you’re not inclined to even go to the hospital, let alone go seek help from the police, just because you are already hyper-aware that something could happen to you if they ask too many questions.”

And as the head of the newly formed oversight commission, the need to build a sense of trust between law enforcement and communities of color is something Lisa Jackson is acutely aware of. 

“I know police officers, and I understand there are some really good police officers,” Jackson said. “I also understand that African Americans in this community don’t feel like we’re treated exactly the same. We don’t have that expectation. And so I know that there’s a place somewhere for us to do better.”

Editor's note: Additional context providing other perspectives on the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission has been added to this article after initial publication due to reader feedback received by The Daily.