At police-community forum, Ann Arbor residents voice concern over lack of transparency
Dozens of residents showed up to the Bryant Community Center in southern Ann Arbor Tuesday night to listen to and participate in a forum on police-community relations. The event was hosted by representatives of Hillard Heintze LLC, the Chicago-based security firm currently conducting a review of the Ann Arbor Police Department.
The first phase of the review — so far the only phase approved by City Council — consists of the firm gathering of data and listening to community and police perspectives through surveys and community forums. Then, the firm will present a report to City Council containing recommendations based on their findings.
Debra Kirby, the Senior Vice President of Law Enforcement Consulting at Hillard Heintze, said at the forum she anticipates the report will be delivered to the City around the end of July, and that she had received assurances from City Administrator Howard Lazarus that the report will be made public "once it's accepted by the city."
"I think that's an important step here, because in some cities, these types of reports never see the light of day," Kirby said. "And so Ann Arbor, the city itself, has put itself out there, willing to say, 'Come in, look at us, tell us what you see, and we're going to let the community know what we're hearing.' "
Many residents at the forum, however, expressed their frustration and disappointment both with the lack of transparency in the AAPD as well as the current progress of the review and the methods it had incorporated.
Local tensions around community-police relations intensified in November 2014 when Aura Rosser, a Black woman with bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by Ann Arbor police, and months later when the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office decided not to press charges against the officer on the grounds it was lawful self-defense. Ann Arbor resident Shirley Beckley said the review so far had not sufficiently included the people it was intended to benefit — Black residents.
"I was disappointed in the survey, and so I didn't fill it out. It was an insult to me," she said. "This all came about, really, because a Black woman was shot and killed here by the police. And so we, we being some of us in the community, we asked for this. And I've talked to several Black male students — they don't know anything about a survey, they haven't been talked to by you all."
In response, Kirby acknowledged she was not happy with the level of engagement they'd had with the Black community, but that they would have to proceed with what they'd gathered, and their absence would be accounted for.
"I think that what you've identified is also a reflection of whether or not there's a level of trust," she said. "And so all we can do is say that we're working toward it, and when this report is published, the next phase of this really goes back to saying, 'What are the community constituencies that come to the table, and work with the city and the police department to identify how Ann Arbor's going to be policed?' "
Ann Arbor resident Lori Saginaw voiced similar concerns as Beckley, saying if Hillard Heintze wasn't seeing the level of engagement it wanted, it was their responsibility to make engagement easier for residents.
"It's not necessarily an issue of mistrust. When I want young people to come to a meeting, I offer them pizza," she said. "I don't make obstacles for them to have to climb over in order to come if it's important that I hear their voice. So to have that be the only way — online, and a survey 50 questions long with the place where I can comment at the very end, if I make it there — is not pizza."
It wasn't just the firm's methods residents took issue with, either. Ann Arbor resident Maria Ibarra-Frayre noted Kirby's 28-year history with the Chicago Police Department — where she was Chief of the Bureau of Organizational Development — saying the perspective Kirby brought to the review may be negatively affecting its results.
"I very much get a cop feel from you," she said. "You are police officers or have worked in police enforcement. To be honest, as a person of color, I'm sensing a lot of defensiveness on your end at some of the things that we have brought up — so if that's the same tone as in interviews, I can see why you're getting a lot of people caring about traffic."
Although it is still not certain if such a recommendation will result from the review, and such a recommendation would not be binding to City Council, many residents hope the recommendations to the council will include the creation of a civilian oversight board for the AAPD. Ann Arbor Police Chief Jim Baird has publicly opposed the creation of an oversight board, stating in a memo to City Council last year he would only support it if it were recommended by a third party audit.
"Following an audit of the Ann Arbor Police Department is the logical time to evaluate whether a Civilian Police Review Board is warranted," he wrote. "The commission’s report does not identify or even suggest systemic issues within the ranks or leadership of the agency that would warrant such a step."
Addressing Baird's opposition to an oversight board, Ann Arbor resident Donnell Wyche — a senior pastor at Ann Arbor Vineyard Church and Chair of the Board of the Interfaith Council of Peace and Justice — wondered why there had to be systemic problems to demand such a board.
"From his point of view, civilian oversight is only necessary when there is systemic misconduct, which says to me that we have to have victims in our community that are present before he will recognize that there is a need for community oversight on what they're doing," he said.
Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1), who was present at the forum, agreed, saying it was a necessary check on a department of government that operated with few others.
"When the police chief or someone else says that we don't need community oversight because Ann Arbor has a great police force, or there aren't enough incidents, how I would challenge that is, why we want this is part of a checks and balances," she said. "You can't say, 'Oh, there are two bad eggs, two bad police officers.' There are bad people everywhere. What we focused on at the Human Rights Commission that City Council brought with this is not how do you deal with two bad people, but are there checks and balances if there are bad people?"