Washtenaw County Prosecutor ends pretext stops to combat racial profiling

Monday, January 18, 2021 - 12:38pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Early Monday afternoon, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, under recently sworn-in Prosecutor Eli Savit, unveiled its latest policy intended to combat racial profiling in policing.

The new policy prevents the prosecutor's office from filing charges based on “pretext stops” — stops in which officers detain individuals on the basis of an observed traffic violation. In reality, these stops are made in order to search an individual for drugs or other contraband. The policy cites local and national data indicating these pretext stops disproportionately target people of color.

“Pretext stops are … inextricably intertwined with racial profiling,” the policy directive reads. “And that leads to racial inequity in our broader criminal justice system. Pretext stops are humiliating, traumatizing, and can lead to broad distrust of law enforcement in communities of color.”

The policy notes that other states like New Mexico and Washington have similar policies prohibiting pretext stops, which have not demonstrated correlated increases in criminal activity.

The policy does not apply to stops where officers are investigating and have “probable cause” leading to the discovery of contraband such as illegal substances.  

The new policy comes just three weeks after Savit took office on Jan. 1, following two weeks of sweeping progressive changes. Savit has announced other policies aimed at combating racial inequities in the criminal justice system, such as eliminating cash bail and stopping the prosecution of individuals found with marijuana and naturally occurring psychedelics.

Today’s policy directive is about rebuilding trust in our community,” Savit said in the Monday press release. “We are sending a message that we are not interested in pursuing contraband charges that stem from racial profiling.”

These policies confront a history of racial profiling and strained police-civilian relations in Ann Arbor. In 2014, an Ann Arbor police officer shot and killed Aura Rosser, a 40-year-old Black woman, who was at her boyfriend’s home at the time. Former Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie — who held the position for decades — determined the officer was acting in self-defense and did not charge him.

Mackie’s decision was met with criticism from the community. In recent years, Ann Arbor residents have protested against racial profiling from Ann Arbor Police Department.

This past summer, the relationship between police and Washtenaw County residents was once again tested when a video emerged of a Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputy punching a Black woman in the head during an arrest. In September, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel determined that the deputy’s use of force was “justified,” despite many protests from Washtenaw County community members.

The new policy ending pretext stops was announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and cites King’s legacy as inspiration. Savit’s Chief Assistant Victoria Burton-Harris referenced King in Monday’s press release.

Dr. King believed that the time is always right to do what is right,” Burton-Harris said. “Pretextual stops — stemming from implicit biases or not — erode community trust and make us less safe … Our Policy Regarding Pretext Stops is another proactive step towards creating a criminal justice system that works for all of us.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.


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