Panel talks community relationship with police

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 - 3:56pm

Following an ongoing national conversation about the relationship between police and communities, Washtenaw County Police and Public Safety department will now implement additional measures to communicate with the public. 

On Wednesday, the 16th Annual Public Forum for the Enhancement of Police and Community Trust featured a panel of police from municipalities including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Milan and Pittsfield Township, in addition to the Michigan State Police. Community members came from all over the county with questions about police relations.

Stephanie Dawkins Davis, executive assistant U.S. attorney, spoke about the importance of ensuring regular police correspondence with the community. Davis said community understanding of law enforcement has had positive results in southeast Michigan.

“Justice doesn’t happen under a rock, the community has to understand what decisions are being made and what criteria is needed to make those decisions,” Davis said.

She added that Detroit has a similar program to ENPACT called ALPACT — Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust. According to Davis, the program has been extremely successful. She cited a recent incident when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent shot a man in Detroit, pointing out that there were no riots from the city’s inhabitants in response.

“We were able to have respectful dialogue,” Davis said. “We can’t say that something like that would never happen, but the key to preventing something like that from happening is having dialogue.”

Jim Baird, interim chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department, said fostering police-community relations is a priority throughout his time as interim chief.

“I would like to reaffirm our commitment to continuing the relationships that we’ve spoken to already,” he said.

Former AAPD Police Chief John Seto retired after 25 years with the AAPD. During the event, Baird said a new chief of police would be appointed by the end of the year.

Attorney Angie Martell raised the first question of the dialogue, asking about police confrontations with Hispanics and transgender individuals. Martell said she wants to start a conversation with police about diversity training.

Baird told the group the AAPD is working to target these issues.

“We have had a diversity training and awareness level, understanding that there’s different perspectives,” Baird said. “I think that we can take that both ways so we can get perceptions of community, especially specific groups, and understand where they’re coming from and how they may experience the contact of police. We can also educate the community why we do some of the things we do.”

The treatment of residents that may suffer from mental health issues, such as veterans or autistic individuals, was also addressed. Police leadership across the panel spoke to the issue, telling attendees they are working hard to give officers training related to mental health. Marlene Radzik, lieutenant with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, said the department is confronting these issues with extra training.

“We are moving towards crisis intervention training, which would help train the officers and allow us to be more capable of handling situations that involve mental illness,” Radzik said.

In November 2014, Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser was killed by an AAPD officer who was responding to a domestic violence call. Rosser reportedly suffered from mental illness. After the incident, many Ann Arbor residents called on the department to come up with better protocols for interacting with residents who may struggle with mental health issues.

Chuck Warpehoski, Ann Arbor City Council member (D–Ward 5), brought up the mitigation of police bias when performing arrests.

Local attorney Erane Washington agreed with Warpehoski that implicit biases present a significant issue in the community. She asked the panel to address implicit bias and cultural competency.

“When we talk about implicit biases, we’re talking about a whole gamut of issues,” Washington said. “I don’t really know what cultural competency really means, so my question for the panel is to explain in more detail on what is cultural competency training.”  

Robert Neumann, University of Michigan Police Department chief, said implicit bias is an important issue for police everywhere.

“Every human being has implicit bias. No one is free of some kind of bias,” Neumann said. “Part of cultural competency training is helping everyone understand that they are a product of their experiences. First, recognizing that and recognizing that you're not above making an unfair decision based on your implicit biases.”

Though the forum raised a lot of topics, Warpehoski said further discussion is needed before the relationship of police and community is where it should be.

“The challenge of a format like this is that there’s a little bit of conversation about a lot of issues with a lot of jurisdictions,” Warpehoski said. “We don’t get the chance to go in depth on any one of them.”

He said police officers and community members need to keep communications open year-round and not just annually at these forums.

“This conversation about fundamental levels of training is something that we have the opportunity to make right and to make better,” Warpehoski said. “Whether we’re dealing with mental illness, dealing with race and diversity issues, dealing with conflict resolution, we need to create a clear standard and policies. We need a system of ongoing training where we’re continuously working with our officers on these specific issues.”