Members of the University’s Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee are now being properly elected, more than one year after a Michigan Daily investigation found representatives on the advisory board were being elected illegally.
The committee — which is comprised of two faculty, two staff members and two students — addresses grievances filed against the University’s Department of Public Safety. Last November, independent lawyers told the Daily that representatives on the committee were not being elected in accordance with Michigan statute Public Act 120.
The law states that faculty, staff and student representatives must be elected by their respective constituencies. At the University, however, the Michigan Student Assembly had historically appointed the two student representatives. In addition, the committee’s bylaws state that faculty members must be elected every two years, but at the time of the investigation the faculty members on the committee had held their positions for nine consecutive years.
After a series of reports, MSA and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs — the leading faculty governing body — revised their respective election processes to comply with the statute.
In February, faculty members were allowed to nominate their colleagues to the committee and then subsequently vote in a faculty-wide election. The following month, the student body elected its two student representatives on the committee for the first time in more than a decade.
Law School Prof. Richard Friedman, an Alene and Allan F. Smith Professor of Law, is one of the new faculty members who was elected to the committee last spring. Friedman, an expert in Supreme Court history, said he didn’t actively campaign for the position but was nominated by his peers.
“I don’t know if I particularly wanted it … I was asked to serve, and so I like to say yes when I can,” he said.
Friedman, who was selected to be chair of the committee in July, is working to ensure that the committee complies with the state statute and carries out its role to act as a check on the campus police.
“The statute could be open to interpretation to what the precise function of what the committee is, but I think it makes it very clear that the committee is supposed to be an independent oversight committee,” Friedman said. “I want to do what I can while I’m chair to make sure that the rules of the committee and its relationship with the University are consistent with that.”
In an interview last year, Stephen Hipkiss, the then-DPS Oversight Committee chair, said the committee typically receives two grievances each year, though eight to 12 complaints are usually filed with DPS. An issue will be labeled a grievance or complaint based on which body the grievant chooses to review the matter.
Since Jan. 1, 2010, the committee has received three grievances, which have been submitted through the committee’s new online submission form, according to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.
Friedman said he could not disclose information about the grievances because they are confidential unless the party filing the grievance allows it to become public or the matter has been resolved.
The committee is required to meet at least twice each year to discuss grievances. In a Nov. 16, 2009 Daily article, Hipkiss said it was not uncommon for the committee to meet only once per year.
The frequency of meetings has since increased, as Friedman said the committee has met more than twice this semester and will meet “as many times as necessary” to resolve issues brought before it.
“Given what we have before us, I expect a fair amount (of meetings) plus extensive e-mail correspondence,” Friedman said. “It has turned out to be a real working committee.”
On Nov. 19, LSA senior Rebecca Egler, a member of the University’s undergraduate chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, became the third student to be elected as a student representative on the committee.
Five candidates ran in the election organized by MSA, and Egler won with 1,310 votes.
In an interview last week, Egler said the University’s ACLU chapter encouraged her to run.
“We thought it would be a great idea to try and get someone with a civil liberties perspective on the committee to represent that voice on campus,” she said.
Aware of MSA’s previous illegal appointments to the committee, Egler expressed approval of the campus-wide vote to elect individuals to the position and said the election process went “smoothly.”
“I think it’s important to make sure that the people represented on the committee are also most representing the students who are filing these grievances, and the only way to ensure that is if the students can elect the committee members,” she said.
To help resolve a grievance, the committee may make recommendations to University administrators like Tim Slottow, the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer who handles the committee’s recommendations. However, committee members cannot issue rulings or override previous verdicts.
“They could use persuasion, but they don’t really have the power to overturn decisions,” said Ed Rothman, SACUA chair and professor of statistics.
Because the oversight committee is only an advisory group, Rothman said SACUA wants to form an appeals committee that has the power to overturn decisions. As an example, Rothman said the committee would be able to review trespass orders issued by DPS.
In the last few weeks, members of the University community have expressed concern over DPS’s current trespass policy, which permits all 56 DPS officers to give trespass warnings whenever they deem it necessary.
A trespass order was recently issued to former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, who was banned from campus after verbally attacking MSA President Chris Armstrong at campus events and on his blog. DPS modified the order less than two months later, allowing Shirvell at campus locations where Armstrong is not likely to be present.
Though changes are needed, Rothman said he recognizes the importance of the trespass policy for protecting members of the University community.
“There are crazies out there, and we don’t want them running around campus,” he said.
However, he said an immediate appeals process would make sure campus officers could not “overstep their bounds.” If implemented, the appeals process would allow for a small committee to automatically review the order the day after a trespass order is issued to determine if it is justified or should be withdrawn, Rothman explained.
Since the DPS Oversight Committee can only make recommendations, Rothman said it’s necessary to create a separate committee that can enforce its own decisions.
“I want a committee that actually can take action,” he said.