The main function of the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee is to make sure campus police officers are acting in accordance with internal policies and state laws governing their actions.
Patrolling Campus Police
The committee does this by addressing citizens’ grievances against campus police officers and making recommendations to University officials so that action can be taken to amend a situation and prevent it from happening again.
When someone has a problem with DPS, campus policy dictates that a citizen has two options to take action: file a complaint with DPS itself or file a grievance with the DPS Oversight Committee.
A grievance is essentially the same thing as a complaint, except that a different body handles the case.
When a citizen files a complaint, DPS officials handle the investigation themselves, and the oversight committee is only notified about it when it’s completed. On the other hand, if a citizen files a grievance with the oversight committee, there is a possibility that top University officials could review the grievance. While a DPS officer may be punished as a result of a complaint, University executives have the power to change policies to try to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.
But a detailed look at the two separate processes sheds light on how similar issues may be handled differently by each system — and the implications those differences could have on a case’s ultimate outcome and its impact on campus police policy moving forward.
GOING THE COMPLAINT ROUTE
Any citizen who has a problem with an officer or DPS can go to DPS and directly file a complaint. With this option, the incident is not thoroughly reviewed by the oversight committee.
DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said DPS deals with complaints on an individual basis.
“We look at what the initial complaint is, and depending on that specific complaint and the severity of that complaint, we’ll decide whether or not to step up to an internal investigation,” Brown said.
She said most complaints are from people who are not satisfied with the way an officer treated them and from people who are not happy about being thrown out of a football game for being drunk.
Regardless of the incident, DPS reviews each complaint by talking to the officer in question, available witnesses, the person who filed the complaint and viewing any evidence like video footage.
Brown said an investigation is never led by the supervisor of the officer in question “so that there’s some sort of independent eye.”
After an investigation is completed, a complaint is deemed either unfounded or founded.
Brown said DPS investigations determine most of the complaints to be “unfounded,” meaning a citizen voiced concern about an officer, but the investigation concluded that the officer acted appropriately in the particular situation.
A complaint also will be labeled unfounded if there is a lack of evidence.
Out of 17 complaints received by in 2007 and 2008, 13 were classified as unfounded.
A complaint is only labeled founded when it is determined an action a person is complaining about did take place and that the officer did not follow protocol or engage in proper conduct.
Depending on the incident, DPS Executive Director Ken Magee will determine any final discipline or corrective action. Brown said an officer will typically attend counseling, but that it’s possible for an officer to be suspended or terminated.
According to the February 2009 Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) report — a document obtained by the Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request — one DPS officer was suspended and one was terminated in 2008 while five officers were suspended in 2007.
Once the investigation of a complaint is completed, the person who brought the complaint receives a written response about the outcome from the investigating lieutenant officer. If the complainant has further concerns, he or she can appeal to Magee, who is informed of any complaint filed with the department and is updated on its investigation.
While the DPS Oversight Committee’s main role is to act as a check on the campus police, it does not have any direct involvement in dealing with complaints filed with DPS. Instead, the committee receives a list of complaints at one meeting each year.
Brown said if a complaint of “substantive nature” is presented, DPS makes sure the committee hears about it before the annual report. But besides these infrequent instances, Brown said the department doesn’t contact the committee.
“We don’t pick up the phone and tell the oversight committee when somebody has made a complaint that they were thrown out of a football game, and then we’ve discovered in the investigation that yeah, they were thrown out because they were drunk and disorderly,” Brown said. “We don’t take up the committee’s time to go back that day to say ‘oh, this was one of those complaints.’”
Brown said given the work DPS does, it’s impressive that they receive so few complaints each year.
“We have very few complaints yet we’re dealing with difficult people all the time and difficult situations all the time,” she said.
She cited the CALEA assessment report DPS officially received in August, which made DPS the 13th out of about 600 police agencies in the state to be accredited. DPS was also the first law enforcement agency from the Big Ten conference to receive accreditation by the commission.
Brown said DPS excelled in handling citizen complaints and internal affairs investigations — one of the categories the report evaluated.
The report listed that DPS received 12 citizen complaints in 2008, 11 in 2007 and 13 in 2006 and concluded that DPS appropriately managed the complaints.
“The agency is keenly aware that complaints against the agency or employees are to be taken seriously,” the report stated. “The agency provides the opportunity to file the complaint online, in person, or in writing. Persons who wish to file a complaint can do so anonymously.”
Brown said DPS was happy with the overall results from the assessment.
“We’re pretty proud of it, but it also says to our campus community I think that, ‘yes, indeed, we’re one of the best there is in the country,’” Brown said.
Though DPS receives less than 15 complaints each year, police agencies at other colleges in the state of Michigan, receive far fewer complaints than DPS.
Fred Harris, associate director of the Central Michigan University Police Department, said the department has received either zero or one complaints each year. Greg O’Dell, police chief of Eastern Michigan University Police Department, said the department receives between zero and five complaints each year.
William Terrell, chair of Michigan State University’s oversight committee, said the body has received one complaint in the last five years.
Magee said he was not aware how many complaints other campus police departments receive on an annual basis and could not compare DPS’s performance to other schools.
However, he said the majority of complaints submitted to DPS are “very minor.”
“(They’re) almost more customer service related such as the way somebody spoke to somebody — if he was rude and used profanity or something of that nature — as opposed to something that would be considered a violation of the law or a use of force,” Magee said.
He added that DPS receives far more compliments than complaints.
“On the average of once every week, I get a letter from a citizen complimenting our staff or one of our employees or the department in general,” Magee said.
OPTING TO FILE A GRIEVANCE
While they are given a different name, grievances do not differ from complaints in content, instead they differ procedurally in which body handles them.
The DPS Oversight Committee refers to complaints as “grievances” because Public Act 120 of 1990 states that the oversight committee “shall receive and address grievances by persons against the public safety officers or the public safety department of the institution.”
The separate terminology has caused some confusion. Brown said the word “grievance” typically refers to employees who have personal issues with their supervisors.
“I’m not quite sure that the term applies so much to a citizen complaint… I don’t know how a citizen has a grievance,” Brown said.
Though grievances and complaints can have the same subject matter, they differ completely in which body reviews them. If a citizen files a complaint with DPS, the complaint will be reviewed by DPS investigators and looked over by the DPS Oversight Committee after the investigation is completed. If a citizen files a grievance with the oversight committee, the grievance has the potential to end up on the desk of a top University administrator.
On average, the oversight committee reviews two grievances each year.
Slottow — the executive officer who is responsible for the DPS Oversight Committee and handling grievance recommendations from the board — said he has received about five grievance reports from the oversight committee during the last six years.
“One of the purposes of the committee is to make sure that the most senior level of the University is fully aware and accountable for taking into account the recommendations and taking appropriate actions to correct any potential problems,” Slottow said in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily.
The reports given to Slottow typically describe the grievance, analyze the facts and include recommendations on how to fix the situation.
However, Slottow said he has never received any reports recommending major policy changes.
“In each one of those, they basically said either the grievance was determined to be unfounded or there was some minor activity or change that occurred that has already been taken care of based on their discussion with DPS,” Slottow said.
Though the grievance has already been handled by the time it reaches his desk, Slottow said he reads the report to see if there is anything more the University can do, which, he said, there usually isn’t.
“There have not been recommendations for me to take on behalf the University,” he said.
But he said that could change in the future, which is why he is responsible for receiving the committee’s reports.
While some grievances make it to Slottow’s office, at other universities in the state, there is some variation in what reaches the desks of top officials.
At EMU, the president receives all complaints as soon as they are filed, while the vice president of CMU is advised of all complaints.
At MSU, however, the oversight committee does not send a report to a university executive.
Over the last few months, details reported in the Daily have, according to several independent lawyers, called into question whether the student, faculty and staff representatives on the committee have been elected in compliance with a 1990 state statute that gave the University the right to create a campus police force. In doing so, the statute also mandated the creation of an oversight committee.
Independent lawyers stated in a Nov. 16 Daily article that the elections for each respective party appear to violate state law because the students, faculty and staff of the University do not elect the representatives.
The Michigan Student Assembly has since altered its election method for student representatives to the oversight board to fall more in line with the state statute.