After the events in Ferguson, national attention turned to how to address racial disparities and excessive force in policing. After the death of Aura Rosser in Ann Arbor local attention to the issue increased.
One of the proposed tools to address these concerns is the creation of a community-based commission that can review and influence the police department. For years the City of Ann Arbor has been moving toward setting up a community-based commission to review and advise on policing practices. We have the 2016 Human Rights Commission report, the recent Hillard Heintze report, and many community statements on the issue.
Done right, a community board established to review the City of Ann Arbor Police Department could be a fulcrum to leverage continuing improvements in training, policies, practices, and strategy. Done poorly it risks providing PR cover without leading to actual improvements in policing.
We need to get this right.
To that end, here are some of my thoughts as they stand now (they are subject to change, so please let me know what you agree or disagree with). I separate these into considerations of process and content
Getting the process right
There are a lot of details to work out about the final goals, composition, and powers of a commission.
On Monday, February 5, City Council will consider a Resolution Creating an Advisory Task Force to Make Recommendations Regarding the Roles and Responsibilities of a Community Policing Commission. Under this resolution the task force would:
- Have voting members of the task force drawn entirely from residents.
- Have its composition created with input from the Human Rights Commission, Neutral Zone, and other appropriate community stakeholders.
- Make a recommendation outlining the roles and responsibilities of a proposed Community Policing Commission.
My hope and intent is that this process in inclusive and transparent:
- Inclusive: the task force should include a broad cross section of the community with a particular attention to communities most vulnerable — people of color, youth, LGBTQ, formerly incarcerated individuals, immigrants, etc.
- Transparent: The proceedings of the task force, and the subsequent implementation of the recommendations, should be clear and transparent to the public.
One of the biggest challenges of the task force will be to find a process that reconciles competing valid interests in a way that is legally sould. For example, is is a valid goal that the commission have a high level of access to information about police incidents and policies. It is also an important goal to protect community members’ privacy–especially youth and people not convicted of a crime. The task force will have to find a way to thread the needle between these two valid concerns in a way that complies with relevant laws and regulations.
The process is important, but it is the means, not the end of creating a commission that can meaningfully improve policing practices. While it will be up to the task force to make final recommendations, here are my initial thoughts on the charge of the commission.
Getting the content right
I believe a successful police commission should:
- Constructively engage a variety of voices in the community and law enforcement: A This process should pay special attention to including the voices of those most vulnerable to negative police interactions and least likely to be listened to (people of color, undocumented immigrants, people formerly incarcerated, etc).
- Create understanding: The commission needs to create a setting in which officers can hear, understand, and learn from the needs community members, and where community members can hear, understand, and learn from the perspective of law enforcement. I’m not saying they always will always agree, and we need to keep in mind the power imbalance here, but this understanding is vital.
- Produce change: The commission produces concrete and actionable steps to improve equity and public safety in Ann Arbor. The fundamental measure of the commission’s success is that the AAPD improves its policing practice.
- Not limit public safety to law enforcement. The commission recognizes that police are not the only tool for providing public safety and looks holistically at other to improve public safety such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, affordable housing, employment access, etc.
- Recognize that individual, institutional, and systemic racism affect all areas of society–including policing. To effectively address concerns about racially disparate outcomes in policing the commission must a deep understanding and commitment to address the ways that racism affects society through such means as:
- Individual biases (even among people with a deep commitment to equity),
- A history of government and corporate racial discrimination, and
- Current policies that are race-neutral on their face but have racially disparate outcomes (such as banning affirmative action but allowing legacy preferences in college recruitment that disproportionately benefit white applicants).
- Forge agreement around actionable solutions. The commission has broad enough participation and deep enough deliberation so that, in most cases, the solutions worked out in the commission easily move through to implementation. The Human Rights Commission’s work to revise our Non Discrimination Ordinance is a good example of this. The commission members did the hard work to sort through the details to ensure that the ordinance that came forward had the full support of Council and staff and sailed through the approval process. In contrast, the Human Rights Commission’s recommendation of an ordinance limiting police video surveillance failed at Council as it lacked the support of the police chief.
- Have the resources to succeed: The commission has access to sufficient information, training, and staff support to effectively review and impact police strategy, training, policies, and procedures.
- Involve the broader community: If the commission’s engagement is limited to the handful of community members on the body it is a failure. To be effective the commission relationship building, information gathering, and education process must extend into the entire community–especially into those parts of our community where the risk of negative police interactions is highest.
- Review past police actions with an eye for improving future decisions. The largest area of debate is how the commission should review police behavior. Some argue that the commission should have the power to directly affect disciplinary decision. I find the frameworks of a morbidity and mortality (M&M) conference or blameless post mortem to be most promising. Here the focus is creating the environment that allows for a candid and honest exploration of how an event could have been handled differently and what structural dynamics and personal decisions contributed to a negative outcome. I believe a disciplinary review is unlikely to generate the learnings necessary to change future behaviors, as the question, “Was there misconduct?” shifts the discussion to the police decisions rather than the experiences of all parties. A disciplinary hearing also generates a defensiveness that impedes honest and frank discussions of outcomes and alternatives. Many of the complaints that community members have about police interactions are about the decisions an officer makes within the range of actions an officer is permitted to take — they are not about violations of the law or departmental policy. In these cases a disciplinary review that finds no misconduct will likely not address the opportunity to learn from the encounter; improve training, policy, and procedure; and to address the needs of the people unhappy with the event. (There may be a role for the commission to review the disciplinary process to ensure that it is rigorous and fair, but that is different from making disciplinary decisions in individual cases.)
- Self-reflect and improve: I don’t think we will get this right on the first try, so just as the commission reflects on and seeks to improve police practices, it should also reflect on and seek to improve its own practices.
There are also many important details that still need to get worked out such as composition, nomination process, and ensuring independence. One of the thorniest details will be balancing the commission’s access to information with the need to protect privacy — especially for minors and people not convicted of a crime. On the one hand, the commission needs a high level of access to information about policy and specific police cases to do their jobs. On the other hand, there is a need to safeguard an individual’s privacy as well as legal mandates that may limit the distribution of information to the commission.
We also need to recognize that while the commission should actively share results and key findings with the public, many of their deliberations will need to be in closed session. I know this is a controversial one. In Ann Arbor we (rightly) place a high value on public bodies operating in the public eye. But the fastest way to sabotage efforts to create an environment where officers can engage in a candid conversation about how they could have made different choices in a situation is to turn it into a public interrogation. The fastest way to undermine public engagement with the commission is for their history of police contact to be discussed openly in a public session in front of the press and community television cameras.
We have an opportunity here to create a framework that meaningfully engages voices from across the community and produces meaningful improvements in police practices–and I believe there is broad agreement on many of the core points. Let’s build on this broad agreement and establish a commission that can make a difference in our community. No, it won’t be perfect to start, but we can continue to improve on it as we move forward. And together we can make a safer, more equitable community.