Ingham Co. Takes On Criminal Justice Reform With Heightened Scrutiny For "Resisting And Obstructing"

Aug 6, 2020

A new policy in Ingham County will affect how prosecutors examine and charge people with resisting arrest.

In the days following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, local law enforcement claimed he had resisted arrest which prompted them to restrain him.

Evidence has not supported that assertion, but the incident has prompted a huge focus on policing reform which is only a part of the country's criminal justice system.

In Ingham County, a policy is being put in place with new guidelines for prosecutors looking at potentially charging someone with resisting and obstructing arrest.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke to Ingham County Prosecutor, Carol Siemon, about the policy.

Interview Highlights

On How Prosecutors Will Look At These Cases With Heightened Scrutiny

So, that's what we're going to be looking at: What was the reason for the stop? What were the police officers' actions? What were the suspect's actions or the individual's actions? What efforts were made by the police to keep the situation from escalating? How did the suspect respond? You know, and look at all of those aspects and say basically, does this reflect a case that we think justice would require us to move forward on.

On Requiring Prosecutors To Watch Body Camera Footage When It’s Available

We want to make sure that if it's available, we look at it. [And] that we want to make sure that if there's an additional question, say listen, you know, maybe we don't issue this today, maybe we follow up on this a little more.

On Encouraging Law Enforcement To Refer People To Social Service Agencies, Instead of Pursuing Charges

If you have a contact with somebody, say a person on the street, maybe somebody who's homeless that instead of the first response being, "Show me your ID. Tell me who you are. Let's see if you have any warrants." The first response might be, "Are you okay? Do you need a ride anywhere? Do you need medical treatment?"

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby. In the days following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, local law enforcement claimed he had resisted arrest which prompted them to restrain him.

Evidence has not supported that assertion, but the incident has prompted a huge focus on policing reform which is only a part of the country's criminal justice system.

In Ingham County, a policy is being put in place with new guidelines for prosecutors looking at potentially charging someone with resisting and obstructing arrest.

Carol Siemon is Ingham County’s Prosecutor. She joins me now to explain that policy. Thanks for being here.

Carol Siemon: Thank you, Sophia. So, like every, probably, prosecutor's office in the United States, we're looking at where are the pieces in our process that we can try to reduce violence and racism and make sure that we're helping to be part of the solution.

So, we have a resisting and obstructing arrest almost every day. We had over 300 last year, and what I want to do is to have us to look at those with a heightened level of scrutiny. We're still, of course, using the same law, the same burden of proof, but we're saying that because we know these arrests are ones that can lead to death or certainly serious injury, we don't want that here in Ingham County. So, we need to see what are the sticking points that are causing this to be a problem.

Saliby: You describe cases of resisting arrest as ones that have "racially disproportionate outcomes?" Can you explain what that means?

Siemon: Well, we don't have specific statistics here that link the number of resisting and obstructing arrests, but we know that nationally, disproportionately, it impacts black and brown people. The impetus for many of these contacts are minor police stops, walking down the street, someone possibly being a suspect in a retail fraud.

So, the initial contact, as we know, with George Floyd, was the possibility that he may have passed a bad, a counterfeit bill. So, if the initial contacts are for relatively minor things, then you definitely shouldn't have the death penalty. And you need to make sure that the response is proportionate to what the actual behavior is.

So that's what we're going to be looking at: What was the reason for the stop? What were the police officers' actions? What were the suspect's actions or the individual's actions? What efforts were made by the police to keep the situation from escalating? How did the suspect respond? You know, and look at all of those aspects and say basically, does this reflect a case that we think justice would require us to move forward on.

Saliby: One big change in the policy is requiring attorneys to review all body camera footage in cases of alleged resisting and obstructing. Can you explain why that wasn't standard before?

Siemon: Well, first of all, we don't get them right away, and that will be true even now. You may have noticed I put some exceptions in the language. What happens now is with a resisting and obstructing charge, someone's often in police custody. So, if someone comes into police custody, they have to be arraigned on that quickly. So, our on-call prosecutor, or if it's during the week, our regular screening attorney will look at the case and make a decision based on the evidence that we have at the time.

Now, first of all, I think it's also important to say that not every police agency has body cams, so we're not going to have that information ever in some cases. But then when we do have it, we want to make sure that if it's available, we look at it. [And] that we want to make sure that if there's an additional question, say listen, you know, maybe we don't issue this today, maybe we follow up on this a little more.

And then of course, sometimes I think the policy is now changed, but for a while, we just didn't get the body cam video unless we specifically requested it from some agencies. So, I think at this point, we hopefully are getting it for everybody. If the case is issued without the body cam video, we want to make sure that the attorney who next handles that case, specifically looks at that body cam video.

Saliby: Another change includes encouraging law enforcement to refer people to social service agencies instead of pursuing charges in instances of alleged resisting where there hasn't been any injuries. Do you think you'll get buy in from law enforcement?

Siemon: You know, the way that's worded is a little awkward because really what my intent is, is that if you have a contact with somebody, say a person on the street, maybe somebody who's homeless that instead of the first response being, "Show me your ID. Tell me who you are. Let's see if you have any warrants." The first response might be, "Are you okay? Do you need a ride anywhere? Do you need medical treatment?"

If the person might be under the influence of a substance, maybe explore whether there's substance abuse treatment necessary. If they seem to be having some mental health issues, maybe we're talking about that person, doesn't mean it wouldn't lead to resisting but maybe that person, there could be a discussion about, "Do you have somebody? Do you have a guardian? Do you have someone who might come and get you?"

Those are the kinds of things we're looking at instead of saying, even when something's a violation of law, there are a lot of violations of the law that don't necessarily have to result in a warrant and prosecution.

Saliby: Carol Siemon is Ingham County's prosecutor. Thank you for joining me.

Siemon: Thank you, Sophia.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.