Legislators in Lansing are offering incremental reforms that experts and even police themselves say won’t make much difference in reducing police violence and holding rogue officers accountable.
Protests in Michigan cities are still ongoing against racial injustice and police brutality in what is becoming one of the most sustained social movements in memory. After years of police killing African Americans at a disproportionate rate, protesters are calling for revolutionary change.
But state policymakers haven’t matched this fervor. Four weeks after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, sparking protests worldwide, Michigan lawmakers have largely offered reforms that even law enforcement officials say would do little to actually change policing.
Those proposals include bipartisan legislation that would codify police training requirements, ban chokeholds and require officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.
Activists and experts who spoke with Bridge and WKAR, East Lansing’s NPR member station, said the proposals represent the minimum needed to move toward safer policing, and at worst would do little to truly change a system that many view as fundamentally broken.
Those seeking more sweeping reform want, among other things:
- An end to the “qualified immunity” doctrine that often allow police officers to avoid being held liable for violations of constitutional rights;
- Independent investigations in cases where police kill or severely injure people and requirements to prosecute those found at fault. For example, New York state has a team dedicated to investigating police killings of unarmed people and has a number of other independent bodies that are supposed to oversee the NYPD;
- An end to policies that obscure an officers’ disciplinary or misconduct history from investigators and the public;
- And, in some cases, a reallocation of portions of police funding to community services.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has added four non-police seats to a commission that regulates officer training, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and law enforcement agencies announced a collaboration in which the state will report data that police agencies are already encouraged — but not required — to report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Beverly Boatley of Holt is among those who see some of these reforms as well-meaning but not nearly enough. Her grandson, Elijah Boatley, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Arizona last fall after he allegedly brandished a gun as deputies sought to arrest him as a suspect in a shooting incident the night before.
Beverly Boatley said Elijah “had his entire life ahead of him. He wasn’t the hardened criminal they made him out to be.” Police have offered no evidence he was at the site of the shooting he was suspected for, she said, and it took seven months for the family to get basic police reports about the incident. She added that her attorneys haven’t been given access to the officers’ disciplinary records.
She’s since started a foundation in Elijah’s name to raise awareness of police brutality.
Deaths like her grandson’s have been happening for hundreds of years in America, she said. She’s fed up.
Public officials “continue to come back with bandaids. At some point, they’ve got to go deeper and start to restructure this thing,” Boatley said.
“If we don’t start seeing some real change, I fear that there’s going to be an issue. People are just not going to continue to sit back while their loved ones are murdered.”
An urgent call to action
Beverly Boatley was among hundreds of people who marched down Michigan Avenue in Lansing earlier this month in the NAACP “We Are Done Dying” Peace March, carrying signs with urgent demands: “We are not target practice,” “get your knee off our necks,” “respect existence or expect resistance.”
While some early protests turned into civil unrest marked by looting and vandalism, the majority have remained peaceful. In several cities, including in Michigan, law enforcement officers knelt down or marched with protesters. But there have also been images of police responding to protesters with force, including police officers who pushed down a 75-year old man in Buffalo and punched a journalist in the stomach in Washington, D.C.
Protesters in Michigan and nationwide say it’s time for big policy shifts after years of well-documented inequities in policing.
According to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group, police killings have remained relatively steady in Michigan and across the country since January 2013. Michigan police killed 123 people between 2013 and 2019, nearly 40 percent of whom were nonwhite, despite these groups making up around 20 percent of the state’s population.
Boatley’s preferred reform, among others, would be to end qualified immunity — the legal doctrine that often shields police officers from being prosecuted for constitutional violations.
Tristan Taylor, one of the organizers of Detroit Will Breathe, told Bridge and WKAR he wants an accountability system that will ensure officers involved in police brutality are fired and prosecuted and for a portion of police budgets to be re-routed to community resolution programs.
Others have endorsed a set of reforms known as “8 Can’t Wait” which includes requiring reporting of use of force and banning police officers from shooting at moving vehicles. They’re based off of more comprehensive reform ideas put forward by activist group Campaign Zero.
Few of the reforms championed by activists are on the table in the Michigan Legislature, and most of those that are have not yet received a committee hearing. Compare that with states like New York that recently passed laws making chokeholds a felony, requiring disciplinary records be released, mandating officers report every instance of discharging their weapon and more.
The Legislature can move more quickly to propose and enact reforms — as can city councils, mayors and police chiefs, said DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero. He said what’s been introduced in Michigan is “low-hanging fruit.”
“While it’s a good thing to do, we can't let people okey-dokey us into believing that this is some monumental move. This is the floor, not the ceiling,” Mckesson told Bridge and WKAR.
“We’ve got to get to the floor so we can make outcomes change, but you can do this really quickly.”
What’s on the table
The bill with the most traction in the state Legislature in the four weeks since George Floyd’s death has been a proposal from Ann Arbor Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, which would require all police officers receive de-escalation, implicit bias and mental health training.
Critics of the bill argue it’s simply codifying existing police training requirements and would have little impact without an evidence-based curriculum, regular testing and re-training over time.
Both Mckesson and Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a professor of criminal justice at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who is on a team evaluating police reforms in Cleveland, said that while training requirements are a good idea, there isn’t enough evidence to indicate they’ll make a difference in police behavior.
“Quite honestly, without knowing what the curriculum looks like and who’s delivering that training it’s hard to understand if it will really be effective,” Hardaway said.
It would also require officers to complete a number of continuing education hours annually throughout their career “in subjects related to law enforcement,” a new requirement that Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, questioned as overly vague.
Irwin acknowledges the bill “just isn’t enough” to fundamentally change policing practices and said that he has other proposals based on Campaign Zero that would require more citizen oversight boards, independent investigations into police misconduct and demilitarization of agencies that he plans to introduce.
“These are small steps and we need to do more, we need to do much more,” Irwin said. “But we also need to make progress when we can and take these small wins when we can.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers and law enforcement officials announced last week it would be releasing Michigan-specific, use-of-force data collected by the FBI under a new program. But that program is optional, and only 40 percent of agencies nationwide participate. Just under three-quarters of Michigan agencies participated in the program in 2019, according to the state’s first report released last Wednesday.
Other bills, introduced by Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township and Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, would ban officers from putting pressure on a person’s throat or windpipe and would require officers to intervene when they see others using excessive force. Johnson’s bill would also require agencies to punish those officers who fail to intervene. The Minneapolis Police Department had a duty to intervene policy when George Floyd was killed, but strengthened it after his death to make it enforceable in court.
These proposals haven’t yet received a committee hearing in Michigan.
Law enforcement representatives argue that these, too, represent practices that are already controlled by current guidelines.
Chokeholds or other measures of blocking someone’s windpipe except in emergency situations would be considered excessive force, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, and a duty to intervene is required of those police departments that are accredited by the association and is inherent in the creed all police officers must take. However, that doesn’t carry the force of law.
Stevenson said the protests have indicated to many police chiefs that “maybe we need to speed up some actions” of reform, but he pushed back on the idea that law enforcement is due for an overhaul.
“Policing is always in the process of reform, we’re always changing,” he said. The killing of George Floyd has “been universally condemned by civilians and police alike. People assume that’s a norm, rather than the exception. It’s definitely the exception.”
These proposals are a good start, Hardaway of Case Western Reserve University said, in that they provide “a state level of reforms instead of doing it haphazard from one municipality or local department to the next.”
But without real accountability measures, reporting requirements and a significant reining-in of police unions’ powers to protect officers from punishment for misconduct, the problem will likely persist, she said.
“Until there is a real conversation that's built on respect for communities that have been impacted by policing, moving the needle in a significant way through incremental reforms will, in fact, be difficult,” Hardaway said. “We may find ourselves here again.”
Multiple activists and experts expressed some optimism at proposals by Attorney General Dana Nessel, which would allow the state commission that sets law enforcement standards to revoke an officer’s license for a broader range of misconduct and create a statewide misconduct registry. Those proposals have not yet been introduced as legislation and would not necessarily require disciplinary records to be reported to the state or made public; it would only require police departments to retain them.
“This is the pattern that we’ve seen. The measures that would actually make substantive change are the measures that are not in the legislation. Politicians put it up as talking points,” Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe said.
Hardaway and Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, said effective policies must include real enforcement mechanisms — such as requiring law enforcement agencies to report all misconduct to the state — and noted that police reform proposals are often shaped without input from communities of color. They urged lawmakers to listen.
“The community determines the kinds of rules, regulations and mandates that police departments will have,” Anthony said. “If you don’t have that, then what you have is the militarization of the community — a police state.”
Why is real change so hard?
America’s problems with police brutality have existed nearly as long as it has had police.
Police still kill Black people at more than 2.5 times the rate they do white people, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group, despite an upsurge in activism after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Activists who spoke with Bridge and WKAR questioned why police reform is so difficult to enact into law.
Many pointed to the power of police unions, which are often effective in protecting officers’ disciplinary records from scrutiny and in getting officers rehired who have been fired from their jobs. Police are still considered trustworthy by more than two-thirds of Americans and remain a powerful force in state and local politics.
“The police unions have been pretty intractable on (many proposed reforms), and they've held a lot of sway with the legislature,” Nessel said in an interview. “No candidate for the legislature once to be called anti-police.”
Data compiled from state records by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network show that state legislators in both parties pulled in tens of thousands of dollars collectively in contributions from police unions and advocacy organizations over the last decade.
“When politicians accept campaign donations from law enforcement, they’re really granting law enforcement access into policymaking,” said Sasha de Vogel, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan who works with No More Cop Money, a project advocating for policymakers to decline political donations from police unions.
“When they take money from these organizations they signal something about their values, so they can stop doing that to signal something different about their values.”
But amid the millions of dollars spent every election season in Michigan, many of those seeking change said police spending is not the main obstacle to change.
Lawmakers and law enforcers are part of the same system, said Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe.
“They are the mechanism of enforcement of policies that these politicians create. That gives them undue influence into how those policies look,” he said.
Sen. Johnson, who sponsored the duty-to-intervene legislation, chalked up the slow pace of reform to the ease of setting roadblocks on controversial legislation.
“It’s always easy to stop somebody’s bill,” he said. “It’s certainly harder to get one through and get everybody on board.”