Michigan Lawmakers Push Sweeping Police Reform Package

State representatives were joined by Breonna Taylor’s mother and cousin in an emotional plea for accountability for police officers shielded by immunity.

Michigan Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, flanked by fellow state lawmakers, civil rights leaders and people affected by police violence, speaks at a press conference to promote police reform bills in Lansing, Mich., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

LANSING, Mich. (CN) — Michigan has become the latest state to reexamine guidelines for police conduct after a wide-ranging package of bipartisan police reform bills was introduced in the Legislature.

The bills, introduced in late May, seek to hold officers to a higher standard as the reverberations from the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans continue to be felt across the country.  

At a press conference Tuesday morning touting the bills, state Democratic lawmakers were joined by Breonna Taylor’s relatives as well as Cynthia M. Douglas, president of the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods NAACP Branch.

State Representative Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, was adamant the bills should rise above partisan debate.

“There is nothing political about wanting to protect the lives of our children,” she said.

The press conference quickly became emotional when Tamika Palmer, mother of Taylor, who was shot to death in her apartment by an officer during a botched raid in Louisville, Kentucky, approached the podium but was unable to compose herself.

Taylor’s niece, Tawanna Gordon, was by her side and moved to her prepared remarks. Gordon challenged Michigan lawmakers to examine the concept of qualified immunity, a legal defense doctrine that allows police officers to argue they acted in good faith when they violated someone’s constitutional rights.

“Keep your promise to create and pass laws and policies that are free of loopholes to change who is qualified to receive these protections,” she said.

When Palmer was able to speak, she said the risk associated with no-knock search warrants was too dangerous.

“It’s time we reimagine search warrant operations as they relate to narcotics investigations,” she pleaded. “It’s necessary we ban no-knock warrants so that no other parent has to receive the call that I received in the wee hours of the morning.”

A bill sponsored by state Senator Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, directs the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards to compose guidelines for investigations of officer-involved deaths and requires police agencies to follow them.

Senator Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, sponsored bills that would allow police unions to refuse representation to a member who presses a meritless grievance and would designate meddling with a body camera or deactivating it to interfere with an investigation as evidence tampering.

Hollier told WWMT Channel 3 in Lansing that the bills are a referendum on how minorities are treated by officers.

“When we talk about what it’s gonna take to end these issues, it’s really changing how we view both how we interact with the police, but how Black people are viewed in this country,” he said.

Gregg Barak, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University, is hopeful about police reforms but cautioned positive change comese at an incremental pace.  

“I wouldn’t consider this group of bills…a significant step forward,” he said in a phone interview. “However, these actions could be the tip of the iceberg for reform.”

Barak suggested a holistic approach might be a better strategy.

“If many of these worthwhile bills would be established statewide as rules of conduct rather than each police office or agency coming up with acceptable policies…that would probably be a good thing,” he said.

A bill sponsored by Senator Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, would mandate cops intervene when a fellow officer becomes abusive towards a suspect. The identity of any person who makes a misconduct complaint against an officer would be protected under the terms of another bill sponsored by Senator Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

Senator Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a measure that would require the state law enforcement commission to develop teaching standards for de-escalation, implicit bias and behavioral health. Continuing education for officers would be mandatory.

Representative Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, said at Tuesday’s press conference these were common sense reforms that should be implemented as soon as possible.

“Michiganders should trust that police are trained correctly,” she said.

Barak was pleased to see the concept of bias and education addressed.

“Contemporary policing needs a cultural makeover not unlike the cultural makeover to ameliorate the problems of white supremacy and racism through the larger society,” the professor said.

He added: “The real problem behind police abuse and use of excessive force has to do with…a lack of training and education required to become a law enforcement official in the U.S. as compared to the police force in Europe or Asia, for example.”

Barak said the priorities of American police officers are different than other countries.

“Police spend four times as much time learning to write reports and even more time on the use of weapons than they do stress management,” he said.

The use of chokeholds would be banned except when a life is at risk under a bill sponsored by Senator Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, and Senator Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, is pushing to require police agencies to establish a use of force continuum, issue verbal warnings before using force and require officers to exhaust all possible alternatives before resorting to deadly force.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, recently praised changes made by the Michigan State Police. The reforms include setting a goal to increase the racial minority trooper applicant pool to 25% and the female trooper applicant pool to 20% to diversify the department. All officers are required to undergo recurring bias training and the department also amended policy to limit the situations where state troopers can engage in vehicle pursuits.

Whitmer hoped the moves would inspire more change.  

“The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a result of hundreds of years of inequity and institutional racism against Black Americans,” she said in a statement. “I’m calling on Michigan police departments to strengthen their training and policies to save lives and keep people safe. I am also ready to partner with the Michigan Legislature and law enforcement officials to pass police reform bills into law.”

In Minnesota, where Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, state lawmakers held a special session shortly after his death and passed a bill creating a stricter standard on the use of deadly force. It was derided by police officials as well as those who thought the measure did not go far enough.

Barak is not optimistic about existing officers changing their attitudes and said the responsibility falls to the next generation.

“Ultimately, it will be the hiring of younger folk,” he said.  

He said the push for accountability should not stop at lower levels of government.

“We have less accountability from federal law enforcement than from the state or local,” the professor said. “Obviously, the feds don’t interact with as many people, but we don’t know what [they] are up to.”

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