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One Year After George Floyd’s Death Michigan Wants Reform

State lawmakers have proposed a 13-bill bipartisan reform package to better address police accountability and improve training, but it's unclear if there will be a vote on the package before the end of session.

(TNS) — The state's top law enforcement officer, a Democrat elected in part with the backing of progressive activists, recently told state senators she opposes the concept of defunding the police.

"I wholly reject the notion of defunding the police. I think it's the worst idea I've ever heard," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told the state Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee during a recent hearing.

But, in addition to receiving adequate training and benefits, she said it's crucial that police are held accountable for their actions.

"It's really almost impossible for a police officer to be stripped of their license, except under circumstances of course where you have conviction — not charge, but conviction — of a felony or a high-security misdemeanor, or where there's been a lengthy term of separation from one law enforcement agency to the next," Nessel said, echoing comments she made last year when she unveiled proposed police reforms.

"That is completely different than how we treat, frankly, all other licensed professions. And so we're not asking that police officers even be held to a higher standard than other professions, just to the same standard as other professions."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a fellow Democrat, agrees.

"Overwhelmingly, we have good police officers, honest police officers, passionate and hard working and ethical police officers. But we have to address, we must address the bad actors and the misconduct. We have to," Worthy told the same Senate committee.

These arguments are indicative of the policy tightrope Michigan lawmakers and stakeholders are attempting to navigate as they take on a series of sweeping reforms that could have a substantial impact on how law enforcement operates in the state.
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A 13-bill bipartisan Senate package would enact huge changes, including:

  • Largely banning no-knock search warrants and police chokeholds 
  • Requiring law enforcement officers to intervene when they see colleagues using excessive force or otherwise breaking the law
  • Mandating statewide standards for investigating when officers kill, including provisions for review by an independent agency
  • Revoking the licenses of officers founded to have used excessive force
  • Including violations of use-of-force policies in an officer's records that would be reviewed by possible future employers 
  • Requiring agencies to have a use-of-force policy and training on how to de-escalate a crisis scenario

House Democrats also announced recently they would pursue similar and additional reform measures this year, but their path to passage is less certain.

The proposals come more than one year after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd and Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor, prompting protests in Detroit and other cities across the nation. Activists called for a litany of reforms, from shifting tax dollars away from law enforcement to doing away with qualified immunity for officers accused of misconduct.

They also pushed for local, state and federal leaders to take action. That included an ultimately failed attempt to oust Worthy by Victoria Burton-Harris, a Detroit defense attorney now working as the chief assistant prosecuting attorney in Washtenaw County. Endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Wayne County race, Burton-Harris accused Worthy of not doing enough to punish wayward officers.

Despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Republicans and Democrats agreeing last year improvements must be made, the pandemic and election pushed aside police reform.

"Last year, Governor Whitmer and Lt. Governor (Garlin) Gilchrist called for more investments into public safety; 346 days ago, Governor Whitmer called for legislative action regarding police improvements in order to save lives and keep people safe, while investing in professional development for law enforcement officials," Whitmer spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis said in a statement.

"These actions are overdue and should be implemented immediately. Governor Whitmer is ready and willing to partner with the Michigan Legislature and law enforcement officials to pass police improvements bills into law. It's time to get it done. We cannot continue down this path of inaction."

Lewis did not answer a question about whether Whitmer agrees with Nessel's stance against taking funding from police departments and directing it to other entities.

The details in this year's measures are expected to change as they go through the committee process. But in general, they have support from the Republican and Democratic leadership in the Senate, indicating a strong chance some version of each measure will make it out of the chamber.

Democrats in the House recently announced their own, similar package of bills. They were accompanied by relatives of Taylor, who died in 2020 after police shot her moments after bursting into her home. Her relatives are advocating nationally to ban law enforcement from entering homes without first alerting residents to their presence, a concept known as no-knock warrants.

Some of the measures go further than the Senate package, including a proposal to remove so-called "qualified immunity" for police officers who exhibit extreme force, said state Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D- Harper Woods.

"There is nothing political about wanting to protect the lives of our children, let me make that very clear. There is absolutely nothing political about this bill package," Yancey said during a recent news conference.

"The violent death of a loved one alone is an impossible weight to bear, but when that violent death comes from the state, that weight is infinitely increased. Moreover, people of color — and Black people especially — live with a near-constant fear that they themselves or one of their loved ones could be next."

But a path to passage of these ideas in the House is uncertain, where recently elected speaker — and former military police officer — Jason Wentworth, R- Farwell, has eschewed making some reforms a priority. Yancey said she has met with Wentworth, and he likes some aspects of the package but some are "probably dead on arrival."

Last week a spokesman said Wentworth was unavailable for an interview. But in May, Wentworth and other House Republicans championed an $80 million proposal that increased funding for recruiting and retaining officers. The funding would also increase mental health resources for officers who Wentworth said are constantly the targets of political attacks.

The speaker was asked specifically about whether he supports legislation banning chokeholds, no knock warrants and other similar legislative efforts.

"We are focused solely right now on supporting our men and women in uniform...We want people to know that House Republicans in the state of Michigan have your back if you wear a uniform in this state," Wentworth said during the May news conference.

"There's a lot of narrative out there where the profession has been beaten down — people are throwing their hands up saying, I'm out, I don't want to deal with this. And this is part of helping change that narrative."

Now is the time to take a broad approach, listen to everyone involved and adopt bills that help keep communities and police safe, said key supporter Sen. Roger Victory, R- Hudsonville.

"It is my goal to make a final product that will offer uniform guidance and support of our law enforcement agencies while allowing for the flexibilities to adopt to the unique demands of the communities they serve. This legislative package will evaluate and expand the best practices already found throughout our many local law enforcement agencies," Victory, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said during a recent hearing.

During a recent interview with the Free Press, Victory said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R- Clark Lake, encouraged him to jumpstart the committee process on these measures before lawmakers leave for their summer break.

He can't guarantee there will be a vote on the bills before the end of June, but his committee has discussed the measures four times since the end of May.

Most who have testified to date support the measures. The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police supports some of the ideas but opposes others, including a bill that would require including use of force violations in an officer's personnel records.

"Our objective with discipline is to correct the behavior, not necessarily to punishment. If the punishment fits, to get the behavior correct and if the officer doesn't reoffend, learns a lesson, that is what our goal is with discipline," Grand Blanc Police Chief Brian Lipe said during a recent committee hearing.

"Why should a written reprimand follow an officer, kind of as a scarlet letter, for the rest of his career?"

Several Republican members have repeatedly cautioned about the possible ramifications of these measures. While Sen. Jim Runestad, R- White Lake, is the lead sponsor of the bill banning chokeholds in most instances, he recently said he's concerned some measures may not effectively balance public safety with allowing officers to do their jobs.

During one hearing, Sen. Tom Barrett, R- Charlotte, asked about due process rights offered to officers accused of misconduct, referencing the concept of the impact of unsubstantiated allegations. He also questioned the amount of time that would be appropriate for officers to wait outside a door before entering to serve a warrant.

Activists on the opposite side of the political spectrum are pushing to strengthen the regulations in the bills. Carina Freeman, chairwoman for the West Michigan advocacy organization The FREED Peoples, testified recently the measures are a good first step.

But she and others are advocating for an unequivocal ban on no-knock warrants, asking officers to knock, announce themselves and wait at least 15 seconds before entering.

"Police are human. They make mistakes, sometimes deadly. We at The FREED Peoples are advocating for these bills so that when mistakes happen, we the people are protected," Freeman said.

These are the type of policy questions that will drive bill amendments in the coming weeks, Victory told the Free Press.

"Each of the bills has its own issue with a specific stakeholder, so I appreciate all the sponsors of the bills and their willingness to work with other stakeholders. And sometimes that's the committee process — the simplest and cleanest ones can sometimes turn out the more problematic because of some unintended consequences," Victory said.

Similar proposals percolating in the House at this point only have Democratic support. While there are some outliers — Rep. Beau LaFave, R- Iron Mountain, introduced a bill last week to require body cameras for Department of Natural Resource law enforcement officers — the lower chamber has not seen the same level of bipartisan cooperation on police reform as the Senate.

Democrats in the House and Senate also say they've heard from law enforcement officers who feel under siege. However, that should not mean they must not meet higher standards when they are given the legal authority to potentially detain or harm Michigan residents.

"We cannot continue to ask the public to put their faith in an institution that regularly employs individuals who are not held accountable for their egregious conduct. We just can't do that any more," said Rep. Felicia Brabec, D- Pittsfield.

"The police — who arguably have the most training, the skills, the knowledge and have more training within the law than the average person — they can act irrationally, sometimes dangerously, and in some cases even criminally without the fear of those consequences."

Last year after Floyd's death, Whitmer and some lawmakers pushed for police reforms such as a ban on chokeholds and creating a duty to intervene.

Republicans and Democrats offered a litany of proposals, including a bipartisan plan to require police training on excessive force intervention. Republican state Sens. Dale Zorn and now current Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido offered a bill to end the use of chokeholds or similar moves by police in most cases. Democrats proposed bills to end the use of tear gas, ban stop-and-frisk policies and facial recognition software, increase training for how law enforcement should respond to someone in a mental health crisis and more.

None of these measures came up for a vote in either the full House or Senate. This year will be different, said state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D- Detroit,

"Our bill package includes concepts that we believe, with a lot of hard work, will earn strong bipartisan support and make a big difference for our communities," Chang said.

©2021 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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