When Cops Give Cops the Nod

Following the murder of Aura Rain Rosser by Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) officer David Ried, Ann Arbor to Ferguson demanded that the city of Ann Arbor put resources behind the creation of a police oversight body. Rather than listen to the testimony of Black residents and activists, the city of Ann Arbor put $230,000 into hiring former law enforcement officers at Hillard Heintze to investigate AAPD and whether oversight or reforms are needed. While flawed, Hillard Heintze’s Report corroborates what residents already knew—that AAPD is not independently investigated, has insufficient training, does not track misconduct or enforcement, and refuses to be transparent in its policies and practices. On Thursday, November 16th the council will meet to discuss the report and its implications.

Essentially, city council has wasted $230,000 on an investigation into the reputation of the police department in the eyes of residents, when the concern of activists has always been the material harm being caused by the police and how that material harm is (not) being addressed. Just eight weeks ago, a Black teen named Ciaeem Slaton was pinned to the ground and handcuffed for “disorderly conduct” and not a single member of city council spoke up, reached out to the family to treat them like human beings who had experienced harm, attempted to explain the citation which many residents questioned, or involve themselves in police accountability. Ann Arbor is consistently callous and racist in their response to incidents of violence, as they have been in purchasing this report, in questioning the narratives of Black residents, and institutionally denying any healing for the harm that this city and its police officers cause.

For years Ann Arbor has demonstrated that they are invested in protecting the institutions of this city and their own power, before meeting the needs of the most marginalized residents in the city. Meanwhile, this expensive report demonstrates that the Ann Arbor community clearly perceives the police to be the catch all solution for every social problem and conflict in the city—a perception which officials have invested $25 million in every year. Law enforcement officers have taken on the role of on-the-spot mental health professionals, mediators, paramedics, and social workers, all while enforcing the law. These expectations are both unrealistic because of the specialization that professionals in those roles develop over years of education and practice, and because the role of enforcing the law puts police officers in a position of authority which is not compatible with justly performing these other roles.

These expectations and the massive public funding that backs them are essential to understanding the foundation of the material harm of policing. In Ann Arbor, as in the rest of the U.S., policing and incarceration are used as a means of addressing social problems that often stem from systemic and intersecting economic and social inequities, which disproportionately impact mentally ill, disabled, and people of color.

Because Hillard Heintze sought to answer a question of reputation, rather than harm, and it mostly heard the voices of the homogenous wealthy, its recommendations cannot fully address the harms caused when the task of law enforcement interacts with these inequities in employment, housing, wealth, social networks, social capital, and care services.

Where Hillard Heintze suggests more training for police officers to engage in many roles, the city should instead act now to provide urgently responding and accessible mental health professionals, social workers, medical care, and mediators who do not issue fines or make arrests. The funding for these should come out of the policing budget and should diminish the scope of the police department.

Where Hillard Heintze suggests putting more police officers in low-income housing areas and schools in the interest of improving relationships, they fail to mention or address the increased harm that takes place when low-income people, who are often people of color, are increasingly put in contact with police rather than teachers, mentors, social workers, counselors, mediators, or financial support.

Where Hillard Heintze frames their work within legality or policy of the police, we know that racial and economic injustice are often legal and in fact upheld by laws and policy. We know from research on the populations most incarcerated and on parole, that the police are tasked with enforcing laws in ways that are both legal and also racially discriminatory.

As a result of the task they were given, Hillard Heintze failed to ask:

  • What areas of Ann Arbor are being most heavily policed and why?
  • Demographically and geographically, who is being fined, ticketed, arrested, and jailed in Ann Arbor?
  • From the perception of residents being stopped, questioned, fined, ticketed, arrested, and jailed in Ann Arbor, what is the interaction with police officers like? What are the results of those interactions? How do those interactions impact their lives and families?
  • From the perception of residents living and spending time where police are most present, how does police presence impact them?
  • Who is calling the police in Ann Arbor and for what reasons?
  • What are the outcomes for people who have called the police for help?
  • What are the outcomes for people who have had the police called on them? What are the outcomes for their families and neighborhoods?
  • When someone is harmed by the police, whether that harm was legal or illegal, how is that harm addressed?

Without asking or answering these questions, city council has failed to address the harm that is present in policing, not because AAPD is any more racist or classist than other law enforcement bodies, but because all policing that fines and incarcerates people facing social inequities adds harm to pre-existing harm. Nationally, poor, disabled, and people of color are disproportionately stopped, questioned, fined, arrested, assaulted, killed, and incarcerated by police because of the ways that social inequity and policing interact as a matter of policy—Ann Arbor’s policies, according to the report, are not an exception. Hillard Heintze repeatedly points out that data on the demographics and outcomes of enforcement doesn’t exist, and minimizes the stories of residents who say they have experienced discrimination because they cannot objectively prove it. Yet we know by data about inequity that Ann Arbor is no different in the sense that the most marginalized residents are literally living on the margins of the city, where they are made to be more physically vulnerable to policing due to a history of economic dispossession and a dependence on public spaces. And we know that the consequences of policing on marginalized people brings further economic loss and trauma into families that are already experiencing inequity. We also know that the most egregious and public cases of police misconduct in Ann Arbor—the cases of Lesvah Pugh, Blair Shelton and over 100 other Black men, Dream Nightclub patrons, Aura Rosser, and Ciaeem Slaton, to name a few–have all involved racial minorities, particularly Black residents.

When harm is caused by the police, the question of legality about the police department’s actions are raised and the police department is inevitably found to be within policy. As a result, the harm—whether it is physical, emotional, or financial–goes unacknowledged and unaddressed by the community, and the underlying causes of the incident are never discussed. No public participation isolated to oversight of policing practice can address the underlying social issues that lead residents to call the police on their neighbors, friends, and family when other professional services, that aren’t well funded, could meet their needs with less harm.

If city council chooses to establish the Co-Produced Policing Commission recommended in Hillard Heintze’s report, every CPPC member should be a person directly impacted by policing (formerly incarcerated or on parole), and/or a person simultaneously being paid to provide direct care resources in the community. Otherwise, the city will simply be spending more money to bolster the reputation of the police with bureaucracy, without providing additional resources that address the real material harm being done by policing and by a community full of economic and social inequity.

Ann Arbor currently spends more money on policing than it does on all social services combined. Following years of work on a “Black Lives Matter Task Force,” our neighboring city, Ypsilanti, has recently approved a police oversight body with almost no influential or investigatory power while also earmarking tens of thousands of dollars for more police officers. While investigating and holding police accountable for their individual violence is needed—as proven by David Ried who was named in a law suit involving racist policing prior to killing Aura Rosser—oversight must happen alongside abolition. These cities must move money away from policing and toward marginalized residents and addressing inequities and start treating harmed residents like human beings who deserve care and compassion even if the law says the community does not owe it.

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