EAST LANSING, Mich. — After months of consideration, the East Lansing City Council voted unanimously to create an independent police oversight commission.
It's the first community oversight commission in the city, but similar groups have been forming all across the country, including in Ann Arbor.
Research shows that citizen oversight commissions can reduce racial disparities in arrests, but that they are most effective when they have genuine authority.
The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, was established in 2016 "by predominantly African Americans who most of them had been police officers and saw what was going wrong in the system,” said NACOLE President Susan Hutson.
“All parts of government need checks and balances or some kind of oversight," Hutson said, but policing in particular, because officers are given a lot of authority.
“This part of government, which is one of the most intimate parts of government, that actually comes into peoples homes, infringes on their rights,” Hutson said.
This is where external oversight groups come in.
“There won’t be change without it," Hutson said. "It’s the most direct way to get community leadership into the police department.”
In order for those groups to make lasting changes, she said, they need to be strong, independent and to have the access and power to "do the people's work."
Lisa Jackson is the chair for Ann Arbor's independent police oversight commission, which was established in 2018 after an incident that she said shocked the community.
“In 2014, where an officer responded to an intimate partner violence conflict situation, the person may have had some mental health challenges and was shot and killed," Jackson said, "our best information indicates within about 37 seconds of the officer arriving at the home.”
The Ann Arbor commission is made up of eleven volunteers from different backgrounds, tasked with reviewing complaints made with them or the police department and makes recommendations on policies and public safety.
“Including looking at the police budget and making recommendations on their budget but also being able to make recommendations regarding negotiations for labor contracts,” Jackson said.
She said they're pushing the police department for more transparency and accountability.
“When the police department makes a mistake, and they do because they’re comprised of humans, what we want is for them to acknowledge it, indicate what went wrong and how they’ll do it better in the future,” Jackson said.
Jackson said it's too early to tell if there's been a shift in trust between the community and police in Ann Arbor.
“We hope in the end it will increase the public's trust in the police, but we think it’s a challenging process and one that will take some time,” she said.
Mir Usman Ali is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and has studied whether oversight commissions work.
“The goal was to examine whether or not these agencies have had an impact over the last three decades in terms of reducing racial disparities in police homicides of citizens or racial disparities in disorderly conduct arrests,” Ali said.
He grouped oversight commissions across the country into three categories: independent investigations, monitoring agencies and review focused. He found one succeeded more than the others.
“Investigative agencies were a part of agencies that have the strongest set of authorities, that have the largest budget, that had the authority to recommend discipline," Ali said. "Those agencies led to a marked reduction in racial disparities in disorderly conduct arrests, as well as racial disparities in police homicides of citizens.”
And that's the sort of commission Ann Arbor set up and the sort that will be established in East Lansing.
However, that doesn't mean there aren't limitations, particularly if there are no consequences for police not meeting the commission's demands.
“If we’re expected to have information in 30 days and we don’t get it in 30 days there’s no penalty to the police," Jackson said. "They can just shrug their shoulders and say ‘Oh well, we’ll get it to you when we get it to you.’”
Jackson said the Ann Arbor commission is pushing for the department to own their mistakes.
“When people see the police owning their mistakes regularly and as a matter of fact, a matter of course, that that will enhance trust as well,” she said.
With time, Ali said, trust could be possible.
“They need time and they need support," Ali said. "If they are allowed to function without political interference, for an extended period of time, then they will gradually rebuild trust.”
East Lansing is taking applications for the commission and expects it to start meeting later this year.
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