A look back: Takeaways from ACLU of Michigan Law Enforcement Hearing

POST BY Mark Fancher Racial Justice Staff Attorney

A little more than a year ago, the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project convened an important hearing on law enforcement best practices. At the time, the public’s alarm about police violence was at fever pitch, and to the extent the need for clarity about how to address this problem was not already apparent, the popular demand for answers drove the point home.

A panel composed of distinguished lawyers, a professor, a law enforcement specialist, and others spent a full day hearing the testimony of police chiefs, civil rights lawyers, a psychologist, and a representative of the transgender community. Remarkable information was provided by the witnesses that included, among many other observations, the following:

  • The Kalamazoo Police Department’s frank and public admission that it had engaged in a pattern of racial profiling was met by the community, not with anger but with gratitude and offers to provide support and assistance with efforts to fix the problem.
     
  • Analyses of Kalamazoo police practices showed that although officers were focused on stopping people of color, they were recovering more contraband from white motorists, demonstrating that racial profiling is not only unconstitutional, but also an ineffective police practice.
     
  • Explosive confrontations between police and members of the community often occur because the police sometimes respond to irate citizens by competing to show even higher levels of agitation and anger. Many violent conflicts can be avoided through law enforcement efforts to de-escalate tense encounters.
     
  • Although psychological screening of police recruits is essential, it is equally important to conduct ongoing, periodic psychological monitoring of officers throughout their careers. While most applicants for police jobs are in good mental health, the stresses of police work over time can be detrimental.
     
  • Police culture that affirms discriminatory and violent practices can be significantly countered by holding officers accountable for their actions through intra-departmental discipline and by criminal prosecution.
     
  • The effectiveness of civil rights litigation in causing law enforcement reform is often hampered by the non-involvement of offending police officers in the litigation process. Because the employer government’s lawyers become the primary actors in the litigation arena, the officers never hear first-hand from the victims how abusive conduct has impacted the lives of not only families but entire communities. The inclusion of some form of restorative practices in the civil litigation process could be useful in inspiring officers to reform their own conduct and to modify their perspectives on the communities they serve.

It is hoped that as more members of the community become well-versed in the best practices options for law enforcement, that more focused demands and dialogue will lead to the adoption of new policies and changes in institutional culture.

A brief highlights video of the proceedings can be viewed on YouTube.

A gavel-to-gavel video record of this extraordinary hearing can be made available upon request. To request a recording, e-mail mfancher@aclumich.org.

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