Washtenaw Co. town hall on policing is a ‘good start’

Mark Hicks, The Detroit News

Ypsilanti  — Deadly encounters between minorities and police officers nationwide have grabbed headlines, sparked protests and raised concerns in Metro Detroit.

But when an audience member during a town hall meeting Thursday at Eastern Michigan University asked what an African-American motorist could do to ensure that he or she leaves a traffic stop unharmed, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton offered a sobering response that reflects many people’s fears.

“I can’t guarantee anything and I don’t think any of my colleagues can guarantee it,” he said before a crowd of more than 400. “... But we’ve got to figure out a way to get to that point.”

Clayton and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell headed a community unity meeting and town hall discussion Thursday at the EMU Student Center to address the recent spate of violence involving police officers and African-Americans in the United States.

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black, after encounters with police in Louisiana and Minnesota have prompted demonstrations nationwide, including Detroit. Another deadly encounter also was reported this month in Houston.

Thursday’s event also followed the fatal shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Law enforcement agencies across the United States have been on guard and tensions have risen between police and black communities in the wake of those deaths.

Dingell, D-Dearborn, and other leaders who participated in the forum said the controversial incidents underscore the need for the Thursday event, which focused on policing, community interactions and ways to stop violent encounters with police.

“We can’t believe the horrific things we have seen in the last few weeks,” she told the large audience from the stage. “Let us begin to talk so we understand each other and let us as a community come together.”

After a session that featured various faith and community leaders, the five speakers — including an activist, the Washtenaw County prosecutor and an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer fielded questions from the diverse audience. David Fair, news director at the WEMU radio station, moderated with representatives from area police agencies and elected officials in the crowd.

Many of the queries concerned authorities as well as what some said is the separate, unequal treatment of black residents in the legal system.

Clayton and other panelists stressed they believe many officers follow the rules to protect citizens, but for some on duty, discriminatory practices can become commonplace. “In some organizations, it is systemic because it is passed on from generation to generation,” he said.

To change perceived biases and hold accountable officers who mistreat minorities requires a cultural shift on the force, said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Michigan. “A good police officer will stand up and say: ‘No, I’m telling you that’s wrong.’ ”

Much of the talk centered on race. When an audience member suggested that race relations have significantly improved in this country, Myles McGuire, a Black Lives Matter organizer, flatly disagreed.

“We’re still dying,” he said.

Nathan Phillips, an Ypsilanti resident who came to ask about how he and other American Indians fit into the conversation, hoped for more answers. But he appreciated the chance to talk and begin pursuing change.

“I feel that it’s a good start,” he said. “There’s room for more discussion.”

Dingell called the town hall “an honest, respectful and at times intense discussion.”

“We need to understand the impact national perceptions have on the vast majority of police officers who want to make our communities safer. But we also have to understand what it means to be black or Muslim or Native-American in this country,” she said in a statement after the meeting. “We need more open and real conversations about not only race, but the growing unemployment and income disparity impacting all working men and women.”