Floyd death spurs policing revisions in Detroit suburbs
Metro Detroit police agencies say they enacted many of the reforms being demanded by demonstrators long before George Floyd died with an officer's knee against his throat last month in Minneapolis.
But they also admit there’s a long way to go, saying they need more funding to train officers and stronger laws to help them weed out job applicants who have engaged in misconduct, or are likely to do so.
In the meantime, local law enforcement officials are reviewing and revising policies governing use-of-force incidents, promoting de-escalation tactics and seeking input from residents.
“We have a good working relationship with the community, but I have received calls from residents wanting to know if what happened in Minneapolis could happen here,” said Michael Patton, police chief of West Bloomfield Township. “We are listening and reviewing. Anyone who has seen that video can only conclude it was wrong.”
Southfield police Chief Elvin Barren said he acted quickly after Floyd's May 25 death to address two key concerns raised by the incident: the use of a chokehold by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin and the inaction of three other officers on the scene. All four face criminal charges.
“Following the murder of George Floyd, within two days, I initiated a duty-to-intervene policy,” Barren said. “We reviewed our policies, and while it implied there was a duty, the language was not strong enough.
“If you are present and witness a violation of policy, improper conduct or violation of law, you must intervene,” he said. “If not, you will be held as accountable as the person committing the acts.”
The exercise of chokeholds was prohibited except in situations where deadly force is authorized — self-defense or protecting the life of another.
“I felt it important to personally meet with officers and lay out what was expected, not read it in some memo or order,” Barren said. “I met with the union, and in cases like this you expect pushback. I’m proud to say there was none. Everyone agreed that it was needed.”
The Grosse Pointe Public Safety Department plans to update its use-of-force policy to explicitly ban the use of chokeholds.
"We've never taught chokeholds in our self-defense training classes, but since George Floyd, we will write language that they are not acceptable," said Stephen Poloni, director of public safety for the 57-officer department that serves the city of Grosse Pointe and Grosse Pointe Park.
He said even before Floyd's death, the department's leadership had been addressing issues in the "Eight Can't Wait" platform by Campaign Zero, a national police reform group seeking to reduce incidents of police violence. The group's demands include banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation in use of force incidents, requiring officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, and more.
"We have been training officers in diversity, implicit bias, duty to intervene and all of Eight Can't Wait concerns for years," Poloni said.
Barren said he also met with community organizers in West Bloomfield Township and demonstrators on the street regarding their concerns, including demands for police reform.
“I told them in the event that officers were found to have committed misconduct, determined by review and evidence, they would be held accountable,” he said. “I also told them if events showed their response was appropriate, that I would always stand and defend my officers.”
Barren said additional training sessions are ongoing to help deal with situations involving diversity and people with mental illnesses.
Southfield has deployed dash cameras in all patrol cars and body cameras began arriving the week of June 15, with a target of full departmental deployment by August, Barren said.
In Warren, Police Commissioner William Dwyer said his department's 210 sworn officers were given a "duty to intervene" order after the Floyd incident.
“We didn’t have a general order, but officers have known the need to report officers whose actions cross the line,” he said.
That was the case in a July 2018 incident involving Matthew Nichols, then the department's second-in-command. Other officers reported seeing him punch or slap a suspected shoplifter outside a Lowe's store.
Nichols was later fired after an internal hearing and has sued in an effort to reclaim his post.
The department faced another use-of-force controversy this month when a white officer arrested a Black Amazon driver who was delivering a package to a home on June 9.
Dwyer told The Detroit News that the officer had told the driver he was parked illegally but the man became "argumentative and refused multiple requests for his license." A struggle ensued, and the officer "took the driver to the ground to gain control of him for everyone's safety and before the situation escalated further."
The Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office declined to issue a warrant in the incident and Dwyer has asked the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office to do an independent review of the officer’s actions.
Sgt. Renee Yax, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said officials "are currently reviewing our policy and procedures to ensure our deputies have clear and concise guidelines on the use of force.”
Reform efforts have extended to county prosecutor’s offices. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton announced a new warrant practice this month “to prevent police from using low-level ordinance or civil infractions as a reason to stop and question a citizen who is otherwise doing nothing wrong or illegal."
He said his new policy is aimed at eliminating selective enforcement and making the justice system fairer.
“If police bring a warrant request to my office where the only reason a more serious crime was uncovered was because the police stopped an individual for walking in the street, that warrant will be denied,” Leyton said. “There must be other tangible evidence a crime is being committed before we will entertain a warrant."
Mark Fancher, an attorney with the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said reforms in policing organizations are “fine” but not a solution.
“You aren’t going to resolve these problems with guidelines and lists,” he said. “None of them are bad and all of them can be helpful in reducing incidents like George Floyd.
“But ultimately, it is the culture that has to be changed to solve anything,” Fancher said, adding Black communities have always been heavily patrolled by police, to everyone’s detriment, “heavily influenced by racial stereotypes and racism.”
“And police have adopted the position that they have to be this soldier, aggressive and dominant, to survive in that environment, viewing anyone who is Black as suspicious or a threat,” he said.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who is vice president of the Major County Sheriffs Association, said his department and other Michigan police agencies need help from lawmakers to improve officer training and hiring.
“I can’t imagine a department not doing a thorough background check on a prospective employee, but we need laws that provide us access to files without hesitation,” said Bouchard, a former member of the Michigan Senate. “Every agency should do a full and deep background check on applicants who may interview well but have a history of problems.”
Bouchard also suggests requiring police applicants to take polygraph exams, which were permitted under state law into the 1970s.
“When I started out, I had to take a polygraph exam," the sheriff said. "Somehow, we dropped that along the way. ... I know they aren’t always right, but they can give you a pretty good idea of someone’s character and how they might react in certain situations.”
Bouchard said his and other police agencies need funding to institute more rigorous training, including facilities outside the classroom where officers can be put through possible scenarios.
“The community college has a small training area, but it is outdated and we need something larger,” he said. “But for 15 years, we have been unable to get either the state or federal government to assist us.”
The Michigan Council of Law Enforcement Standards provides Bouchard's department with $142 per officer for annual training.
“That’s insufficient,” he said. “The only way I have been able to get essential training for my deputies is thanks to the county’s Board of Commissioners, who recognize the need.”