Michigan House Dems advance police reform package ending qualified immunity

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan House Democrats on Tuesday announced a police reform package that would end qualified immunity in cases of unreasonable force, ban chokeholds and prohibit no-knock search warrants. 

The 16-bill Justice for All package was unveiled alongside Tawanna Gordon and Tamika Palmer — the cousin and mother, respectively, of Breonna Taylor, a Grand Rapids native who was killed during a March 2020 drug raid at her Louisville, Kentucky apartment.

The no-knock warrant used during the raid was connected to a suspect who did not live there, and no drugs were found inside.

"It's time that we reimagine search warrant operations as they relate to narcotics investigations," Palmer said, arguing that a prohibition on those warrants would help protect both victims and police. 

"No amount of drugs seized is ever worth taking the life of someone," she said. 

Tamika Palmer and Tawanna Gordon, mother and cousin to Breonna Taylor, speak beside Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, on a policing reform package proposed by Michigan House Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

The package comes the same day the Senate began committee hearings on similar legislation that mirrors the House bills with the exception of the qualified immunity prohibition. 

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, the Harper Woods Democrat who chairs the House's Detroit Caucus, said she's had discussions with Republican leadership about the legislation and believes they are supportive of at least some of the measures.

Others may be subject to further conversation, she said, "so that we can all reach a common goal, which is making sure that people across the state of Michigan ... are safe and protected, as well as police.”

"We are only talking about those that abuse their positions and use excessive force when it is absolutely unnecessary. We want police officers to return safely to their homes as well as our kids," Yancey said. 

The legislation, some of which had yet to be introduced, would also require law enforcement to report instances of force, misconduct or internal misconduct investigations to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and make the information available to the public. 

Other bills would prohibit volunteer police officers, require that parents are notified if a youth is arrested or questioned by police and remove public record request exemptions for police misconduct records. 

Rep. Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield, argued in favor of ending qualified immunity, which shields officers from lawsuits while carrying out their duties in cases of unreasonable force.

"It dismisses and, in some cases, just rubber stamps bad behavior," Brabec said.

State Rep. Graham Filler, the DeWitt Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, indicated GOP support for the bills was doubtful and called the press conference announcing the legislation "a publicity stunt to mirror national talking points." 

Michigan does not have a pressing problem that would merit the reforms proposed, Filler said. He referenced the work of former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson as proof of innovative reform and policing at the local level.

More funding could help to recruit, train and retain police officers better than punitive legislative measures, Filler said.

"How unattractive are we trying to make it to be a law enforcement officer in the state of Michigan?” he said.

Michigan already is banned from no-knock warrants due to an appeals court  decision, choke holds are considered deadly force and governmental or qualified immunity only shields an officer from civil suits, not criminal, said Robert Stevenson, executive director for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. 

When it comes to reserve or volunteer officers, the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards had already been tasked with developing standards for volunteer officers but lacks the funding to do so, Stevenson said. 

"Can policing be improved? Absolutely," Stevenson said. "What we did 30 years ago is not what we do today, and what we do 30 years from now is not going to be what we’re doing today.

"But the question is: Is legislation needed?” he said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year championed policy changes such as mandatory de-escalation and implicit bias training, mental health screenings, "duty to intervene" policies and bans on chokeholds. Bills requiring de-escalation and implicit bias training passed unanimously through the House and Senate in June 2020, but the chambers never voted on each other’s bills.

Earlier this year, the GOP-led House proposed using about $80 million in general fund money to provide additional recruitment and retention efforts for local police departments, which have complained of a dearth of applicants. The money also could be used for mental health services and training of any sort, including de-escalation and implicit bias training.