Police leaders, lawmaker spar on Michigan database plan for disciplined officers
Lansing — A state representative from Detroit is crafting legislation that would create a central database for Michigan police officers who’ve been disciplined, a proposal that he says would increase accountability and prevent departments from hiring problem cops.
But critics say Michigan doesn't need more laws governing police conduct but requires more funding and staff to enforce existing laws, including one about how and why police officers leave a department. They also worry a new database would become unwieldy to maintain because it would cover mulititudes of minor disciplinary issues as well as more serious ones like abuse.
Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, a 25-year Wayne County Sheriff’s veteran who retired in 2008, said he’s trying to gather bipartisan support and is “drawing up paperwork” for the bill that would require police departments to inform the state about disciplined officers.
"The first thing police say when something bad happens is, 'We need more training,'" Carter said. "But I've gone through a police academy. I've taught at a police academy. I've been to FBI training — and nowhere is training part of what we witnessed in Minneapolis. You don't need more training in situations like that — you need more accountability."
Carter was referring to the May 25 death of George Floyd after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes while the officer's partners stood by. Chauvin has been fired and charged with second-degree murder.
The incident has sparked protests, riots and a national discussion on police tactics, and whether departments should lose funding.
Carter said he doesn't agree with the "defund the police" movement, but said police departments need tweaking.
"We’ve got to look at this slowly and methodically," he said. "You've got people yelling about defund the police. That's not an option, but we do need reform. We've done criminal justice reform, auto insurance reform — maybe it's time to do law enforcement reform."
When asked if the public would also have access to officer files in the database, Carter said, "Maybe they could be (available through the Freedom of Information Act). We're at the early stages of this and looking at different things."
In Michigan, police officer personnel files are exempt from FOIA.
The database, Carter said, would prevent departments from hiring officers like former Detroit cop William Melendez, who had a lengthy discipline record but resigned from Detroit and was hired by Inkster, where he was found guilty of assaulting a motorist.
"That should have never been allowed to happen," Carter said.
In an effort to prevent departments from hiring problem cops, the Michigan Coalition on Law Enforcement Standards, which oversees training and sets other rules for police, compels departments to inform the state when officers leave and why.
The requirements of Public Act 128 of 2017, or the Law Enforcement Officer Separation of Service Record Act, include:
- Departments must maintain a record of the reasons for and circumstances surrounding why an officer left the agency.
- Officers leaving their departments must "sign a waiver allowing a prospective employing agency to contact his or her former employing agency or agencies and seek a copy of the officer's separation of service record."
- Former employers must give a copy of the officer's separation of service record to a prospective employing agency after getting a waiver. A department is forbidden under the law to hire an officer unless it has received the officer's personnel record.
- The former agency disclosing the information after receiving a waiver will be immune from civil liability for the disclosure.
There's not enough manpower at MCOLES to enforce the statute, said Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
"We already have enough rules, regulations and laws," he said. "We don't need any more. We just need to enforce the ones already on the books. But MCOLES now only has one investigator to look at officer malfeasance.That's not even close to enough.
"We want MCOLES property staffed; it's to the benefit of the profession," Stevenson said. "They went from 28 civilian employees to three recently, and there's a hiring freeze (because of the coronavirus)."
Phone calls to MCOLES were not returned.
James Tignanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, the state's largest police union, said the state law, if enforced, would provide the accountability Carter is seeking.
"We used to worry about officers who had discipline issues who were allowed to resign and go work somewhere else, but MCOLES put a stop to that," Tignanelli said. "Now, every Dec. 31, each department has to show who's working that day, and anyone not on that list who was there the year before, they have to say why."
Carter said he's aware of the MCOLES rule, "but it's not being followed. And there are no consequences for not following it. That's the whole problem; no consequences. We need a law that has consequences for noncompliance."
The MCOLES rules also only cover officers who leave their jobs, while Carter's proposed database would include disciplined cops who stay in their departments.
Tignanelli said he doesn't have a problem with Carter's call for a central database — "as long as it's done right; we have no secrets." But, he added, it would be logistically challenging.
"Most officer discipline cases are for things like a guy calling in sick too many times," he said. "I think you'd go crazy trying to track all officer disciplines. How many people would the state have to hire to handle that kind of a database?
"If you're going to do this, you'd need to focus only on abuse and unprofessional behavior," he said. "And those cases really don't happen all that often."
Another reason Carter said he wants a central database is that most police departments purge an officer's discipline record after two years.
"After two years, we have no way of knowing if this officer has a history of problems," Carter said. "That information should be available."
Tignanelli said the provision is written into many department union contracts as an incentive for officers "to correct behavior."
"If an officer has an infraction and doesn't do it again in two to three years, what's the use in keeping it in his personnel file because he called in sick for three consecutive Mondays?" he said.
Carter said while he's still in the early stages of crafting the legislation, and is open to suggestions, he said it's important to have the discussion of police reform.
In addition to the database, Carter said said he's considering proposing mandatory mental health screenings as part of the bill and is working on funding for officers to get treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.
"We've got to do something," Carter said. "I don't want rules that will compromise an officer's union-negotiated benefits, and I also don't want to put officers in situations where they're second-guessing themselves and becoming victims, wondering 'Should I do something?' — and then you find the officer dead with their gun still in the holster.
"But when it comes to law enforcement, a lot of things have been wrong for so long, and people just accept it," he said. "I don't think people should accept it anymore."