Michigan lawmakers at odds on how to reform police

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan lawmakers are calling for Congress to swiftly enact reforms to police practices in the wake of George Floyd's death in custody last month, but their views diverge on how far the legislation should go. 

Amid nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, members from both parties are ready to ban police use of chokeholds like the one a former Minneapolis officer used to pin Floyd to the pavement for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded for breath. 

Several lawmakers in the delegation also back making lynching a federal hate crime, creating a national registry for police officers with misconduct records, boosting training for requirements for law enforcement and developing mechanisms for independent reviews of officer-involved deaths.

But the growing movement to defund police departments has been met with skepticism on Capitol Hill, where GOP lawmakers are slamming the left for proposing it.

Some defunding advocates want to disband police departments, but most say the goal is reallocating funding to social services and rethinking the role of police.

Michigan's top Republican in Washington is warning that attempts to defund or dismantle law enforcement would be viewed as a poison pill dooming any reform legislation in the GOP-controlled Senate. 

"We want to make sure it won't get overridden. It's got to be bipartisan," U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said last week of the package. "I'm hoping we can move forward together."

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence gives her remarks on black empowerment, peaceful protesting and protecting the city during the rally, Monday, June 1, 2020.

Recent examples of police brutality against black Americans, from Floyd to Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, to Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, are "disturbing," and the government must act, said Upton, who attended a protest march Saturday from St. Joseph to Benton Harbor.

"This is different this time. This is a call from the people in the United States of America saying this behavior is not acceptable," said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat and the only black member of Michigan's delegation.

Competing packages

Democrats are eyeing reforms including restrictions on no-knock warrants, eliminating arrest quotas, requiring body cameras, and curbing liability protections for police officers, Lawrence said. The latter is the subject of a bill by Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of the Grand Rapids area to strip what's known as qualified immunity for government officials. 

Democrats, who last Monday introduced a package of reforms, also seek to limit the transfer of surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement — a step taken under President Barack Obama and rolled back by President Donald Trump. 

"If you’re giving military weapons and training to your police to be a military force, you’re going to get some of the behaviors we’re seeing," Lawrence said. 

Republicans are crafting their own policing proposal in the House and Senate. Upton said the idea of a national database to track police misconduct is "very important," so problem officers can't evade discipline and get a job elsewhere. 

"You know, if one of those Minneapolis police officers had not been fired or charged, they could have just transferred to someplace else — you know, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Washington, L.A. — you'd have no clue as to his prior history," he said. "You need a registry."

Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden wants to improve the system for holding officers accountable and require federal-level investigations into officers with three or more instances of excessive force.

States should also transfer investigations and prosecutions for law enforcement misconduct out of the home jurisdiction to ensure fairness and transparency, Mitchell said. Charges in the death of Arbery, a black jogger in Georgia, were were delayed 10 weeks as a string of prosecutors recused themselves over ties to the suspects.

"You need to get it out of the old boys' club," Mitchell said last week.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., is quitting the Republican party.

He and Upton are among lawmakers who have dismissed activists’ calls to “defund" police departments. Lawrence stressed that the legislation introduced by Democrats in Congress would not do so. 

"I don’t agree with saying 'defund' the police. It doesn’t really capture what we’re trying to do here," said Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, who highlighted the bill's investments in training and transparency. 

"We’re going to take some good bipartisan steps that meet the needs of our municipalities, our residents, and also make for better police departments. Frankly, this is a standards conversation," she added.

"We want to hone in on the standards that create the best police departments this country can have, and make sure every community has access to that quality."

Split over 'defund police'

Advocates generally use "defund police" to mean cutting spending for police overtime and pricey equipment and redirecting those funds to programs related to strengthening social services, education, mental health and housing. 

Lawrence said she was disappointed in GOP leaders who are using the "defund police" movement as political ammunition to paint Democrats as "anti-police" amid bipartisan support for reform.

"Shame on them for using it as a backdrop for saying what we are doing is anti-police," said Lawrence, the former mayor of Southfield. 

"I would never be an anti-police person, because I know how important and valuable police are to our country and to our society. But it has to be reformed. It can’t stay this way."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, said activists calling to defund police want to move away from the over-policing of neighborhoods, the militarization of police and the "criminalization" of poor people.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

The U.S. Department of Justice-funded community policing program known by the acronym COPS has spent $14 billion since 1994, mainly to hire more police officers, instead of addressing core social issues on the ground, she said. 

Tlaib said she is drafting a bill called the Reimagining Community Safety Act, which would reallocate federal funding for community policing from the Justice Department to a new community-led public safety program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're talking about how do we get social workers, those with mental health expertise and experience, into communities versus what we have now — which is constant policing, surveillance and again criminalization," Tlaib said. "We cannot police and incarcerate our way to thriving communities."

'False trade-off'

Shifting funding away from community policing is a "false trade-off," Mitchell said. 

"Do we need to look at our social services and other things to see, are they effective? Absolutely," he said. "But the idea that community policing is a problem — talk to folks that do community policing. They would tell you they don't believe it is." 

Mitchell's son, who is a cop, used to work as a school resource officer. Mitchell said it gives young people a chance to witness police officers in a variety of roles, other than just traffic stops or shoplifting arrests.

Mitchell also opposes efforts to end the transfer of military hardware such as armored vehicles to local law enforcement. He said if his son has to enter a hostile environment with an active shooter, he wants him to have every form of protection available. 

"There's a line in which we need to protect the people that go every day and protect us. They're not all the bad guys here. They're also not responsible for the economic inequities or inequities in opportunity," Mitchell said.

"Elected leaders are. Business leaders to some extent are. We shouldn't as a society take our frustration out on the people that took an oath to try to protect us ... because we're frustrated with how our society's working out."

While police unions have stymied previous reform attempts, the Fraternal Order of Police in a statement last week appeared open to the conversation, saying it was "heartened" by some elements of the Democrats' legislation.

"We have emotions that are so high on both sides of this issue, and in the middle, there's an area where we all agree, and I'm confident that we all agree that we need to have some reform,"  FOP President Patrick Yoes told NPR.

"We need to have some discussions on how to improve what we're doing."

In the interview, Yoes signaled support for a ban on chokeholds and creation of a registry to track misconduct if due process can be assured.

Republicans have questioned controversial elements of the Democrats' bill, including eliminating the “qualified immunity” doctrine, which can shield some government officials from civil lawsuits.

Critics say doing away with the immunity could potentially bankrupt officers or municipalities and discourage people from joining law enforcement. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany has said abolishing the doctrine is a “non-starter” for the Trump administration. 

The bill spearheaded by Amash and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley got a boost Wednesday when a group of over 1,400 current and former professional athletes and coaches from the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball called for its passage. 

"The time for debate about the unchecked authority of the police is over; it is now time for change," reads the letter headed by the Players Coalition, a group started by football players concerned about social and racial inequities. 

“Citizens must know that if those who promise to uphold the law and protect the community fail to do so, there is a remedy available.”

Signatories included University of Michigan alumni Tom Brady and Drew Henson, former Detroit Lions Anquan Boldin, Glover Quin and DeAndre Levy, Detroit Tigers Cameron Maybin and Niko Goodrum, and former Tiger Prince Fielder.