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Peters introduces bipartisan Senate community policing bill

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters has introduced legislation in the Republican-controlled Senate aiming to boost trust between police and the neighborhoods they serve by encouraging law enforcement officers to work in the community where they live. 

The measure, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, is an effort to help departments struggling to attract and retain recruits who intimately understand their community and who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood they police.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)

In the late 1990s, Michigan banned local governments and other public employers from imposing residency requirements on their employees. The Peters' proposal would give a financial incentive for police departments to hire within their communities.

Peters' proposal comes in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police. Floyd's death sparked protests nationwide against police brutality and racism. 

"We know community policing is a forward-leaning approach to providing protection and services to the community. It's about police officers and sheriffs knowing the community, understanding the community, often knowing individuals by name," said Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township.

"Certainly, someone who has grown up in that community or has lived in that community for a long period of time brings a perspective to the police force or the sheriff's department that is absolutely invaluable."

The legislation has been endorsed by the NAACP, the Police Officers Association of Michigan and the National Urban League. 

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said the bill would go "a long way" toward addressing the "critical" problems that law enforcement leaders face when it comes to recruiting, hiring, training and retention. 

Napoleon said he believes communities should be allowed to require that police officers live in the community where they work, noting that was a mandate when he was hired by the Detroit Police 

Department in 1975.

"That is critical to having trust of the community — to know that their police officers are not apart from the community, that are a part of the community," said Napoleon, who was Detroit police chief from 1998-2001.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office has 200 vacancies that Napoleon said he is unable to fill despite two full-time recruiters, but he suggested that educational grants like those Peters is proposing would be a strong incentive.

The bill would provide financial assistance in the form of federal grants for recruits to attend a police academy or other higher education if they agree to work full time as a public safety officer in a local law enforcement agency for at least four years.  

"I'm confident as these individuals spend those four years in that department, they're likely to spend many more years," Peters said.

To be eligible, recruits would have to work for a law enforcement agency within five miles of where they have lived for at least five years. In counties with populations of fewer than 100,000, recruits could serve within 20 miles of their home, according to the legislation.   

The Rev. Steve Bland Jr., senior pastor of Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, said the legislation should help create greater racial diversity among the Detroit police. The force is currently about 55% African-American.

"We have a city that is 80-plus, 85% African American, and it should be reflected in our police force. I know there are barriers to that. The programs like this go to help us to jump those hurdles," Bland said. 

"There's a rule that I deal with in leadership that says, 'Rules without relationship equals rebellious behavior.' And some of the rebellious behavior we're dealing with is — there's no relationship." 

Peters said he hopes his legislation would be soon considered by the full Senate, potentially as part of a bipartisan package. 

His bill came on the same day that Senate Republicans outlined their new police reform package in Washington, saying it would be considered on the floor next week. 

That bill, led by GOP South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, would among other things give police departments an incentive to ban chokeholds and use body cameras by threatening to withhold federal grants. It would also require that officers report use of force and no-knock warrants. 

Peters said he'd not had the chance to review Scott's legislation but was disappointed that it doesn't require independent investigations into incidents involving the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers — a reform he says is important to pass into law.

"If that bill is put on the floor, hopefully we'll have an opportunity to to amend it and have an opportunity to bring other ideas forward," Peters said. 

"We all need to come together in a bipartisan way to put forward meaningful change and meaningful ideas on how we make the criminal justice system work fairly for everybody, no matter who they are, no matter where they live."

Peters, who is up for reelection this fall, has not put his support behind the Democratic reform package introduced in Congress last week and led by the Congressional Black Caucus. 

He instead is supporting a variety of bills that would enact reforms, including banning the use of chokeholds, mandating independent investigations and prosecutions of the use of deadly force and improved training, his office said. 

He also is co-sponsoring legislation to require federal law enforcement officers, contractors and members of the military to clearly identify themselves and their service branch or agency while engaged in crowd control at protests.

mburke@detroitnews.com