Opinion: Make Michigan police misconduct complaints public

Tyrone Carter

We all know their names by now: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake. They are among the ranks of countless Black victims of violence, mostly at the hands of law enforcement, who have sparked widespread protests, a national reckoning on systemic racism and unprecedented demand for police reform. 

As a lawmaker, 25-year veteran of the Wayne County Sheriff’s department, Black man and father, I was horrified to see these recent acts unfold, but I also know how many good, decent public servants there are on the police force. I support our police and I support accountability — the two are not mutually exclusive.

Legislation I introduced would ensure independent access to all police misconduct complaints, Carter writes.

Over the past few months, state lawmakers across the country have advanced police reform policies like banning chokeholds, limiting the use of no-knock warrants and requiring “duty to intervene” protocols. All of these reforms represent good faith efforts to prevent officers with long histories of misconduct from avoiding scrutiny. Unfortunately, one crucial group will still be left in the dark — the public. 

Secrecy denies victims — and the public — an opportunity to evaluate the fairness of an internal investigation and whether an abusive officer ever faced any consequences. Right now, Michigan’s police misconduct records are frequently shielded from the public because they are exempt from disclosure as personnel records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Without public access to these records true transparency and accountability for misconduct cannot exist.

That’s why I introduced legislation last week that would lift the veil of secrecy that prevents public scrutiny of this information through FOIA. Opening up these records will not only strengthen accountability, but also help police departments weed out any bad actors during their hiring process. Good cops want more accountability in the system too because it prevents bad cops from tarnishing their reputations and creating ill will in their communities, making it difficult to do their jobs.

This legislation would ensure independent access to all misconduct complaints, not just “substantiated” ones. An officer with a pattern of unsubstantiated civilian complaints should still be scrutinized — Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin had at least 17 misconduct complaints on his record before he kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes — the vast majority of which did not result in disciplinary action. 

Michigan’s FOIA statute, as it stands today, allows police misconduct records to be withheld from both defense attorneys and prosecutors litigating cases. Police credibility impacts every phase of a case, which includes the ability of prosecutors to make charging decisions and plea decisions based on the assurances of police. When police departments are not effectively policing their own, unchecked misconduct can lead directly to wrongful convictions that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and rob innocent people of their lives and liberties. 

According to a recent report from the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct contributed to the wrongful criminal convictions of more than half of innocent people who were later exonerated — 54%. In Michigan, 34 out of 117 of the state’s total exonerations since 1989 were due in part to police misconduct.

This commonsense improvement enjoys broad support from a wide array of organizations. Everyone agrees that FOIA should not include and continue to faithfully protect personal information of police like social security numbers, addresses and cell phone data as well as medical records and substance abuse services.

When we grant public officials tremendous authority and discretion, as we do with police officers, accountability is incredibly important to ensure they are using that authority in the public interest. The vast majority of police officers are faithful public servants. But without public transparency, we will never root out bad cops with a history of misconduct that hurt the reputation of our police, do not truly protect the public and all too often are complicit in putting the innocent behind bars.

Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, represents the 6th District in the Michigan House of Representatives.