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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel pushes police reforms, with limits

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wants to create a statewide police misconduct database that’s open to the public and equip an oversight board with more power to revoke police licenses in the wake of widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism. 

Those proposals, as well as five others announced Tuesday, aim to increase transparency and accountability in a system many say allows abusive police officers to avoid discipline or public scrutiny. Nessel said she has spoken with GOP leaders in the state House and Senate about the proposals and hopes to work with lawmakers of both parties to introduce them as legislation. 

“I really honestly believe these are low-hanging fruit,” Nessel told Bridge. If officials want “to ensure that we don't have repetitive bad conduct, on behalf of certain police officers or certain police departments, I really think this is the way to do it.”

But while pushing for accountability, Nessel said there may be limits to what disciplinary records she favors making public and offered a broad defense of police officers. Nessel pushed back at the “defund the police” movement, saying she is unwilling to “blow up the system” and supports the view that police misconduct involves “a few bad apples.”   

In her reform package, Nessel wants to: 

  • Allow the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) to revoke a police officers’ license for a broader range of misconduct. Currently, the agency can only revoke a license if the officer has been criminally convicted with a felony or a number of high-level aggravated misdemeanors. 
  • Require law enforcement agencies to maintain all disciplinary records of officers, rather than periodically purging them as they can do now. 
  • Require MCOLES to create a publicly-accessible statewide misconduct registry. 
  • Require officers convicted of felonies on duty to lose their retirement benefits.
  • Require police agencies to publicly report use-of-force data broken down by demographics such as race, sex, disability or sexual orientation of the people targeted by police force. 
  • Create an independent agency for investigating and, if warranted, prosecuting people killed in police encounters. 
  • Ensure law enforcement officers receive continuing education as a requirement of licensure. 

The proposals come as protests continue in Michigan and around the country against bias in policing, excessive force and unaccountability. The protests began more than three weeks ago after George Floyd, a black man, died after being held down, with a knee to his neck, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. 

Nessel said one of the biggest issues in police accountability is officers’ ability to get rehired in departments even after being fired for misconduct, an issue documented in Michigan well before the Floyd protests. In many instances of misconduct, she said, officers aren’t criminally charged, making it easy for them to find work in new agencies. Comparable accountability standards already exist for doctors, dentists, accountants, judges and lawyers, she said. 

“I'm not trying to be disparaging of police officers,” Nessel said. “I just think that they should be held to the same standard as all other professionals. The difference is, of course, unlike other professions they have the ability to take a life.”

While Nessel said she believes disciplinary records should be permanently maintained by police departments and verified complaints should be made public, making disciplinary records public is “something that we’re going to have to discuss further.”

“My concern with that, of course, is that you want a situation where there has been provided some sort of due process,” she said. 

Making greater investments in mental health treatment, education and domestic violence services in communities is crucially important, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of police budgets, she said, referencing activists’ calls to “defund the police” by reallocating a portion of their funding to community services. 

“Recently you hear the phrase, ‘Well, stop saying a few bad apples spoil the bunch.’ But you really can't get away from that, it really is true,” she said. 

“There is the ability to have real reform without blowing up the system altogether.”

She praised legislation being fast-tracked through the Legislature that would require MCOLES to establish minimum training requirements for de-escalation techniques and implicit bias training and to make mental health support available to officers. It would also require officers receive at least 24 hours of continuing education annually beginning in 2023. 

Tim Bourgeois, director of MCOLES, told a state House committee last week that the agency already does most of the training that would be codified through the bill. Given that, some have questioned how much the legislation would actually change police training and outcomes. 

But Nessel argued it represents “real progress” after years of delay due to the outsized influence of police unions in political circles. 

“No candidate for the legislature wants to be called anti-police,” she said. “Creating better oversight, creating more training shouldn't be considered a slam on police, but I think it's been seen that way.”

Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, has also introduced a bill that would require police officers who see other officers using excessive force to intervene, and Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, introduced a bill to bar chokeholds and other pressure on a person’s throat or windpipe. 

Existing police reform legislation has been opposed by some law enforcement organizations, who have argued they only codify existing practices and would make it more challenging for agencies to adapt to future training innovations.

“The Attorney General has never consulted with or offered to work with the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police to address her concerns,” Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, told Bridge via email Tuesday, noting that he will have more to say after reviewing her suggestions. 

He added: “The hits just keep on coming.”

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