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Michigan Democrats push to open police disciplinary files, limit immunity

Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce a sweeping set of police reforms to increase accountability and transparency in the state’s law enforcement agencies, members of Michigan’s Black and Detroit Caucuses announced Wednesday during a press conference. 

The package aims to change policing in Michigan to address racial inequities and police violence, which have been the focus of state- and nationwide protests since late May, when the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked calls for change. 

The proposals — announced by Democratic Reps. Tenisha Yancey, Sarah Anthony, Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, Brenda Carter, Jewell Jones and Tyrone Carter — range from ending qualified immunity for police officers who use excessive force to barring facial recognition technology and requiring all disciplinary records to be retained and made publicly available. 

“We're gathered here because of our commitment to enacting significant change that will one day ensure the laws and systems in our state treat everyone with fairness and dignity, the dignity that they deserve,” said Anthony of Lansing. “Change that addresses systemic racism and injustice that we see all around us... The time for action is now.”

It remains unclear which, if any, of the proposals will get a hearing in the Michigan Legislature, where both chambers are controlled by Republicans. Though one of the Democrats said Wednesday that the House Speaker has taken steps to meet privately with the caucuses to begin conversations. 

The Democrats said the first package will be introduced over the next month. 

Among the proposals: 

  • Ending “qualified immunity” for police officers who use excessive force. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that often shields officers from prosecution for constitutional violations. 
  • Prohibiting the use of facial recognition technology, which has been controversial in Detroit and elsewhere as critics say it contributes to over-policing and civil rights violations — people of color are more likely than white people to be misidentified by such technology — while proponents argue it helps curb crime. 
  • Banning chokeholds or other pressure on a person’s neck — which lead to Floyd’s death — along with a ban on no-knock warrants, an issue in the killing of Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, whose death is also a focus of recent protests. An anti-chokehold bill has also been introduced by a Senate Republican. 
  • Requiring citizen review boards in every community, a panel staffed by non-police officers who oversee local law enforcement agencies. Detroit and Grand Rapids are among the Michigan cities that already have review boards. 
  • Establishing “crisis intervention teams” staffed by social workers and mental health specialists who are often better equipped than police to handle calls involving residents experiencing mental health issues. 
  • Requiring officers statewide to wear body cameras. 
  • Requiring law enforcement agencies to establish “early intervention systems” that identify officers with high rates of use of force and misconduct complaints and correct or discipline their behavior. 

“There is no accountability. Officers act with impunity, their actions are going to be covered. We have to peel that back so everybody understands that they are there to serve and protect,” said Tyrone Carter of Detroit, who worked for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office for more than 25 years before becoming a lawmaker. 

The packages will also include a number of proposals similar to those recommended by Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in June, including the creation of an independent agency for investigating and prosecuting cases of excessive force and requiring police departments to retain disciplinary records and make them publicly available. Right now, disciplinary records are periodically purged in many agencies. 

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Gay-Dagnogo of Detroit said Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, invited the Legislative Black and Detroit Caucuses to a private meeting and later a meeting with the GOP caucus three weeks ago to talk about issues related to race. The conversation was “well-received,” Gay-Dagnogo said, including with former law enforcement officers who work in the GOP caucus. 

“We’re looking for a path forward to ensure that we can get some of the bills through the House and the Senate. That will take compromise and more conversations of working together,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “The Speaker has given me that commitment (that he will work to find common ground)... And so we're looking forward to keeping him at his word.”

Chatfield’s office could not immediately be reached for comment. Senate GOP spokesperson Amber McCann told Bridge via email that neither the Senate Republican Caucus nor Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is aware of the proposals announced Wednesday. 

Law enforcement advocates said the package would duplicate some policies that are already in place. 

For example, every sheriff’s office in Michigan reports use-of-force incident rates to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is now made public; excessive force is not covered by qualified immunity; and there are standardized guidelines for use of force, said Matthew Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association. 

“One bad actor is too many and I hope we don’t see another one. But it’s more than police reform, it’s criminal justice reform. Systemic racism is not just in law enforcement, it’s all over our society,” Saxton said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do still in this country, but we’ve come a long way as well.”

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed that some of the caucuses’ proposals are already addressed in law, some his group is lobbying for as well — such as police partnerships with mental health workers — and some he’d need more information on. 

“We look forward to being invited into the conversation to offer our insight and advice before any legislation is proposed,” he said.

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