Wayne County Community College Criminal Justice Professor James Jackson and State Police Director Col. Joseph Gasper discussed racial disparities in traffic stops and community engagement in Detroit. (Sherman Eaton photos)

As part of an ongoing effort to reevaluate its policing practices, Michigan State Police engaged Monday with community leaders in Detroit over the department’s plan to address racial disparities in traffic stops and to hear about their interactions with police.

Rev. Wendell Anthony of the Detroit NAACP and State Police Director Col. Joseph Gasper convened the meeting at Wayne County Community College District with about 35 community stakeholders in the wake of a January study from MSP that found Black motorists were more likely to be pulled over, searched and arrested than people of other races. Detroit Police Commissioner Rev. Jim Holley was also in attendance.

Gasper told the crowd that the report made him realize the department needs to rethink how it’s policing. The department is now engaging in difficult conversations around what improving implicit bias really means.

“We do that by understanding our data, we do that by having conversations with the community, and by having very specific details on how to make a difference,” Gasper said. 

State police officials say they plan on hosting additional engagement events at the college and will also invite students to offer feedback. (Sherman Eaton photos)

The independent study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, looked at traffic stop data from 2017 to 2020. It found that 21% of all stops in 2020 involved Black people, who make up less than 14% of the state population.

Since the study was released, MSP launched a five-point plan to address the issues. The plan includes:

  • Adding body-worn cameras for all 1,600 troopers. The department currently has 250 of them.
  • Hiring an independent consultant to review the agency’s policies and making recommendations on changes to address racial disparities.
  • Engaging with residents and community leaders statewide about racial problems and solutions.
  • Creating a “professional development bureau” within the state police to provide education for trainees and troopers, particularly about cultural and racial issues.
  • Providing troopers with data about traffic stops so they “can learn about and adjust their actions.”

Detroit activists and religious leaders gave their take Monday on steps being taken by MSP and on implicit bias in policing in general. 

Maureen Taylor, a long-time activist with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said one of her issues with policing in general is the “code of silence” many officers ascribe to. 

“The police always ask us (in the community) ‘if you see something, say something,’ but I want the police to do that,” Taylor said. “There’s people in your department who you know shouldn’t be there, so if you see something, say something.”

Taylor also pointed out the lack of women in leadership positions within MSP and other law enforcement agencies, saying “men will only think like men.”

Multiple people, community members and law enforcement officers present acknowledged that policing in the United States will forever be tied to slave patrols. A historical project from the  NAACP links slave patrols to early law enforcement in the country. Gasper said he hopes that negative history can be overcome. However, some Detroiters are skeptical of MSP’s ability to achieve that.

Minister Malik Shabazz, who frequently works alongside the Detroit Police Department to quell gun violence, said he wants MSP to engage more with the community outside of traffic stops. 

“If you want more Black people, Latino people, oppressed people to join (MSP) then you’ve got to be more culturally sensitive,” Shabazz said.  

Gasper said he believes there needs to be more “intentional and uncomfortable” conversations between himself and his officers before the data starts to reflect a change. More conversations with the community are coming as well. 

State Police Public Information Officer Michael Shaw told BridgeDetroit that state troopers will be back at the WCCCD campus downtown this fall to talk about policing with students, but that hasn’t been officially scheduled yet. Shaw said understanding whether the conversations are successful will be difficult. 

“There are people in the community who, no matter what we said here today, aren’t gonna buy it. There’s also some officers who will hear what the community has to say and, no matter what, just aren’t gonna buy it,” Shaw said. “So we’re trying to find that middle ground of people who are willing to change on both sides of the fence because then everybody wins.”

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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