LANSING — Nearly one year after the killing of George Floyd sparked a national reckoning over racial justice and police, Michigan is among a handful of states that have approved zero statewide reforms.
Bills to ban police chokeholds went nowhere last year in the Michigan Legislature. So did a measure to mandate police intervene if they witness misconduct by fellow officers, even though it was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.
And while there’s some debate about whether the proposals would be effective, lawmakers say they’re upset that not a single piece of legislation about police injustice became law. Both chambers last year unanimously approved separate bills to require new officers to de-escalate confrontations and recognize their own implicit biases, but neither chamber approved the other’s proposal.
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“It was one of the great disappointments of the last session,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who sponsored police training legislation that died when the House failed to take it up by the end of 2020, choosing to approve its own version instead.
“It seems to me that there are a few ideas in that area that we should be able to come together on, and improving (police) training is perhaps the most obvious and easiest area of compromise and collaboration,” Irwin told Bridge Michigan.
Police practices remain under scrutiny this month following the deaths of Daunte Wright in Minnesota and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, along with the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes during an arrest on May 25.
As the closing arguments ended Monday in the Chauvin trial, it’s unclear whether Michigan’s deeply divided Legislature will have any better luck this year.
Senate Judiciary Chair Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, said he’s working with Democrats on measures to require more training or expand the use of body cameras. But he couldn’t provide a timeline on when bills may emerge.
His counterpart in the House, Graham Filler, said he’s “loath to make snap legislation based on really bad instances.”
“We have to be really careful at not reacting every time there’s an incident,” said Filler, the House Judiciary chair. “Law enforcement will tell you that you shouldn’t make policy over the one bad actor, and I think I would agree.”
‘Not a lot has changed’
Michigan’s inaction over the past year makes it an outlier: More than 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws since Floyd’s killing, according to a New York Times analysis.
In Maryland, the Democratic-led Legislature last week overrode a veto by the state’s Republican governor to adopt sweeping reform laws that limit the use of force, restrict no-knock warrants and give citizens a role in determining appropriate discipline for officers who violate policies.
Other states have passed bipartisan reforms, including Iowa and New Hampshire, where Republican governors signed laws to limit or ban the use of police chokeholds during arrests.
In the absence of state reforms, some of the biggest changes in Michigan have come in cities.
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners in August banned chokeholds and required officers to intervene when a colleague uses excessive force, among other things. The Saginaw Police Department announced a similar policy in June, including a “use of force continuum” that defines actions officers must take before using lethal force.
Otherwise, “not a lot has changed in Michigan,” said DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit that aims to “end police violence” in America.
Even the police training bills advanced last year by the Michigan Legislature would not have been significant, Mckesson argued.
“The data is clear that training doesn’t change police officer behavior,” he told Bridge Michigan. “Those are the type of reforms that people did in 2014 and 2015, and nothing changed. That’s the type of reform that police want, that we are clear is not going to be the lever.”
As fellow Democrats like U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib call on defunding — or even eliminating — the police, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pushing policy change.
She wants the Legislature to ban police chokeholds, limit the use of no-knock warrants and require “duty to intervene” policies.
“Police are a critical component to life in America, and yet we know there’s a lot of work to do in that space to make sure that people can stay safe and confident,” the governor said on WJR AM-760.
Her spokesperson, Bobby Leddy, told Bridge that Whitmer wants to work with the Legislature on “commonsense reforms that will build a better system of trust and accountability,” spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge.
A ‘huge statement’
Although legislation failed last year, Rep. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, argued his measure to require police training “made a huge statement” that lawmakers are interested in reform.
“People shouldn’t be scared of law enforcement, and right now, people are scared of police officers,” Peterson said. “That’s sad in my heart. Their jobs are to protect and serve, and when people fear them, that’s a bad message.”
Peterson told Bridge Michigan his bill was not a direct response to the death of Floyd or any other specific incident.
Raising standards by requiring police to study de-escalation techniques and implicit bias is good policy regardless of current events, he said.
“The police have got to realize this is not an assault on them,” Peterson said, making the case that officer training can help bolster public confidence in the professionalism of police.
“We need a justice system. We need an enforcement system.”
On the Senate side, Irwin said he’s planning to reintroduce his training bill and working on other legislation, including a requirement for independent investigations when there are allegations of police misconduct.
Iowa, he noted, adopted a new law that requires the attorney general to lead any misconduct investigations to avoid any local conflicts, he said, referring to the heavily conservative state.
That’s now optional in MIchigan, where Attorney General Dana Nessel who this month charged Muskegon-area officers of the death of a man who died in jail but declined to charge Lansing officers in the death of local man who died in police custody
Irwin said he also wants to give the Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards more authority to revoke professional licenses for police who violate the public trust but have not been convicted of crimes.
“It seems to me that a huge percentage of legislators agree that some of these methods of subject control that have been discredited over the years — like chokeholds — need to go,” he said. “So I’m somewhat hopeful.”
Resistance from law enforcement
Law enforcement groups opposed several reform bills last year. They argued a ban on chokeholds is unnecessary because it is not an authorized technique and said police already have a duty to report illegal activities by colleagues.
“We don’t need legislation to tell us to do what we already do,” Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said during last year’s legislative debate.
Opposition from police underscores why the measures are necessary, argued Mckesson of Campaign Zero.
His group’s “8 Can’t Wait” campaign suggests eight immediate changes for law enforcement, including requiring officers to exhaust all other alternatives prior to using deadly force.
Saginaw and Detroit’s reforms align with some of the group’s recommendations.
“Police would say that boxes them in, and we say, absolutely,” Mckesson said. “It forces people as a matter of policy to write it out really explicitly, which is good for us, because if the police overreact, then we say you violated policy.”
Reform advocates are also recommending new reporting requirements for police agencies, since voluntary programs have led to unreliable data. In 2015, for instance, the Washington Post recorded nearly twice as many fatal police shootings as police agencies, a discrepancy that then-FBI Director James Comey called “embarrassing and ridiculous.”
Michigan law does not require agencies to report “use of force” statistics detailing incidents in which police fire their weapons or otherwise kill or injure residents, but some do voluntarily report aggregate data to the FBI.
For 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 346 out of 552 Michigan law enforcement agencies reported use of force statistics.
Combined, they reported 36 instances of officers using force against 39 “subjects,” including 16 Black people, who make up 14 percent of the state’s total population but 41 percent of the police force incidents in 2019.
Michigan State Police in September launched a new “transparency and accountability” site that includes additional statistics, including data showing that Black people accounted for roughly 21 percent of MSP traffic stops in 2019.
At the national level, House Democrats recently approved a sweeping police reform bill named for George Floyd, but the measure appears unlikely to pass the Republican-led Senate.
“The federal government is actually not the biggest lever when it comes to policing,” Mckesson said. “It really is your governor, your legislators, your mayor and your city council.”