Elected leaders and civil rights organizers join Sheriff Clayton to discuss the policing of communities of color at Unity Town Hall


This evening I attended the Unity Town Hall at Eastern Michigan Union, during which Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, Black Lives Matter Organizer Myles McGuire, Wahstenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Mark Fancher of the Michigan ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, and Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie sat before an audience of about 250, responding to questions about civil rights, policing, and what actions are being taken across our community to ensure that no one dies needlessly at the hands of police in Washtenaw County. Following are six highlights.

1. In response to a question from the audience about how officers are trained to de-escalate situations, Clayton talks about how strategies are evolving. In the past, he says, officers were trained to resolve issues as quickly as possible and move on. Now, he says, they’re beginning to give people more space (which he refers to as “tactical repositioning”), and allowing for things to calm down. He also says that, starting in September, officers will be receiving a special two-day training in how to better interact with individuals who are mentally ill, under the influence of narcotics, or suffering from dementia. Fancher says that Clayton has the right idea, but then adds that what’s taught at the police academy, and in classes such as this, is often cast aside on the street, once new recruits are partnered with veterans who tell them that, in communities of color, they need to be rough and “establish control” if they want to survive. Clayton agrees that this can happen, but says that cultures can be changed when department leadership, from top to bottom, is in line, policies are clearly articulated, and unwanted behaviors are addressed.

2. Someone asks how things can change when police officers refuse to violate the “blue code,” call one another out for their behaviors, and demand accountability. Fancher says that’s the big question in all of this, adding that it should be on the police to clean this up, as they started all of this by killing innocent people. Clayton agrees that there needs to be more accountability from top to bottom. He also stresses that more than 90% of cops are essentially good. Asked how to fix the problem, Fancher says that so-called rogue cops need to be disciplined. “Police leadership cannot be intimidated by police unions,” he says. Furthermore, he says that we need to get to know the rank and file officers, and not just the same representatives of the police force that attend public events. Every local organization, he says, should invite beat cops in to talk. And these officers should be encouraged to change the “insular culture” within their departments. If officers hear things said by fellow officers that are inconsistent with the stated objectives of the department, Fancher says, they should be empowered to say something.

3. A student from Africa stood up and said that he’s lived here for two years, and that he’s scared. He didn’t know about racism before he came here, he said. “How should I live with fear?” he asked the members of the panel. “Help me understand what should I do.” After a short silence, and some discussion on the panel about how we all have to come together, Fancher said, “We’ve got no room for fear.” Black people, he told this young man, have conquered fear for generations. “Our ancestors would roll over in their graves if they heard that we were afraid after all that they went through,” he said, after noting the struggles of African Americans under slavery, and the threat of violence met by protestors during the civil rights era. “We stared down the barrels of guns with Dr. King without fear,” he said. Others on the panel echoed his sentiments.

4. Prosecutor Mackie was called out by several people. One man asked him directly, “How do black lives matter to you? And how do your practices reflect this?” Mackie responded by saying, “You’ve asked me many questions over the years” to the man who posed the question, to which the man responded, “And you haven’t answered any of them.” Mackie then responded that black lives matter to him because he cares about people, and that “black people are people.” He went on to say that he knows he isn’t much liked, but that prosecutors never are. While he clearly rubbed people the wrong way, he said several things over the course of the evening that I found noteworthy. First, he said that we’re at a period in American history when we have “an openly racist” candidate running for President, and that we need to look out for one another. Second, he told people that, while it’s true that a disproportionate number of those prosecuted by his office aren’t white, it’s also true that crime victims are disproportionately not white. He also noted that, “We are in the most violent state in the Midwest,” and added that 72% of murder victims during a recent year were African American. Third, he acknowledged that “things are not fair.” Public education, he said, is being systematically destroyed, and people, especially people of color, are finding that they have increasingly less economic opportunity in this country. And that, he says, “is going to lead to more participation in crime.” Furthermore, he said, not enough people were taking advantage of the educational opportunities that we do have. While we have Headstart and quality preschool available to everyone, he said, our attendance rates are abysmal, especially in kindergarten, which isn’t mandatory. Education should be mandatory, he said. “We need to educate everybody. That’s how we get better.” And, fourth, he acknowledged that we can do a better job both hiring prosecutors of color and getting juries that better reflect the demographics of our community. He says that finding prosecutors of color, however, is not an easy task, and that many who are called for jury duty don’t show up. On this same subject, he also said that the lists from which they select potential jurors are insufficient, and they need to find new ways to identify people, instead of just relying on tax records and utility bills. [Speaking of Mackie, he was asked directly about the killing of Aura Rosser by police in Ann Arbor and whether or not he had said that her killing was justified because she was mentally ill. He denied having said anything of the kind. The woman posing the question, however, insisted that he had. Another person in the audience said that his office had wrongfully accused two men of crimes that they did not commit. Others claimed that he had not responded to their inquiries concerning cases.]

5. With all of the additional duties we’re asking our police officers take on, a woman asks, how are you able to do it all? How can police officers be expected to know mental health, social work, and everything else, all while having their funding cut? (Mackie says that Washtenaw County at one point had over 600 officers, but now has roughly 500.) “The whole system is jacked up,” she says… In response, Clayton talks about increasing coordination with other entities. He notes a program in Seattle that gives officers the flexibility to hand off first-time non-violent drug offenders to case workers who can offer services in lieu of jail, and says he’d like to explore it here. This not only gets them the help they need, he says, but it keeps them out of the criminal justice system. Fancher says this is where the real potential is. While it’s good to get officers out of their cars and playing basketball with neighborhood kids, he says, this is the kind of thing that will lead to real, meaningful progress… getting officers working at the street level with professionals from different fields, creating a support ecosystem that actually works for citizens.

6. And there was talk about what people can do to lessen their chances of being killed by an officer during routine traffic stops. Clayton says at some point this would have been an easy thing for him to answer. Now, though, he says he’s not so sure. Saying, “I’m being honest with you,” he tells us what he’s told his three sons. Listen to the officers, and don’t make any sudden movements, he says. If you do that, he says, “Most times you’ll be ok.” “If I didn’t think that,” he adds, “I wouldn’t be in the profession.” He goes on to say, however, that it’s not 100%. There are bad cops, he says, and it’s difficult to tell them from the good ones. “You can’t guarantee that you’re going to walk away whole,” he says. “I’m just being honest with you,” he adds. A women in the audience says that, if an officer tries to stop her, she intends to drive to a well-lit public space before pulling over. She also says that she’ll likely call 911 and keep them on the line while she’s interacting with the officer. Fancher suggests that people in the audience may also want to download the ACLU’s Mobile Justice app, which you can use to stream video of your police encounter directly to the ACLU.

There was a lot more. There was a guy in the audience who yelled “All Lives Matter,” only to be told by McGuire that he sounded like someone running up to a firefighter trying to put out a house fire and saying, “All houses matter.” There was also the moment when, in a discussion about prison reform, Debbie Dingell said that we might have common cause with some on the right. After saying that she didn’t think she’d ever utter these words, Dingell said, “The Koch brothers can bring about real change.” And there was a short discussion about Citizen Oversight Committees. (Clayton says that his department has a Citizen Advisory Committee now, but that he has concerns about broad citizen oversight. When asked why, he mentions that, in some instances, they’ve led to terrible results that have required federal intervention.) And there were discussions about white guilt, gun control, any number of other things. If you were at the event and would like to add to my notes, please leave a comment. As I said at the outset, I know these notes of mine are insufficient, but I at least wanted to get the ball rolling.

[For those of you who would like to know more about the local conversations that are taking place regarding race and policing, I’d encourage you to also read about last week’s meeting of the Ypsilanti joint task force on police/community relations.]

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  1. Posted July 22, 2016 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    ” A student from Africa stood up and said that he’s lived here for two years, and that he’s scared. He didn’t know about racism before he came here, he said. “How should I live with fear?” he asked. “Help me understand what should I do.””

    “Africa” is a big place, but what nearly all countries on the continent share are massively corrupt and violent police forces. Given that this person was able to travel to the US and live there, I can only assume that he has been living behind guarded gates and riding in SUVs for most of his life. Average Kenyans, for example, live in fear of police on a daily basis, who are responsible for more then 65% of all homicides in the country.

    I have been hearing young, educated Kenyans discussing how “scary” the US is, but I always want them to look around and see how many times worse the Kenyan police are than police in the US. On this subject, they are silent, since it doesn’t impact their lives. Facebook memes and CNN clips do.

    Like wealthy people in the US, though, Kenyan elites live extremely sheltered lives. Like the US, their wealth protects them from some of the worst aspects of society, a privilege 99% of Kenyans can never have.

  2. Posted July 22, 2016 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    “And there was talk about what people can do to lessen their chances of being killed by an officer during a routine traffic stop.”

    How many incidences of being killed at a traffic stop have occurred in the Ypsi/Ann Arbor area in the past decade?

  3. Anonymous
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    The man who shouted out “all lives matter” also got up to say that things used to be a lot worse. He was shouted down. It may be true statistically, but it comes across as offensive in the light of these videos that we’ve all seen. So, to answer your question, Peter, no, no one has been killed during a routine traffic stop in Washtenaw County for the past decade. That isn’t the point, though.

  4. Gretchen Forshay
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    You neglected to mention how completely incomprehensible our Congresswoman was.

  5. kjc
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    how many incidences in baton rouge of being killed while selling cds? how many incidences in falcon heights of being shot in your car in front of a child while getting out your id? how many incidences in miami of being shot while lying on the grounds w/your hands up while trying to help an autistic person?

  6. Eel
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    This isn’t like those other cases, say cops in Miami. We weren’t actually trying to shoot the unarmed back man who was laying on the ground with his hands raised. We were trying to shoot the mentally ill man next to him playing with a toy truck.

    Excerpt from the Miami Herald:

    The North Miami police officer who shot an unarmed, black mental health worker caring for a patient actually took aim at the autistic man next to him, but missed, the head of the police union said Thursday.

    It was a stunning admission from the police officer and from John Rivera, who heads up Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. But it was one meant to calm the fears of a nation besieged with cellphone videos of police shooting and sometimes killing unarmed black men.

    In this case, Rivera said, the officer ended up wounding the man he was trying to save.

    “I couldn’t allow this to continue for the community’s sake,” Rivera said Thursday during a hastily called press conference at the union’s Doral office. “Folks, this is not what the rest of the nation is going through.”

    North Miami police and investigators have been tight-lipped since the Monday shooting, even as video of most of the encounter has been released. The story gained international attention and public pressure for answers mounted.


  7. Citywatch
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting on this difficult subject. Yes difficult. Getting these folks together in a one time shot will not do anything except start a discussion and will not move anyone off their spot. Ongoing discussion with action steps at this and other levels is the only way to start a transformation of our mutual values once we uncover what they are. Then they have to guide our policies, procedures and actions in the ways we work together. Yes together. No one is right, everyone is wrong in some way, and even looking at it as right and wrong enforces the walls that exist between people and leads to fear and misunderstanding. That in turn causes the kind of environment we all have come to regret.

  8. EOS
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    It is the point Anonymous. The Washtenaw County Sheriff Department is a professional force that does a great job protecting us. There is no need to have civilians dictating changes in policies or procedures that work well for everyone and that may, in fact, hamper their ability to protect us and them from violence.

  9. EOS
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    As it may be confusing, the “them” I referred to are the sheriffs. Sorry.

  10. Dan Blakeney
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Once again, Thanks Mark for filing this report. I truly appreciate the reporting.

  11. Jeff Irwin
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I attended and it was great to see Sheriff Clayton out front on this issue again. I was on the County Board of Commissioners a decade ago when we were dealing with the fallout from the killing of Clifton Lee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRB9qRrRLVs

    The current Sheriff wasn’t in office yet, and this incident – combined with another where an officer in LAWNET shot a teen in the back (http://bit.ly/2agWiRk) – led to the creation/reinvigoration of a citizen advisory board and the Criminal Justice Collaborative Council. Then, we elected a Sheriff who focused on better training and clear direction from the top. Sheriff Clayton has been providing the right training and leadership but we have a big policy problem that local governments have a hard time solving.

    I was disappointed that War on Drugs didn’t come up because it seems to me that this is a big policy failure at the heart of the acrimony, violence, racism, and resentment. War is adversarial and violent. This war pits the police against everybody else. The war mentality is pushing the militarization of the police. And, for every dollar we spend on this war, those ensnared by it’s prosecution spend more to defend themselves or otherwise are ground to powder by the criminal justice system. What we are doing isn’t just a failure, it’s a disaster. And for anybody who doesn’t think that the War on Drugs is closely linked to racism in America, I’d encourage you to either: 1) read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow; or 2) go to a Michigan jail or prison and try to find out why the demographics look so stilted (hint – trace the inmates back to their original charge).

    Dialog is good, but it’s not enough. Ending mass incarceration and the stopping the school to prison pipeline relies on fundamentally changing our approach to substance abuse from a criminal justice approach to a treatment approach. That was my reaction.

  12. Mr. X
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    While Clayton didn’t talk explicitly about the school to prison pipeline and the war on drugs, he did mention the program in Seattle that’s intended to keep first time offenders out of the system, Jeff, and how he’d like to bring it here. The program is called LEAD, and you can find out more here:


    “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a pre-booking diversion pilot program developed with the community to address low-level drug and prostitution crimes in the Belltown neighborhood in Seattle and the Skyway area of unincorporated King County. The program allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution activity to community-based services, instead of jail and prosecution. By diverting eligible individuals to services, LEAD is committed to improving public safety and public order, and reducing the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program.”

  13. Jeff Irwin
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Just to agree strenuously, I think Sheriff Clayton is all over the issue of addressing bias in policing and he has been working on it – just in my experience – since he worked for Sheriff Scheibel back in the 90s. He’s good on diversion too and has great philosophy of policing. That’s why he’ll be Sheriff for as long as he wants.

  14. Posted July 23, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The victim in the LAWNET shooting, Jeff, was named David Ware, and it happen very close to me here. Had it happened today, there would be riots. The young man was shot three times in the back while running from officers who had tried to apprehend him in a sting. He was unarmed. According to the police report at the time, if I remember correctly, the officer said it looked as though Ware was going for something in his waistband. It was also said that, because they’d seen him in locally produced rap videos handling firearms, they knew he had access to weapons. I wish for his family that there had been more of a discussion at the time… No too long ago, David’s son Eugene left a comment here. Here’s what he said: “I’m Eugene and I’m older now and I was just reading the stories of how my dad got killed and the stories are weird because you can’t shoot an unarmed man nor can you shoot someone in the back.”

  15. Westside
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks putting this information out. Thanks for your work with this blog.

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