Bipartisan police reforms win broad support at Senate hearing

By: - June 3, 2021 12:50 pm

Lansing police brutality protest, May 31, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

A package of bipartisan police reform bills received the backing of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, a retired police detective, a civil rights lawyer and others during a state Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing on Thursday.

The bills would create guidelines for investigations into officer-involved deaths, limit no-knock warrants and boost support for de-escalation training and retention of officers.

“I would like to commend this body for taking serious steps toward trying to move in a direction to be able to achieve basic accountability and transparency on the part of officers who wield such tremendous power over the lives of citizens in our community,” Julie Hurwitz, a Detroit-based civil rights attorney who routinely represents clients in police brutality cases, said during the hearing. 

There has been no vote on the bills as of yet, and lawmakers emphasized they will continue to amend the legislation with further input from legislators, civil rights groups, police and others.

The 12-bill package was introduced on May 25, exactly one year after then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. The bills’ unveiling and Thursday’s consequent hearing comes after months of work by legislators, including state Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), the ranking member of the committee.

The expansive proposed legislation covers a wide variety of issues, from requiring police training standards regarding behavioral health, implicit bias and more to allowing the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) to revoke the license of an officer who used excessive force and caused death or serious bodily harm. A bill proposed by Chang, Senate Bill 481, would require police agencies to have written “use of force” policies that require officers to exhaust all other alternatives before using deadly force.

“It would ensure that any Michigander can be confident that, wherever they go, they can expect law officers to be held to the same minimum use of force standards,” Chang said of her bill at the hearing.

“National groups have pointed out that officers and police departments with stronger policies in place regarding use of force are less likely to be killed in the line of duty, less likely to be assaulted and have a similar likelihood of sustaining an injury during an assault,” Chang continued.

Police have shot and killed close to 1,000 people each year since 2015, when the Washington Post began tracking police shootings, something for which there is no government database. Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate: Black individuals make up about 13% of the country’s population but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate. About half of the approximately 1,000 people killed by police each year are white.

In the year since police murdered Floyd and shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a Black medical student who died when police executed a no-knock raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, lawmakers and activists have pushed for police reform across the state and country. During that time, Michigan legislators have not enacted any significant police reforms, but they say they aim to change that with this proposed package of bills.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) told the Advance on Tuesday that he and colleagues are working on reintroducing their “Equal Justice for All” policing package from 2020, which was not taken up by the GOP-led state House. They have a press conference scheduled for next week. That package would have established measures to increase accountability for law enforcement agencies and officers by creating an independent entity to investigate and prosecute excessive force cases, eliminated qualified immunity when officers use unreasonable force and prohibited the use of facial recognition technology.

Several of those at the Senate hearing Thursday, including state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Hurwitz, the civil rights attorney, emphasized the need for reform in Michigan in light of police killing and terrorizing innocent civilians in the state. Irwin pointed to the case of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, whom police shot in the head and killed during a raid at her Detroit home in 2010.  Hurwitz said she is currently representing a family, including a mother, grandmother, and three young children, who were terrorized by police who executed a raid at the wrong house in April. About 50 “heavily armed state SWAT officers smashed in their front door, holding them at gunpoint” before realizing they were at the incorrect address, Hurwitz said.

“Had they simply knocked on the door, the mother or grandmother would have opened the door and explained where they were and that they were in the wrong house,” Hurwitz said.

Senate Bill 479, sponsored by Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), would ban the use of “no-knock” warrants, except in certain circumstances, and better defne “knock and enter” warrants.

“We’re talking about raids at people’s homes, and people have an expectation of safety and privacy in their homes,” Irwin said. “…We ought to be worried about the officers’ health and safety, but we also have to be worried about the safety of the citizens.” 

Irwin went on to say that Michigan has “stand your ground” laws, which legally permits someone to kill an individual who is breaking into their home, at the same time that there are no-knock warrants. 

“That’s not a good combination,” Irwin said.

Senate Bill 484, sponsored by Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit), would prohibit an officer from intentionally deactivating a body camera, something which Republican and Democratic lawmakers emphasized can help both police and the public. 

“I think it’s a great idea to be sure we have those kinds of checks and balances in the system for everyone,” Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) said.

“Some [people] would make accusations against an officer that were just plain wrong,” and body cameras can prove that otherwise, Johnson added. 

Legislation sponsored by Johnson, Senate Bill 480, would establish a legal duty for police to intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force. The bill would allow for disciplinary action for those who fail to do so. Individuals at the hearing pointed to the fact that three officers stood by when Chauvin was killing Floyd.

Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 483, would direct MCOLES to commission a study on how best to recruit and retain law enforcement officers.

State Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), a Senate Judiciary Committee member, backed the bill, saying “some police departments have had a 50% decrease in applications” because of the “demonization of police officers in general…and eliminate the police movements around the country that have severely diminished the number of individuals who want to go into law enforcement.” 

Retired Sgt. Theodore Nelson, who worked for the Michigan State Police for 25 years, supported the legislation during the hearing, saying it will help to mend a longtime broken relationship between police and the public.

“I strongly believe these bills will strengthen our state’s public safety by creating an atmosphere of trust,” Nelson said.

DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and a founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates for police reform legislation nationwide, said the bills promote “basics we should have agreed to long ago.”

“I’m excited to see this package of bills move forward and have Michigan join the national conversation and lead the conversation in some ways,” Mckesson said.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.