ACLU files discrimination suit against Michigan State Police 

By: - June 23, 2021 1:41 pm

Michigan State Police | Susan J. Demas

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan said on Wednesday that it has filed a federal lawsuit against the Michigan State Police (MSP) on behalf of two African Americans who said that they were racially profiled during a wrongful traffic stop.

The incident occurred in August 2019 in Oak Park near the Detroit border. Camara Sankofa, 50, and Shanelle Thomas, 35, both educators at the time, were detained for more than two hours and later released without citation. They described the situation as “humiliating.”

Sankofa, an Oak Park resident at the time, said during a virtual news conference that he obeys traffic laws and has not been ticketed in the last 28 years.

“This traffic stop was humiliating, and has left a lasting impact on me, including the fear I feel every time I get behind the wheel,” said Sankofa, who was the driver of the vehicle. “I want to help stop this from happening to anyone else.”

Mark Fancher | ACLU of Michigan photo

The troopers on the scene were white, according to Mark Fancher, ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project staff attorney. At least one of the troopers involved has shown a pattern of stops that troubles the ACLU. The officer’s record reflects “consistent stops of Black people,” said Fancher.

The lawsuit argues that the stop is part of “a pattern of racist behavior that troopers repeatedly demonstrate.” It also suggests that the plaintiffs’ “unlawful stop and thousands like it are the direct result of the MSP willfully ignoring years of their own data that shows racially disparate traffic stops, failing to correct their practices and policies that lead to racial profiling.”

MSP Director Col. Joseph Gasper declined to address specific questions about the suit citing pending litigation but did issue a statement after the ACLU news conference.  

“The men and women of the Michigan State Police are committed to the equitable treatment of all persons and to providing service and enforcing the law in a professional, just and nondiscriminatory manner. Longstanding department policies prohibit members from stopping or detaining anyone based solely on their race, ethnicity or possible immigration status. Allegations of improper traffic stops are taken seriously. If a trooper is accused of stopping a motorist without proper grounds, a thorough and objective internal investigation is conducted,” he said.

Jack Hall became MSP’s first Black trooper in 1967. Prior to his service as a trooper, Hall had been a Benton Harbor police officer for five years and had completed one year of studies at Lake Michigan Junior College.

“Maybe this will help to kill the myth that Negroes can’t get on the State Police force,” MSP Director Col. Frederick Davids said at the time.

Since that time, the agency has had continual challenges attracting people of color and women and has been criticized by civil rights groups. The Advance reported in September that in 2017, about 17% of traffic stops involved a Black driver. That number jumped to about 19% in 2018, then again to just over 20% in 2019. Only about 14% of Michigan’s population is Black. 

MSP Col. Joseph Gasper | Casey Hull

Gasper told the Advance in 2020 that an advisory body would help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve — while releasing internal data, including use-of-force incidents and traffic stops, will create a new layer of transparency and allow racial disparities to be identified and addressed.

Thomas, who resided in Macomb County at the time, said that the troopers “violated our trust.”

“I understand that being an officer is a difficult job, but they must understand the fear they instill in us every day because of the countless experiences throughout the nation of Black people being pulled over, detained, beaten and killed simply for existing,” she said.

Fancher believes that the stop was racially motivated. 

“We have practically begged MSP to seek assistance with a racial problem well known to the agency, and their refusal to do it has caused unquantifiable misery for people of color,” said Fancher. “MSP has collected enough traffic stop data to know they have racially disparate stops. Now, MSP must hire an expert to change troopers’ behavior and commit to using expert recommendations to guide their policy change and policing practices for good.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.