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Michigan senators chart a path to real police reform

There is growing consensus that the status quo in policing is unacceptable: among police officers, who find themselves at odds with the communities they’re sworn to serve; among police executives, who struggle to attract new recruits; and among residents who bridle at rough tactics and inequitable treatment.

Universal revulsion at George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officerspawned a nationwide movement for police reform. Now a biipartisan group of state senators has introduced a 12-bill package that addresses some of Michigan’s most urgent law enforcement challenges: making sure police officers receive adequate training,, providing new tools and legal authority to get bad cops off the streets, and making police departments more transparent and responsive to the citizens they serve.

At the state level, meaningful reform starts with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, the state body that establishes curricula for trainees, tests would-be officers to ensure they’ve learned the required information, issues and revokes licenses, and assures that officers possess character fitness.

But the commission has faced challenges in carrying out its brief. Its budget was slashed during the Great Recession, and funding hasn’t been restored. Its ability to investigate officer infractions is constrained, and its findings sometimes clash with outcomes required by arbitration.

A 2017 Free Press investigation found that bad cops are too often shuffled from department to department by executives’ reluctance to risk arbitration. Because there is a police shortage, small departments have sometimes been willing to overlook offenses that should be disqualifying.

After the Free Press’ report, state legislators expanded the commission’s authority to track bad cops and to revoke licenses of those who have committed crimes. The bipartisan legislation introduced this week goes further, requiring the commission to develop guidelines for the independent investigation of officer-involved deaths, adding use of force violations to officers’ separation records, and expanding the list of offenses that trigger the revocation of a police license.

Other bills in the package:

Senate Bill 473, sponsored by Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, directs the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards to compose guidelines for the independent investigation of officer-involved deaths and mandates that police agencies follow them

Senate Bill 474, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, would require the police separation records maintained by MCOLES to include use of force violations

Senate Bill 475, sponsored by Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, gives MCOLES the authority to revoke the law enforcement licenses of officers who use excessive force that causes death or serious bodily harm

Senate Bill 476, sponsored by Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, would protect the identity of any person who makes a misconduct complaint against an officer

Senate Bill 477, sponsored by Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, would allow police unions to refuse representation to a member who presses a meritless grievance

Senate Bill 478, sponsored by Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, would ban use of chokeholds except when a life is at risk

Senate Bill 479, sponsored by Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, would ban most no-knock warrants, and creates more clarity around “knock and enter” warrants

Senate Bill 480, sponsored by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, would require officers to intervene when a colleague uses excessive force and authorize disciplinary action against those who fail to intervene

Senate Bill 481, sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, would require police agencies to establish a use of force continuum, issue verbal warnings before using force and require officers to exhaust all possible alternatives before resorting to deadly force

Senate Bill 482, sponsored by Sen Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would require MCOLES to develop standards for training around de-escalation, implicit bias and behavioral health, and mandate continuing education for officers

Senate Bill 483, sponsored by Sen. Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb Twp., would authorize MCOLES to commission a study examining barriers to recruiting and retaining highly qualified candidates for law enforcement jobs

Senate Bill 484, sponsored by Hollier, would designate tampering with a body camera or deactivating a camera to interfere with an investigation, as evidence tampering

Sens. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, the chair and minority vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, deserve plaudits for prioritizing this work, for recognizing that better policing will cost more money, and for assembling support from both parties.

But while the bipartisan mix of sponsors behind the for 12 bills is promising, it’s no guarantee that the package will be delivered intact to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk.

Demands have grown on the left for redirecting law enforcement funds to community investments. But increased community investment and improved policing shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

— Detroit Free Press

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