Policing discussion brings heated comment at ACLU/NAACP forum


"Panel moderator Dr. Andy Wible listens as ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Shelli Weisberg speaks, with City of Muskegon Director of Public Safety Jeffrey Lewis at right."

Photo by Cynthia Price

by Cynthia Price

All three of the individuals representing law enforcement on a panel hosted by the local affiliate group of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Western Branch and the NAACP local chapter last Wednesday took issue with the questions they were asked, resulting in a few fairly heated exchanges.

City of Muskegon Director of Public Safety Jeffrey Lewis, Muskegon Heights Police Chief Dr. Joseph Thomas, and Muskegon County Sheriff Michael Poulin spoke from the law enforcement side in front of over 100 people attending “Policing and the People: A Discussion on Policing Practices and Community Engagement” at Muskegon Community College (MCC).

ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Shelli Weisberg, and long-time activist Phyllis Loudermill of the NAACP rounded out the panel, while MCC Professor Dr. Andy Wible moderated, filling in for City of Muskegon Commissioner Eric Hood, who had a family emergency arise.

Poulin, Thomas, and Lewis all felt that the introduction given by Wible covered way too many issues for them to address in a meaningful way, and Chief Thomas in particular said that he felt there was “too much data, not enough information” in the questions raised.

For his part, Lewis narrowed down the issues to that of racial profiling — which is defined as “the use of race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed an offense.” He said that he had participated in the recent study performed by the Grand Rapids Police Department which determined that African-Americans are more than twice as likely as “Caucasians” to be pulled over and to be charged or ticketed.

So, Lewis said, his department has decided not to do a study, but to assume, based on nearby studies, that racial profiling is a problem. This allows them to put the mone that would be used investigating toward better and more frequent training to eliminate the practice.

Lewis emphasized that he has seen many changes, for the better he feels, over his four decades in law enforcement. “I can tell you the group I see today — those officers are much different than they were 40 years ago.”

Chief Thomas took that idea even further, saying that he was tired of being asked questions that assumed nothing had changed and nothing was being done. He also said that he wished people would call things by their proper names, not negative ones. “A flash-bang is not a grenade, and an armored vehicle is not a tank,” he said.

The unflappable Andy Wible pointed out that people may be using terms incorrectly because they don’t know the right terms, and that one way to inform them is to speak at forums such as this.

Poulin also followed up on the theme of the general public asking questions because it is not well-informed. He said that he has heard a lot of questions about SWAT teams, which surprise him because he started one in Muskegon County over a decade ago. In response to further questions, he said it is rarely used, and has more often been called into action through partnerships with other counties when they face dire criminal situations.

Weisberg said that the ACLU’s interest is in protecting the community’s oversight ability to asking police officials to involve interested community members in policy decisions. “We’re asking that you come to the community and engage us. The conversations aren’t that difficult to have, we just haven’t done it enough,” she said.

And Loudermill emphasized that it is important to engage the community on all levels - to have officers who are part of communities and trusted by them, and who are in tune enough to know what that community’s needs are. “If you want to have safe zones, make sure you have a safe community,” she said. “The way to deal with unexpected behavior [a term used by Chief Thomas] is to have the community there with you.”

Later, in response to an audience question about whether a police officer was required to give a badge number if someone asked for it, Chief?Thomas became very defensive, sticking to his contention that the officer did not have to, while Weisberg insisted that he or she did. (This is a matter under debate right now, with the law saying only that an officer must identify himself or herself as law enforcement when asked, but with some police department policies requiring badge disclosure.)

That was linked to a theme that went through the whole forum (and other similar presentations): law enforcement officials insist that the proper way to handle an officer who has done something illegal or “overreaching” is to report it to the department, and they themselves will discipline the officer. The fox watching the henhouse often does not sit well with audiences.

Another controversy that came up involved a complaint by anti-human-trafficking advocate Mindy Osantowski-Hughes, as reported in last week’s Examiner. She asked why there was no money in the budget for training officers in the sometimes subtle issues that will come up when dealing with trafficking victims. Specifically, the problem is that often the victims are treated as criminals themselves. Though there seemed to be general agreement that such training was desirable, no one on the panel offered solutions.