Michigan police, protest groups absorb a year of upheaval. These are the lessons learned

Mar. 11—Police officials in Michigan's two largest communities are monitoring events unfolding in a Minneapolis courtroom and preparing for possible ramifications locally, while in Lansing, the state Capitol building remains under heavy security.

Warm weather is returning, many of the grievances that sparked nationwide marches last year have festered over the winter, and police and protesters say they're planning for another season of demonstrations as they reflect on the lessons they learned in 2020.

In cities in Michigan and across the country last year, thousands of people marched against police brutality, COVID-19 restrictions and claims of systemic racism and election fraud. Most of the demonstrations were peaceful, although there were riots in multiple cities, including Grand Rapids; while in Washington, D.C., a mob on Jan. 6 breached the U.S. Capitol, resulting in at least five deaths and the filing of more than 300 federal charges.

Bradley Smith, chairman of Wayne State University's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, expects the protests to rekindle.

"I get the sense these are longer-lasting movements than previous protests," Smith said. "It's not just about one case, but larger issues. There's also a larger, more diverse portion of the population engaging in protests now."

Last year's police brutality and racial justice protests were sparked by a viral video of a May 25 incident that showed White ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed after he resisted arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill. Other officers stood by and watched.

Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder. Jury selection for his trial began this week amid preparations by Minneapolis officials that included erecting concrete barriers outside the courthouse and warning business owners to beef up security.

In Detroit, police Chief James Craig said he's also preparing — "because if Chauvin is found innocent, I absolutely believe we're going to see rioting across the country."

Grand Rapids police Sgt. John Wittkowski said his department also is bracing for the outcome of the Chauvin trial, a year after the city saw rioting on May 30 that caused an estimated $2.4 million in damage.

"That riot was a shock to our system, and what was learned last year was that we were ill-prepared for what transpired," Wittkowski said. "... Moving forward, we have to prepare for any upheaval that might happen because of the Chauvin trial."

Police officials across the state say they've learned other lessons from last year's protests.

Dearborn's police department in January became the first to adopt a program that trains officers to watch for warning signs that their fellow officers may be having emotional or other issues, and to stave off potential problems. Chief Ronald Haddad said he launched the training as a result of the Floyd case.

Craig in July issued an executive order compelling officers to intervene if they see a fellow cop doing something wrong. The new order expanded on the previous mandate, which required officers to report wrongdoing after the fact, but didn't compel them to stop it.

In response to protesters' calls for changing how police respond to some emergency calls, communities across Michigan, including Detroit, Battle Creek, Livonia and West Bloomfield Township, have either adopted or are looking to launch programs that integrate behavioral health specialists into their police departments.

Wittkowski said Grand Rapids police also learned that their mere presence was "riling up the protesters," and said officers at future marches "will not be anywhere near that stage, physically or metaphorically, while still monitoring to make sure things don't get out of hand."

Wittkowski added his department is better prepared to deal with flareups because officers have opened a dialogue with protesters. Craig said major problems were avoided in Detroit last year because a relationship with activist groups had already been established.

Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Mike Shaw said he's not aware of protest plans by anti-police brutality groups, those opposing state COVID-19 restrictions, or people who question the election results — "but we still have increased security at the state Capitol, and that probably will continue for quite a while."

Tension, progress

Tristan Taylor, a Detroit resident and organizer of Detroit Will Breathe, which led more than 200 protests last year, said he plans to continue demonstrating because he said many of the issues that prompted last year's marches have not been addressed.

In June, Taylor's group presented city leaders with a list of two dozen demands that included defunding the police department, ending the use of facial recognition software, dropping charges and citations against protesters, and halting eviction orders and water shutoffs.

Taylor said the city has met some of the group's demands. He noted the city has imposed a temporary ban on water shutoffs while it works on a longer-term affordability plan. There's also been a stronger focus on disability affairs, he said.

"We've definitely seen some progress," he said. "We've just got an uphill battle ahead of us ... we're going to have to up the ante, the community and the movement to make our voices heard more forcefully, so that these folks really know what we're prepared to accept and not accept."

In recent weeks, Detroit also has dismissed dozens of curfew violation citations issued to protesters during the downtown demonstrations last year, and on Monday, 36th District Judge Jacquelyn McClinton dismissed charges against 19 protesters who'd been charged with misdemeanors, saying the city had failed to present evidence against them.

There were different factions of anti-police brutality demonstrators in Detroit last year, including the Live in Peace Movement led by Maurice Hardwick, who said he marched for 70 days to protest Floyd's death. His goal, he said, was to defuse any hostile situations during marches.

"There were peaceful protesters who wanted to stand with the George Floyd protesters over the horrendous killing to say, 'enough is enough,'" he said. "There were also groups there who just hate police, who hate city government and they were there to cause damage, wreak havoc and cause a takeover. That's what we were not going to allow."

Hardwick said Detroiters are more worried about crime "than having police shoot us down."

Taylor and other members of Detroit Will Breathe disagree. Group members allege in a federal lawsuit that Detroit officers used excessive force against them during an Aug. 22 demonstration. Craig said force was used only when marchers became violent, resisted arrest or refused orders to disperse.

In a counterclaim responding to the suit, the city alleged the group conspired to incite riots and commit violence against police; a federal judge dismissed the counterclaim Wednesday. In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson wrote "(the city) cannot establish an underlying cause of action to support their civil conspiracy claims."

Taylor, like many of last year's anti-police brutality protesters, has called for defunding the police. Instead, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week proposed funding increases to the department, including pay raises for officers and $1 million for a mental health initiative.

Hardwick said he doesn't think defunding police is a good idea. "That doesn't even sound logical in a city like Detroit ... where triple and double murders happen on the daily," he said.

Legislation pending

Last year's protests have also prompted efforts to increase police accountability and transparency.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel unveiled a proposal in June calling for reforms to increase transparency and accountability within police departments, including a state misconduct registry, forfeiture of retirement benefits for officers convicted of on-duty misconduct, and better use-of-force reporting.

Nessel said she's advocating for radical changes to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, or MCOLES, which sets standards and oversees licensing of the state's police officers and continuing education.

Right now, she said, MCOLES lacks sufficient authority to oversee police officers or revoke the licenses of those who violate the public trust.

"This is the one profession where you can legally justifiably take another person's life and yet they (police) are held to a much lower standard than every other professional licensee in the state," she said.

A newer worry, not included in her June list, are allegations of law enforcement officer affiliations with anti-government, white supremacist and other extremist groups. There's nothing in the existing law that prevents that and she's pressing for state and federal legislation to ban it. "How can you belong to an anti-government group and work for the government?" she said.

In reference to Nessel's efforts, Taylor said: "I remember seeing it, and then nothing happened."

Nessel insisted she continues to push the plan. "I've urged the Legislature to take up some of these proposals and to seriously analyze them and hopefully to move some of this forward," she said.

Separate legislation requiring police officers to go through implicit bias and de-escalation training passed unanimously through the state House and Senate in June, but the chambers never voted on each other's bills.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, pushed two bills last session that deal with police accountability. One called for a use-of-force database, and the other dealt with public information requests involving officers. He said he's brought both bills back for consideration.

"Progress is a process," he said. "This is a battleship that I'm trying to turn."

Applying lessons learned

Police officials across the state say they've learned from last year's protests, resulting in changes being made and policies adopted.

But protesters from all political camps say the changes haven't come fast enough.

Bloomfield Hills attorney Nicholas Somberg said he hasn't gotten whahe'd hoped for — a curb on government's emergency powers — when he organized one of the first Lansing protests against Whitmer's pandemic orders in April. "It feels almost futile because the government is getting away with so much," he said.

Ryan Kelley and Jason Howland helped organize similar protests against Whitmer's orders, and also participated in Stop the Steal rallies, which questioned the results of the November election.

Kelley, an Allendale Township real estate agent, and Howland, a Clinton Township business owner, were in Washington, D.C., the day of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Both men deny they broke any laws while in D.C. Both are now running for state office — Kelley for governor and Howland for the state House.

"Whether that election was right or wrong, the fact that so many of us don't believe it was right is more dangerous than if it were wrong," Howland said.

Smith, the Wayne State faculty member, said a lot of the grievances aired last year by protest groups "didn't always appreciate the complexities of the problems."

"For instance, even if you agree social workers should handle some calls, you can't just cut police budgets, because there'll be nobody left to handle emergency calls, and you can't send social workers alone on a lot of those domestic violence runs," he said.

"I think there are lessons to be learned from what happened last year, but I'm not sure everyone's learned them," Smith said. "Eventually, I think we're going to see some changes, but I don't know what that'll look like."