Bias training is needed, but activists say changing patterns takes work. Here is what police reform looks like to Michiganders.
LANSING, MI — In a unanimous vote, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that would institute implicit bias training and teach de-escalation techniques for officers as protesters around the state call for police reforms.
“Every parent with a Black or brown child in America faces … the constant fear and anxiety that their children will be a victim of the police that we hire to protect and service,” the bill sponsor, State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), said while choking up. “We must change this.”
But what is this bill? And does it address what protesters and mourners are calling for after 46-year-old George Floyd lost his life when a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes?
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been calling for reforms in police departments across the state. Those reforms include Senate Bill 945, which passed the state Senate Thursday and is on course to become law in the coming days.
We break it down and then take a look at the other proposals Gov. Whitmer is pushing for.
What is Senate Bill 945?
Introduced last week by Irwin and adopted by the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday, SB 945 would codify certain police reforms as state law. Irwin described the reforms as providing essential tools to police in critical situations that too often end in the use of lethal force.
“Unlike most other professionals, police officers have just seconds to make life-altering decisions — often under high-stress conditions — so it’s essential we give them all of the necessary tools to keep residents safe,” Irwin said in a statement. “Officers are drilled on tactics, firearms and forensics. They practice shooting and driving. What is missing from our fundamental police training standards are how officers can identify mental illness or their own implicit biases and use that knowledge to de-escalate a dangerous situation.”
As such, Irwin’s legislation would, starting in 2022, require officers to complete training on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques. Some Michigan police departments already mandate some form of such training, but Irwin said it should be universal.
The kind of statewide standardization Irwin is calling for comes in a week where various demonstrations were treated very differently across the state. While protesters urged police to walk with them in both Flint and Kalamazoo, the Flint protesters were met with camaraderie and the Kalamazoo protesters were met with tear gas.
“Our community needs to change the culture that drives a wedge between police and the people they serve,” Sen. Irwin said. “Great police agencies are already training their officers in implicit bias and mental health screening. The Legislature needs to make these best practices in police training the law.”
Is This Enough?
Since 2015, more than 77 Michiganders have faced fatal encounters with police officers, according to data published in the Washington Post. Half of those encounters were with Michiganders of color despite only 25% of Michiganders being nonwhite. A third of those 77 were living with mental illnesses.
Activists, experts and everyday Michiganders speaking to The ‘Gander expressed a desire for more transformative police reforms.
Flint resident Nayyirah Shariff said that training needs to be recurring to provide the kind of cultural change policing needs.
“Those trainings are not like, it’s a birthday — you turn 21 and you never do it again,” said Shariff. “It’s like personal grooming, like showering, you have to do it all the time.”
Shariff says this is because implicit biases are unconscious habits associating people with ideas, and changing those habits is a slow process. She suggested instead of thinking of addressing bias as classes or trainings, it’s necessary to make addressing learned biases part of an officer’s daily routine.
“Anything that is a one-and-done, just a required course and you move on, is not going to be effective,” she told The ‘Gander. “People who commit to being anti-racist, it’s a constant journey. Because you’re socialized to behave in a certain way and you form habits and it becomes unconscious. For you to form new habits, that takes work.”
Accountability was a major issue raised by Alisa Parker, activist and co-founder of Michigan-based ANP Consulting.
“Our local police aren’t elected officials, and so we don’t have the opportunity to elect our chief of police for example,” Parker told The ‘Gander.
Though there are indirect means of holding officers accountable through city managers and city councils, Parker was interested in envisioning a system where the people acting as a community’s “guardians” were accountable to that community directly.
And to that point, Shariff said that it isn’t just police who need to change behaviors. Michiganders who have interactions with police that raise alarm should make a point to report that interaction. She suggested Gov. Whitmer consider creating an independent office for an Ombudsman within the various law enforcement agencies in Michigan who could hear these community complaints and investigate them without concern for the problem posed by the habit of police officers protecting one another, a concept called the “blue wall of silence.”
The blue wall is a tradition that USA Today summed up as “cops don’t rat on cops.” Essentially, the blue wall is the unofficial oath of silence police take regarding the actions of fellow officers.
Lawmakers understand Shariff’s concerns.
“We can’t in one day change someone’s subconscious or their deeply held unconscious biases. But if we can change what goes through an officer’s mind when they encounter one of our community members who doesn’t look like them, we could change the outcome,” said Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).
Other Police Reforms from Gov. Whitmer
Irwin’s legislation isn’t the only reform Gov. Whitmer is interested in pursuing.
Whitmer outlined Wednesday three primary points in a plan to evolve Michigan’s policing in response to the deaths of Floyd and others. She also stated support for a plan currently being proposed by the state’s legislature to address policing reform.
First, Gov. Whitmer wants more trainings. She asked the Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards to provide departments with guidance about continuing education, as well as trainings on implicit bias and diversity. While the Michigan State Police already routinely undergoes implicit bias training, the only annual standard that police are required to undergo is firearms recertification.
Second, Whitmer is urging local law enforcement to establish “duty to intervene” policies. These policies require officers to step in when they observe another officer doing something illegal or otherwise inappropriate. She specifically recognized Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren and Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green for their efforts already implementing similar policies.
“Police officers must have policies and training systems in place that encourage and mandate they take immediate action to intervene when observing any form of police brutality,” Green said in a statement.
In the case of George Floyd’s death, additional charges for aiding and abetting the murder of Floyd were brought against officer Tou Thao, who was present but did not intervene, reports CNN.
This is a major shift from the blue wall of silence. Cracks have been appearing in the blue wall, though. Vice reports that law enforcement leaders nationwide are breaking through the blue wall to speak out about the death of George Floyd.
“The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a result of hundreds of years of inequity and institutional racism against Black Americans,” Gov. Whitmer said. “That’s why I’m calling on Michigan police departments to strengthen their training and policies to save lives and keep people safe.”
These reforms add to the policies already in place at the Michigan State Police and efforts by Michigan’s conservative Trump critic Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) to hold police accountable for wrongful deaths.
Gov. Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist also marched alongside protesters in Highland Park Thursday, in solidarity with those mourning Floyd’s death and seeking meaningful change.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.