Michigan police agree to report when force is used

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All Michigan sheriff’s departments and many police departments have agreed to report to the FBI when their officers use force.

The volunteer plan will be announced soon by the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, state law enforcement organizations and a state lawmaker who has pushed a similar effort in the legislature.

A protest movement elevated Black Lives Matter after Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri, increasing awareness of police officers’ use of force, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We found out that we don’t collect nationally the amount of times police use serious force on somebody,” Stevenson said. “There is no good database that’s out there.”

Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, has twice introduced bills to require such reporting in the Michigan House in 2015 and in 2017. Neither gained traction.

Chang, who has been working with the police organizations and the ACLU to develop the voluntary effort, said the group soon will announce details.

“There’s a lot of agreement that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and that police agencies should be reporting,” Chang said.

While the Washington Post has been compiling national data on fatal shootings involving the police, it’s limited to local news reports, law enforcement websites and social media.

Stevenson said before the newspaper’s effort, he estimated about 500 deaths nationwide from police shootings each year. The Post discovered closer to 1,000 deaths each year, he said.

For Michigan, the Washington Post reported 21 fatal police shootings in 2018.

In January 2019, the FBI officially launched the National Use-Of-Force Data Collection program, which allows for optional online self-reports of the use of violence by police agencies nationwide.

Michigan agencies that volunteer information provide monthly reports to the state police, which serves as the point of contact with the FBI.

The plan is a rare form of cooperation between the state’s largest police organizations and the Michigan ACLU. But increasing law enforcement transparency may be an area where interests align, Stevenson said.

“We’re behind this initiative 110%,” said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Koops said an upcoming press conference to announce the voluntary agreement is intended to display law enforcement transparency.

The Manistee County Sheriff’s Office has sent reports to the FBI each month for the past six months, said Ken Falk, the county’s undersheriff.

Anytime a weapon is discharged, used to injure or used to kill, it gets reported, he said.

Michigan is unique in embracing the new method of reporting, Stevenson said.

In addition to the sheriffs, about 250 police departments are providing data, including some of the state’s largest, he said. The Grand Rapids and Detroit police departments are among those reporting.

“We’ve seen our numbers since we really started to hit this in May, going from maybe 30 departments to over 200,” Stevenson said.

There should be another significant increase in cooperating police departments after the upcoming announcement sometime in November, he said.

When force is used, agencies provide demographic data on the officer and the suspect involved, including age, race, height and weight statistics, Stevenson said. That’s important because until recently, there was no centralized method of gathering use-of-force data.

The ACLU supports measures to increase transparency but has concerns with the FBI’s database due to its voluntary nature, said Kimberly Buddin-Crawford, the policy counsel for the ACLU of Michigan.

Officers have no incentive to comply beyond increasing transparency, which removes accountability for those who don’t report, she said.

“For some agencies, (transparency) will be enough but, for others, perhaps not,” she said.

Buddin-Crawford said the ACLU prefers a state law to require reporting, similar to legislation sponsored by Chang in the past.

“Police brutality is not anything new,” Chang said. “Having some more transparency and accountability would be one way to take steps forward.”

Buddin-Crawford’s other concern centers around narrow definitions of use of force.

“Slamming someone in the ground or twisting an arm to leave bruises is not required to be reported even if it’s considered use of force,” she said. “Without that information being reported, I think this database is a little bit of a misstep; it’s a missed opportunity.”

Falk said the department internally reports any use of force with a broader scope.

“If I have put my hands on somebody, that’s a use of force. If I have to pull my weapon and point it at somebody, that’s a use of force,” Falk said. 

Agencies also do not report to the FBI any actions taken after force is used. Complaints of excessive force, the final result of any investigation or if there was an investigation, is not a part of the database, Buddin-Crawford said.

Chang’s 2017 bill would have required reporting use-of-force instances and any complaints or investigation conclusions, but it narrowed the use-of-force definition to more severe instances, Chang said.

The FBI will release a report on its findings when it receives data from 40% of the officer population in the state, Stevenson said.

“The hope is when the majority of the country starts to report, we’ll have good, accurate data,” he said.

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