Cities work to establish greater civilian oversight over police

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By ELAINE MALLON
Capital News Service

LANSING — For the past two years, seven Battle Creek residents have worked to establish a citizens review board to oversee policing practices. 

The committee led by community leaders expects to present its proposed bylaws to the city manager and commission by early June, said Carey Whitfield, the president of the NAACP Battle Creek chapter.

The initiative spearheaded by the NAACP and leaders in the Hispanic community seeks to build a system for residents to weigh in on policing practices and conduct, according to Whitfield. 

“The goal of Battle Creek is much like the goal of other citizen review boards, and that is to build a better relationship between its citizenry and policing agency. By doing this, we are eliminating a great deal of bias within policing agencies.” 

He said, “The expectation is transparency from the policing agency.”

According to Whitfield, the city police department initially met the idea of a civilian review board with a bit of resistance. 

“With the city manager, it was a challenge on how to approach them on the matter, rather than them being unapproachable,” Whitfield said. “Now, if we do all the things that need to be done correctly, we should have a good opportunity to get it supported by our city manager and police chief.”

Jessica VanderKolk, the communications manager in the city manager’s office, said Battle Creek is always looking for ways to imrpove trust and community engagement. 

“We would look forward to joining the conversation about a civilian review board and what that could look like in Battle Creek,” VanderKolk said. “It is a great, continual conversation to have.”

If approved later this year, Battle Creek will become the eighth Michigan city with a citizens review board, according to Anthony Lewis, the business and community affairs director at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

In addition to Detroit, the others are in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Lansing and Benton Harbor, which was established in December 2020. Modeled after other citizen review boards, Battle Creek board members would be volunteers appointed by the city commission.

While Battle Creek works to establish a board, Willie Bell, who chairs the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said he’d like to expand his board’s oversight. 

The board has been instrumental in changing policies such as instituting body cameras, but Bell said he’d like to see the board expand its responsibility into disciplinary actions. 

“We do not have an impact on the discipline of officers,” Bell said. “We handle noncriminal complaints, but that’s not enough.”

“Oversight is in two or three different forms,” Bell said. “They are not separate. The area of force, deadly force, the investigation of a police shooting — oversight should be looking at it very closely. We don’t have that authority in Detroit.”

With the new presidential administration, Bell said he expects greater support for citizen oversight.

“We hope President (Joe) Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would reconvene the efforts to impact oversight in the country with the Justice Department and attorney general,” Bell said. “So far they indicated that they would be supportive of oversight and police reform.” 

Founded in 1974, Detroit’s 11-member board is different from others in Michigan because most members are elected, with only three appointed by the mayor. 

According to Lewis, cities with citizen review boards or working toward creating them are in different stages. 

He said he doesn’t define success over what has been achieved, but rather whether a city has embraced such an initiative.

“I think successes are that communities recognize a need,” Lewis said. “Law enforcement agencies and community leaders recognize that a city review board is not a gotcha mechanism. I think it builds confidence with the law enforcement agency, and it builds relationships with the community.”