Frederick Douglass was right on target when he wrote, “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The demand is simple: Let’s diversify the Michigan State Police. Let’s bring more color to a powerful institution that has overwhelming impact on the lives of ordinary people. It is an institution that has an indelible effect on the lives of African Americans and other people of color. The history of the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color is one that demands that our police institutions like the Michigan State Police reflect the communities they serve. We can’t wait for a Ferguson-type situation to take place involving our State Police before everyone starts shouting and crying for change. We don’t need to wait for the headlines to bleed with terrible images before we start thinking about ways to make diversity a key initiative as was the case with the Ferguson Police Department.
The recent revelation about the scanty and appalling numbers of African Americans working for the Michigan State Police, the premier law enforcement apparatus in the state, is a cause for concern for anyone who believes that diversity is not only a compelling interest, but must be organically weaved into the modus operandi of any organization that must survive today. The telling numbers from the Michigan State Police show that out of 1,134 officers, only 59 are Black.
Diversity is not just a trendy word to throw in a press release. Diversity is life. Diversity represents the future. Diversity is progress. Diversity means acknowledging that our society is changing and accepting the many cultural shifts we are witnessing today never before imagined. What is even more unacceptable and disturbing for any person who cares about race and the presumption of innocence in our legal system is that only 14 of the 430 recent State Police recruits are Black.
Imagine what those numbers will do to the psychology of your presumption of innocence? Imagine being Black or Hispanic and pulled over by a state trooper and then you begin to reflect on the fact that you are now under the submission of a police force that does not reflect your community. Imagine the feeling of resentment, uncertainty and cynicism you quickly develop about police.
If you are in the situation that Floyd Dent was in on Jan. 28, with no criminal history and being subjected to inhumane treatment by Inkster police officer William Melendez and his crew, think about the humiliation, stigmatization and the feeling of powerlessness to see justice prevail because the bad actor in this case is a police officer. Think about the emotional injury and the feeling of being stripped of your right to due process right there at the scene because in that police stop, the officer has concluded that you are the personification of Black criminality and therefore will treat you as such. Think about your humanity and individuality been taken away in a police stop and you are made to feel like a criminal who has been found guilty even though you have not even been tried in a court of law.
If all this is happening, why then should the Black community trust police departments? Why should communities of color trust police departments that are not diverse?
FBI Director James Comey recently delivered a candid address at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. about race and the law. His remarks were unlikely for a law enforcement leader of his type, noting police disproportionate treatment of different groups raised many eyebrows. When I read the honesty of his remarks it was as if Comey was either reading a powerful riot act or giving a historical treatise on law enforcement and people of color. His speech was a breath of fresh air as well as a reckoning for law enforcement and I hope that those who want to see changes in agencies like the Michigan State Police took note.
In fact, some prominent African Americans in law enforcement are citing Comey’s speech as reason to now change the status quo in policing. But will it change?
“All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,” Comey said. “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
Racial profiling damages the reputation of law enforcement and the confidence that the public should have in institutions that depend on taxpayer dollars to operate. Statistics upon statistics have shown that Blacks are treated more unfairly than their White counterparts in the hands of law enforcement. The U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson’s local government and the practice of selecting its Black residents for stiff traffic fines, the failure of which results in criminality is abhorrent.
That is why the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall asked that pointed question in his oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court as chief counsel for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, saying, “Why of all of the multitudinous groups of people in this country do you have to single out Negroes and give them this separate treatment”
To this day many are asking that very prophetic question from Justice Marshall when it comes to law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve. Why should people of color be singled out for this kind of harsh treatment whenever police interact with our communities? Why was Eric Garner subjected to that level of violent engagement that resulted to his death and no one paid the price?
Why do we have a State Police in 2015 whose diversity record is not anything to be proud of?
The answer is not difficult. Let’s impanel a diversity commission appointed by the governor and charged to come up with recommendations in the next six months on how to improve the diversity record of the Michigan State Police. A diverse panel of individuals rooted both in law enforcement and community can bridge the diversity gap of our leading police agency in the state. This needs to happen if we are going to see any positive and serious movement in law enforcement engagement in our communities.
The governor should make this a priority and see to it that there is more color in the ranks of the State Police, and appointing a commission with the full support and mandate of the executive office is one way to begin that process. Following are individuals I strongly believe would serve well on that commission.
Let’s begin with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, an exemplary lawyer who is open-minded and has shown that he cares for the disadvantaged. His recent prison visit to the Charles Egeler Correctional Facility in Jackson where he was talking to correction officers and inmates as part of weighing the state’s sentencing guidelines stunned many people. The correction officers could not recall the last time a sitting Supreme Court Justice visited them. But Bernstein, who is blind, during his campaign for the high court told me in an interview that, “I believe that justice should be blind, and I believe in fairness for all. I want to bring blind justice to Michigan’s Supreme Court. Justice that is blind to political ideology, blind to powerful special interests and blind to partisan politics. Justice should be fair, unbiased and respect the rule of law.” With his background and passion for the underdog Bernstein would play an important role on a commission to reform diversity on the State Police.
Next on the commission should be Tony Holt, the chief of police for Wayne State University. Under Holt’s leadership, the Wayne State Police Department has become one of the best examples of community policing because he understands how to create a positive partnership between police and the community. His department recently received a positive review in the New York Times. But more importantly, anyone who engages that department or Chief Holt himself understands that they take community complaints seriously. Those complaints do not fall on deaf ears because Holt knows that as a police force he must continue to engage a community that traditionally has not been open to law enforcement. He is a strong proponent for diversity and his addition to the state commission will help the State Police change the paradigm and respond rightly to the call for diversity.
Jane Garcia is a known activist and civic leader who has long advocated for diversity and Hispanic participation in our region. She is brutally honest about issues and the positions she takes. She is the chair of the board for LA SED (Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development). In 2010, when I moderated a forum featuring officials from the U.S. Census Bureau at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I could not have found a more engaging and outspoken participant, emphasizing the need to put community engagement ahead of government bureaucracy. With a Jane Garcia on a state commission to enhance diversity on the State Police, she could bring a real grassroots perspective that is often missing in law enforcement, which can lead to not only more Black recruitment to the force but also Hispanic recruitment.
Nabih Ayad, is a known civil rights lawyer with a long track record and the chairman of the Arab-American Civil Rights League. A former Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner, Ayad has distinguished himself as a voice for the rights of those who tend to have no recourse when their rights are taken away. Representing an important segment of our community, him being on such a commission would help change the narrative of the state’s law enforcement apparatus and also help inculcate a sense of community trust. In an era of civil rights investigations of police departments, it would make sense to have someone like Ayad on a commission to not only enhance its diversity, but also help the agency on ways in which its officers can be spared the huge liability that comes with violating the civil rights of those they’ve sworn to protect.
Kym Worthy, the Wayne County Prosecutor, should be part of this commission because her office makes the charging decisions when police officers submit warrants. For instance, in the case of the Inkster man, Mr. Dent, Worthy is reevaluating the drug charge that Inkster police brought against Dent in light of the notorious cop Melendez’s history of allegedly planting drugs on his victims. A commission of this kind will benefit from having a prosecutor as a member because police work hand in hand with prosecutors. Worthy’s rise to prominence was hastened by the 1992 beating to death of Malice Green, a 36-year-old African American from Detroit who was savagely maltreated by White police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn and several other officers. When she made the bold decision to charge the officers involved, her reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor began to take shape in the community. She knows a lot about police brutality and the perceptions and realities of unfairness in our criminal justice system.
Dennis Muchmore is the governor’s chief of staff. For such a commission to be seen as carrying the weight of the executive office and to seriously implement the recommendations that will be made in six months, it is crucial to have a senior level executive from the governor’s office as a member of the commission. Muchmore will provide that role in this case and see to it that this is not just another blue-ribbon commission whose report will be confined to some sort of a library or under someone’s desk in Lansing.
Diversity in law enforcement is important to building trust in communities. The governor can begin by setting up a commission to do just that. The individuals I listed will serve the interest of the public. Diversity should not be an exception. It should be the rule.