What is the role of law enforcement on campus?
September 1, 2020
The horror stories from older friends of ruining my freshman year with an MIP echoed in my head my first welcome week on campus. Pregaming the trek to a sticky frat basement in the twelve-by-twelve box that I shared with my high school friend while picking out the most flattering crop top, “Look sober, avoid DPSS” was the mantra.
After a few lost nights, my new best friends and I decided to stay in the dorms one night and play card games in the lounge. Enter here: Officer Andy. He asked if he could play a round of Cards Against Humanity with us - we said yes. Fast forward through the first few weeks of school and Officer Andy became a commoner in my friend group; he would stop us midday to ask if we could play cards that night, knock on my dorm door to check in on what he called our “Fun Fridays” - our Friday night wine nights. Without any fear, we would chat with him on our way to frat parties. During one card night while passing around a water bottle filled with wine, Officer Andy said, “My goal working here is to create a community - I want you to be able to
come to me, a safety officer, without fear. I can’t do that without knowing you all.”
All seemed well through that first semester. No one in my friend group received any MIPs. I heard murmurs of others in my dorm building receiving some trouble from Officer Andy, but I left campus unscathed.
Returning to campus after the holiday break, our friend group expanded. One card night where Officer Andy joined us, he pauses to address a new addition to our friend group, Josh, saying that he recognizes him. Josh shakes his head and tells Officer Andy that he received an MIP from him in the first semester. Officer Andy starts laughing, to Josh’s dismay, and says that he wouldn’t have given Josh an MIP if he had known that he was our friend.
While receiving an MIP is not the end of the world, this smaller scale situation represents the dynamic of DPSS - being friends with an officer has its perks. I should have received an MIP on multiple occasions my freshman year, but my friendship with Officer Andy came with protections. Officer Andy claims that the goal of his working as a DPSS officer was to create a community, but most students saw his uniform as a symbol of division. DPSS is a department under the University of Michigan, but when we say “Go Blue,” do we consider DPSS as a part of our institution? I am now going into my senior year here at the University of Michigan and looking back on freshman year, I reflect on the privilege I experienced due to the officer forming a bond with me.
Why the structure of DPSS’s collective bargaining agreement with UM instills a degree of accountability that other police departments really need right now
Last July, the University of Michigan announced that it had fired U of M Department of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) officer Steven Oatten after an internal investigation surrounding an allegation (unspecified for legal reasons) of “excessive force.” The university had previously put Oatten on administrative leave until late this past June due to this excessive use of force, calling it a “violation of department policy.” While the details of this case are not clear, the fact that UM was able to act relatively swiftly in eliminating a police officer within weeks after the perpetration of excessive force, despite the fact that such force likely did not lead to serious injury or death, is remarkable. Given the recent fallout from the police murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, and other nationally known instances of police violence, it has become painfully clear how difficult it is to fire or even discipline officers accused of police brutality due to police union policy and other factors. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who was behind the infamous killing of Eric Garner in 2014, shockingly received pay raises after the incident.
That being said, what department policy allowed UM to decisively fire a police officer from DPSS (a licensed Michigan police department like any other) despite opposition from the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM)? The specialized collective bargaining agreement between the University of Michigan administration and the POAM (Michigan’s preeminent police union) concerning DPSS law enforcement officers on campus allows the university to fire an officer should they behave, knowingly or unknowingly, in a way that violates “rule[s], regulation[s], or requirement[s]” or “adversely affects the university as a public employer and an educational institution.” In certain cases of immediate removal, the agreement (Article 6, Section B) also allows for the university to force an officer to leave work even before the POAM arrives to potentially slow down the process, a provision that greatly benefits the chances for swift and just discipline. While POAM is appealing UM’s decision on Steve Oatten, justice remains served as of right now. However, in cases involving other police departments across the state, such justice remains elusive and these areas may benefit from an agreement like the one UM has with DPSS.
In May 2020, around the same time that George Floyd was killed, Ann Arbor erupted in protests and furor over a police violence incident of their own. During a police investigation into a possible shooting in Ypsilanti, Sha’Teina Grady-El, a middle-aged black woman, and her husband were violently punched, grabbed and physically assaulted in other ways by Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputies after the couple tried to film the police while they were operating at the crime scene. While the officers sought to charge the Grady-Els for obstructing a police investigation, multiple legal sources, including the ACLU, have stated that that Grady-El was “within her rights” to resist arrest and that it was actually the officers’ behavior that was “unlawful.” As of right now, no charges have been filed against her and Mrs. Grady-El was released last month.
However, the real issue here is that, even now, months after Sha’Teina Grady-El was attacked, none of the officers involved have been punished. In May 2020, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s office did not initially charge any officer and instead chose to request more information. It later sent this case to the Michigan Attorney General’s office, which elected to accept the case on June 18th. While Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton promised an investigation back in May, that investigation is still ongoing months after the incident and none of the officers appear to have received any significant disciplinary action. Additionally, unlike the aforementioned U of M case, even if Sheriff Clayton’s investigation arrives at the conclusion that the officers should be fired, there is no special agreement allowing for them to be fired before unions like POAM get involved.
Adjustments to current collective bargaining agreements have been very difficult to present, let alone implement. Lisa Jackson, chair of the Ann Arbor Police Oversight Commission, has formulated multiple reforms to put forth to the Ann Arbor City Council, including changes to the agreement that the city of Ann Arbor has with the Ann Arbor Police Police Officers Association (another police union). These include allowing for access to “complaints made against officers” and making sure that the city police chief has the “final say” on officer firings without union interference. However, according to Jackson, she always has to “beg” to have time to present her proposals at city council meetings, with her presence on the agenda by no means a guarantee. While the University of Michigan’s internal policing policies are not perfect, they serve as an example of a model of policing that allows for swift action after misconduct has been committed, and that is a model certainly worth replicating.