Michigan House Republicans have introduced an $80 million proposal to provide law enforcement with additional funding for training, mental health services, and recruitment and retention efforts. In the State Senate, a bipartisan police accountability bill package introduced by Republican Roger Victory and Democrat Stephanie Chang focuses on police improvements including limits on the use of force, penalties for excessive use of force and for tampering with body camera evidence, a ban on the use of most no-knock warrants, enhanced training standards for law enforcement officers, and the study of officer recruitment and retention issues.
This is an opportunity for Michigan to promote good law enforcement from multiple angles – providing needed support for officers while also making improvements in law and policies designed to deal with problems that have fueled a rift between so many citizens and law enforcement. But one critical criminal justice reform missing from both the House Republicans’ and the bipartisan Senate packages is legislation that would make police disciplinary records more transparent, similar to those for records of misconduct by teachers.
The minority of law enforcement officers who commit misconduct create real problems that ripple throughout the criminal justice system. Innocence organizations in Michigan and throughout the country have seen case after case involving the same officers fabricating evidence, coercing confessions, and using other illegal or improper tactics to build cases against suspects. But it takes years, even decades, to establish a pattern of police misconduct showing that a particular officer is causing innocent people to go to prison. The problem officer could be identified much faster if police departments were required to retain disciplinary records and make them available through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
To help separate these problem officers from the many good officers, we need transparency. House Bill 4291 authored by Rep. Tyrone Carter, a former law enforcement officer himself, would improve access to records of police misconduct and ensure that these records are properly retained in order for public access to be an effective source of information and a tool for change.
These changes would be good for law enforcement itself. As Rep. Carter puts it, “As a former law enforcement officer, I know that serious reforms are needed to repair and strengthen the broken trust between communities and law enforcement.”
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals, has stated: “Without transparency in policing, the public will not trust us, which makes our job harder. Shining a light on officer misconduct and how it is investigated by departments is a necessary first step towards improving police-community trust in Michigan.”
Police misconduct transparency is also good for prosecutors who want to avoid having cases overturned due to police misconduct. And they would be good for citizens who want to trust the police with full faith and confidence.
Michigan taxpayers have already shouldered the burden of millions of dollars that the state has paid out in civil settlements over police misconduct cases and wrongful imprisonment compensation, and it would be remiss to increase police resources without also implementing improvements to reveal and weed out bad actors who are causing wrongful convictions and forcing all of us to pay for their misconduct.
Transparency should focus on officers who conduct real misconduct, not technical violations or breaking mundane procedural rules. And the system should make it just as clear when police officers are cleared of misconduct as when the misconduct is substantiated.
Transparency in police disciplinary records will show that serious misconduct is confined to a small number of law enforcement officers, and it will make it easier for the far larger group of good officers to do their jobs with a community that will have more trust in the police.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Detroit News.