The U.S. Attorney’s Office is pulling back on its oversight of the Detroit Police Department, but also announced that it will publish the number of complaints that civilians file against Detroit police officers.
The pull-back by the federal government means that civilians should control the police — not the other way around.
The Constitution grants the people of the states the power to regulate their police forces. But in Michigan that power has slipped away. We need to take back civilian control of the police.
In Michigan the agency responsible for licensing police officers is the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. But the commission’s membership is dominated by police chiefs, sheriffs and union representatives. The commission does not entertain complaints against police officers — it refers complaints back to the local department. At the local level, the odds are strong that the officer will be exonerated.
Police work is too important to be left to police departments and local unions. Civilians are stakeholders. Other states have public members on their police commissions. Illinois and Missouri have at least one. Alaska, Arizona and California have several civilian members. Connecticut has a majority.
Mayors, city councilors and county commissioners should have seats on the police commission. They hire and fire police officers, and create and disband local departments. They field complaints from constituents about police behavior. Bad cops are a source of embarrassment and a big expense. Elected local officials have an incentive to weed out bad cops.
The municipal insurance industry is a stakeholder, too. It pays millions in damage awards for the misbehavior of bad cops. Those awards, and the premiums to finance them, impair the budgets of local governments. Insurance organizations, like the Municipal Risk Management Authority and the Municipal League, should have seats on the commission. Bad cops pose a risk that needs to be managed. Risk managers have the knowledge and the incentive to weed out bad cops.
The Detroit Police Department’s decision to publish the number of complaints against officers is a step in the right direction, but an effective police licensing system demands more.
Michigan’s commission has no power to take away a police officer’s license unless the officer has been convicted of a crime. Imagine how dangerous a medical procedure would be if we let incompetent surgeons continue operating until they are convicted. An effective licensing commission would have the power to discipline incompetent and unethical practitioners.
The solution is to weed out the bad cops. Local police chiefs and sheriffs are not in the best position to do that work. They are too close to the action, and their efforts are often constrained by local union contracts. We need civilian control at the state level to enforce a vigorous disciplinary program to weed out the bad cops.
Erick Williams is an attorney who lives in East Lansing.