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Politics

Lawmakers introduce legislation aimed at increasing police accountability

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Michigan lawmakers have introduced three pieces of legislation this week that would institute major reforms around police accountability.

The bill package would open disciplinary proceedings involving officers to Freedom of Information Act Requests, remove police immunity in cases of unreasonable use of force, and mandate police departments to file use of force incidents with the state.

Democratic State Representative Tyrone Carter introduced the package. He said as a former law enforcement officer he understands how hard the job is - but that doesn’t mean police shouldn’t be held accountable.

“I’m pro-police,” he said. “But we also need to understand that we have a duty to not do justice on the street. We have a system for that: the attorneys, the courts. This is what the public is clamoring for right now.”

Carter said there isn’t a good paper trail of complaints or use of force incidents that follow an officer from department to department. That can create problems - although research has found few officers face discipline or firing after misconduct - officers can also resign before being fired and get re-hired at a new department.

One bill in the package would mandate use of force reports be completed and then sent on to the state.

“Once an officer quits and, absent a lawsuit, usually the department says ‘he’s gone no need to pursue it,’” Carter said. “You need to pursue it, find the issues out, you turn around and put this into a database and send it to the state police.”

Carter points to the case of William Melendez, a Michigan police officer who quit before being fired, was re-hired by the City of Inkster, and went on to assault a motorist. The city eventually settled with the motorist for $1.3-million.

“It has to be a record of this to protect other departments,” Carter said. “Bad officers are costing taxpayers, as you see. Officers don’t pay, departments don’t pay, taxpayers ultimately pay.”

Another bill in the package would remove immunity for officers in cases of “unreasonable force.” Qualified immunity, which gives officers broad immunity against lawsuits, has come under increased scrutiny across the country.

Police argue that when dealing with potentially dangerous suspects they shouldn’t have to worry about facing lawsuits.

Activists, and a growing number of lawmakers across the country, see it differently.

“When a person steps beyond what is the reasonable force continuum that most departments subscribe to you can’t do it and justify it by ‘I’m covered,’” Carter said. “Blanket immunity is a scary thing.”

Carter said the legislation is unlikely to pass - but he thinks it’s important that the conversation around police accountability is had.

“The appetite right now is for reform and changes,” he said. “If the departments don’t have the appetite to do it themselves the worst thing you can do is make it a law, but they’ve had opportunity after opportunity.”

A spokesperson for the Michigan State Police says they are reviewing the bills but have not taken a position on them.