If you want to reform the criminal justice system, you first need to understand how that system works. That's the idea behind a new Police Reform Academy (PRA), one of several 21st Century Policing initiatives introduced this year by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office.
Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the sheriff's office, says PRA participants will go through a six-week academy course covering topics like training, use of force, hiring and promotions, discipline, culture, police unions, and current reform efforts.
The program will be shaped in cooperation with the Ypsilanti-based Washtenaw chapter of My Brother's Keeper (WMBK), a mentorship organization for communities of color. WMBK members will make up the first cohort of 30 individuals to go through the academy sometime in the first quarter of 2021.
"Obviously, with all of the things going on nationally around police brutality and reform, and Black men in particular dying at the hands of police, that has started some conversations here about what we wanted to do," Jackson says.
Jackson notes that many people have ideas for reforming the criminal justice system, ranging from small policy changes to divesting from, defunding, or abolishing police. But no matter which option someone supports, he says they need to "understand the modern-day construct of policing," including policies around training and use of force and Supreme Court decisions that affect policing.
"Once you understand that structure, no matter what mechanism you want to use to create change, you are better educated," Jackson says. "Let's start with educating the community on the idea of modern-day policing, and we'll all be better equipped to talk about what the solution should be."
Jamall Bufford, project specialist with WMBK, says WMBK agreed to the partnership because "Black men are most impacted by what's going on."Jamall Bufford.
"Down the line, the academy will be open to everyone in the community, but we really wanted to center the Black male voice with our first round, to build a foundation as we move forward," Bufford says.
Jackson says it's also important that the academy starts off as a partnership, so that the first cohort can help develop the curriculum for future cohorts, including elected officials, who will make up the second cohort.
"This is not a sheriff-run event. It's a partnership," Jackson says. "My Brother's Keeper is a key partner, and past the first cohort, we'll be carrying on with the perspectives gathered from that first cohort."
Bufford says he hopes the partnership will go both ways, and that sheriff's office employees will join WMBK activities and volunteer with WMBK members when they're out doing community work. Bufford says it's important to WMBK members that the effort will not be about "propping up" the sheriff's office but about creating a true give and take.
"The plan is to have a small representation of deputies participate in the academy along with us so there can be some dialogue and community-building," Bufford says. "The broader theme is on policing in the country, but we know at some point the conversation is going to go to what's going on in our own community, and we want to make space for that conversation as well."
Bufford says the PRA idea has been well-received by members of WMBK, and about 40 people have already applied to be in the first cohort.
"Everyone thinks it's a great idea," Bufford says. "We definitely hope that we can get a sense from the brothers involved that they can gain something from it and carry something from it moving forward. It's not about promoting the work the sheriff's department does, but about getting to action steps people can take away for reform."
Justin Harper is an Ypsilanti resident who is active with WMBK and volunteers with the organization to host game days for children in the Sycamore Meadows apartment community in Superior Township. He was one of the first WMBK members to apply to be part of the PRA.
"I feel it's important that police and citizens should both be involved with improving our community as a whole," Harper says. Justin Harper talks with Derrick Jackson.
Harper says he's learned de-escalation techniques from working in the public schools and occasionally having to calm down a troubled child, and he thinks community policing could benefit from more training in de-escalation.
"As a paraeducator, sometimes kids are reacting off their emotions and they might punch, scratch, or kick," he says. "As a professional, it's not okay for me to get upset and do the same thing to them they're doing to me, because there's an example I have to represent. I can't react to that button-pushing and can't get sidetracked by irrelevant issues, and I have to set consequences I know I can enforce."
He says more community engagement by deputies and police officers can only be a good thing.
"It builds rapport, and the basis of community starts with relationships," he says. "It's so important for police officers and citizens to have an understanding and a certain level of respect and trust with each other."
Bufford says he is no expert in community policing and expects to learn a lot from the process of helping to create the curriculum for the PRA.
"I hope I can learn while also making sure there's a space where everybody is heard, where everybody feels they can communicate whatever they want to express," Bufford says. "We want people to walk away with something tangible, to have resources. We want them to have those contacts and know who to reach out to and how to reach out, so they can put into action anything they want to see changed."
Jackson notes that the PRA is just one of several initiatives the sheriff's office is promoting under the heading of 21st Century Policing. The other two recent initiatives are the creation of a 21st Century Policing Compliance Initiative and Commission and the addition of community members to the sheriff's office hiring committee.
"We need to think about all these [initiatives] as different rungs on the ladder. We didn't get here yesterday in terms of police-community relationships and won't get out of it tomorrow," Jackson says. "We've never done anything like this, but a lot of the programs and things we do help educate the community and help us learn from the community. Some things are one-time events, and this will be a series of events. There are all these different ways for people to engage with the sheriff's office and for us to engage with the community."
Anyone with questions or interest in participating in the PRA can contact Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bufford at email@example.com. More information about the PRA and other 21st Century Policing initiatives can be found here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.