Here's how Washtenaw County is reimagining policing

Community groups and law enforcement have advanced innovative policies in recent years, and more are on the way.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 — and the police shootings of David Ware in 2007 and Aura Rosser in 2014 — have sparked uprising, protest, and debate about the nature and future of police work in Washtenaw County. 

"Policing as a solution to how to manage life together is at most 200 years old," says Kevin Karpiak, a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminology at Eastern Michigan University. He says that across the country, people are rethinking the role of police, and "that maybe we're asking too many things that can't be done through this kind of institution."

In recent years, community groups have advanced initiatives for decreasing police involvement, local law enforcement agencies and governing bodies have introduced their own innovative strategies, and policy has shifted to stop prosecuting certain crimes. Here's a look at how law enforcement in Washtenaw County has shifted, and what other changes may be next.

Care-Based Safety

On February 6, the community group Care-Based Safety (CBS) announced plans for an unarmed, non-police crisis response pilot program that will launch in Washtenaw County this year. 

"Data shows us that in most communities only 4% of policing is devoted to handling 'violent crime,'" reads CBS' strategic plan. "This means that 96% of those calls could immediately be handled by other, unarmed parties."

Karpiak is a member of the Coalition for Re-Envisioning Our Safety (CROS), an advocacy group that formed in response to the 2021 Ann Arbor City Council resolution calling for the development of an unarmed public safety response team. CROS researched successful unarmed non-police programs throughout the country, ultimately creating its own report on the topic.
Eastern Michigan University Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology Kevin Karpiak.
"It was really important to us that if there's a safety measure that's for the community, it should be led by the community," says Hoai An Pham, another CROS member.

That research laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become CBS, which split from CROS last year to focus on implementing its pilot program. Although the city of Ann Arbor is still conducting a community engagement process to determine what unarmed public safety response might look like, CBS intends to pilot its program to demonstrate its efficacy.

Under the program, urgent response services would be accessed by a public, seven-digit phone number separate from 911 and operating independently from any government body. A staff member would dispatch a team of non-police responders from grassroots organizations, government agencies, and nonprofits to de-escalate the situation. These partners would follow up with individuals and communities, empowering them with resources to address the root cause of the incident, while letting the wider community know the outcome of the intervention. 

Police and mental health

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton agrees with Karpiak that there are situations that don't require police involvement, adding that unarmed response is already part of the county's "continuum of community responders." The Y-Town Quality of Life initiative pilot in Ypsilanti Township, for example, offered neighbor-to-neighbor education as an alternative to armed police response. 

"Post-George Floyd, there was an awakening in the community," Clayton says. "All of this made sense to [the sheriff's office] because we've always embraced this approach. So I'm glad we're all moving in that same direction."

The continuum also includes police response, clinician response, and police-clinician partnerships — because, Clayton explains, 911 calls rarely fall into neat categories, and crisis situations tend to evolve or escalate.

2019 saw the creation of a formal partnership between the sheriff's office's Crisis Negotiation Team and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH). In 2022, the sheriff's office launched a co-response pilot in Ypsilanti Township, in which a deputy and WCCMH social worker ride together to address mental health-related calls. 
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton.
"These are the folks that respond to those calls that aren't really clear," Clayton explains. "We know that there's some risk involved, but history has shown us there's a mental health component. So what better response than having both there?"

Even as the sheriff's office strengthens its partnerships with WCCMH, Clayton says officers' mental health also deserves attention. He adds that he'd like to see a system for employee wellness, as well as a mental health professional whom officers could talk to off the record. 

"[Police] have all these micro-traumas every day, because they see some of the worst things," Clayton says. "We've changed the culture a little bit to where everybody doesn't have to be the tough guy or the tough girl, to say nothing ever gets to us … [but] quite frankly, we have not been as successful as we need to be in that space."

Diversion and deflection

Washtenaw County also employs a number of diversion programs — both with and without police involvement. Diversion and deflection programs work by offering restorative treatment in lieu of jail time — addressing the source rather than the symptom. For those who successfully complete treatment, cases are dismissed, avoiding the stigma of a criminal record.

The sheriff's office is currently piloting Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD), a program that connects low-level offenders to community services instead of jail time. The Supportive Connections program, which launched last year, offers similar services with no police involvement. Finally, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office offers the Pre-Plea Diversion Program, Formula 734 (where juveniles work with mentors to create a hip-hop album in lieu of detention), and the Specialized Alternative to Sentencing Support program, specifically geared toward young parents and caregivers.

The Sheriff's Office is working with the Center for Health and Research Transformation on an evaluation of the LEADD program that should be released by the end of March. But an analysis of Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, on which LEADD was based, found that participants had 58% lower odds of arrest moving forward. 
Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit.
"The success rates, quite candidly, are off-the-charts good," says Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit. "We've done well over 100, probably around 150, cases that have been diverted through [the Pre-Plea Diversion] program. … The recidivism rate is less than 5%."

Formula 734, a partnership with Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper, has an even better track record. 

"We haven't seen a single kid that has taken advantage of that program come back through the system," Savit says.

By reducing recidivism, restorative justice programs may have the added benefit of reducing crime rates — a win not just for public safety, but also for police workloads. 

Changing laws, changing law enforcement

Some shifts in Washtenaw County's law enforcement have involved changing the laws themselves.

"Law enforcement officers are there to enforce laws. If we change those laws, we're thereby changing their responsibilities," says Frances Todoro-Hargreaves, chair of Ann Arbor's Independent Community Police Oversight Commission (ICPOC).

Decriminalize Nature Michigan Director Myc Williams.One notable example is Ann Arbor City Council's 2020 decision to functionally decriminalize entheogenic plants — a victory for advocacy groups like Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, which worked to reverse the deleterious effects of the war on drugs. 

"[The war on drugs] was never, ever about keeping people safe, about protecting our communities, about providing resources we need," says Myc Williams, director of Decriminalize Nature Michigan. "It was always about racist policies, classist, exclusivist policies, policies to keep the lower class struggling and in the system and at bay."

After Savit took office in 2021, he announced a flurry of progressive policies, among them making possession of entheogens and methadone/buprenorphine the county's lowest prosecutorial priority. Like deflection programs, this realignment in priorities may serve to lighten law enforcement workloads. 

"I love [Savit] to death," Williams says. "Victoria Burton-Harris, his assistant prosecutor, [is an] absolutely incredibly powerful woman that I just love to listen to because she's really thinking forward about how we think about policing and charging."

Transparency and trust

Sweeping initiatives aside, Todoro-Hargreaves says a demographic change is also at play in Washtenaw County's police culture. With the retirement of the wave of officers hired during the Clinton administration, she says the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) is "at least 50%" new hires.

"They bring an entirely different view of the community to police work, and it's that younger voice where they've accepted police oversight," she says. "I believe that will help us to create more progress and more change." 
Frances Todoro-Hargreaves, chair of Ann Arbor's Independent Community Police Oversight Commission.
In December, ICPOC successfully advocated for stricter protocols regarding officer misconduct in the AAPD's 2023-2029 contract. The police chief may now take into consideration written reprimands from the last four years — up from two — and waive progressive discipline for major infractions. This year, ICPOC is launching an initiative, headed by ICPOC Vice Chair Stefani Carter, to review police policies. Todoro-Hargreaves says that effort will be "looking at ways that we can make changes and improvements in how the officers communicate and work with the public." This is in addition to reviewing civilian complaints against police officers — between 2019 and 2022, there were 65.

Todoro-Hargreaves believes trust grows out of transparency. ICPOC's job, she explains, is to show the community "the pretty side and the ugly side" of its police department. Without knowledge of the programs and people on the ground, she says, the narrative can get twisted. 

"If you're somebody who is viewing what's going on in the nation, but not actually interacting with police, you may not have a proper understanding of who your local department really is," she says.

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and the author of Lucky: An African Student, an American Dream, and a Long Bike Ride. You can contact her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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