EMU project collaborates with oversight commissions to improve public safety in Washtenaw County

A recent grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) will help an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) policy research project expand its mission to address racial bias and develop best practices for public safety departments and their oversight commissions.

Established in 2020, EMU's Southeast Michigan Criminal Justice Policy Research Project (SMART) serves as a clearinghouse that collects and distributes the results of criminal justice policy research. Before receiving a Community Policy Innovations Fund grant from CFSEM, SMART staff were already working on engaging and educating EMU students and the community at large through a series of criminal justice public lectures and events, with another round of such events set for spring 2022. 

SMART is headed by EMU professor Kevin Karpiak, whose previous research focused on police oversight bodies in France. Karpiak says it was an interesting new challenge to apply that background locally with help from the grant.

The grant funding has allowed SMART to run three collaborative projects in southeast Michigan. The first is with the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) and its Independent Community Police Oversight Commission (ICPOC). The second collaboration is with the East Dearborn Downtown Development Association. The third collaboration is with EMU's Public Safety Oversight Committee.

Karpiak notes that universities with their own police forces are required by law to have an oversight committee, but that's not true of other police forces. Only about one in six public safety departments across the U.S. has any kind of oversight commission, and all of the commissions have different methods, aims, and priorities. Karpiak notes that Washtenaw County's five official oversight committees – representing Ypsilanti, EMU, the University of Michigan, and Ann Arbor's police departments, as well as the Washtenaw County Sheriff – are "five very different bodies."

That showed up in the different requests made by ICPOC and the EMU oversight committee. Karpiak says SMART had already agreed to partner with ICPOC regardless of funding, but the grant will help further that body's work on racial inequity in policing.

"We realized early on that we couldn't give a strong recommendation of what police should be doing unless we knew what they were doing. We needed hard data," he says.

AAPD released several years' worth of traffic stop data to ICPOC, and SMART is serving as an independent third party to analyze that data. EMU's oversight commission, on the other hand, is using SMART in a completely different way.

"Some of the members of EMU's oversight commission have been trying to sound the alarm that it hasn't been doing its job," Karpiak says, noting that for years the commission had no website or any other way for the public to contact it.

An ad hoc committee was established to investigate best practices and address the oversight committee's challenges. 

"We collected archival evidence like meeting notes and schedules, and interviewed focus groups and every past oversight commission member we could find for the past 10 years," Karpiak says. 

That research led to about 40 recommendations. Karpiak notes that EMU leadership has already addressed several issues that were "low-hanging fruit," like establishing a website for the commission.

Karpiak says SMART is now advising the commission on how to prioritize and address the other recommendations.

"The state constitution mandates that two faculty, two students, and two staff have to be elected to the oversight commission," Karpiak says. "But the ad hoc committee pointed out that EMU police are deputized to go off campus, throughout Ypsilanti, Ypsi Township, and Superior Township."

Because EMU's public safety force polices those without any connection to EMU, Karpiak says the commission should probably add one or more commissioners to represent the community at large.

SMART has also brought together all five of the county's police oversight commissions to meet monthly.

"They talk about what they're up to and the challenges they're facing so they can learn from each other and end that silo effect of how oversight is typically structured," Karpiak says. "As far as I know, it's the only such county-wide consortium in the country."

More information about SMART, and opportunities for the public to engage with the program, are available 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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Image courtesy of SMART.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.