Kalamazoo

Report on Kalamazoo police response to 2020 protests is questioned and supported

Study is described as the first step in what will be an ongoing process.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

As the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety handled racial injustice protests last summer and a march last August by a far-right, neo-fascist hate group the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety did some things right and some things wrong.
 
That finding by an independent law-enforcement consulting firm is not very satisfying for those who say Kalamazoo Public Safety was quick to confront protestors during otherwise peaceful protests that occurred following the March 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota but reluctant to confront members of a combative Proud Boys group that marched through downtown Kalamazoo on Aug. 15, 2020.
 
“I definitely do not think that the report gave us the answers that we were looking for as well as just left us with more questions than it was (did) solidified answers,” said T.C. Custard, a Kalamazoo resident who was active in George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last year.
 
She said a report compiled by consulting firm OIR Group “didn’t reveal anything that we didn’t already know” and could be misinterpreted.
 
Vernon Payne is chairman of the Kalamazoo Citizens Review and Appeal Board.Shardae Chambers, of Kalamazoo, said, “This report had a lot of flaws and a lot of errors in it where things were not discussed. And I feel that for as much as we paid for this study to be done, this group that was doing the study should have pressed on Kalamazoo Public Safety to give more details, to give more updates, to give more findings, to give more of their (police) reports. There should have also been talks and more details into why the police chief was told to resign. There should have been a lot more details.”
 
More than one commenter asked why KDPS apparently did not release some of its police reports to OIR investigators. Gennaco said the group’s analysis did not mean to leave that perception. “We don’t believe there were documents hidden from our view.” He said the long-distance nature of data collecting and other things caused the process to take “longer in our view than perhaps it could have been.”
 
Chambers and Custard were among five Kalamazoo residents to comment on a 111-page report on the police response to incidents last summer in central Kalamazoo during a joint meeting of the Kalamazoo Citizens Public Safety and Review and Appeals Board and the Kalamazoo Board of Commissioners. The virtual meeting was conducted on the Zoom gathering platform. It was set to review OIR’s report, which was released late last week.
 
“Some would prefer that we call things either one way or another,” Michael Gennaco, a founding principal of OIR Group, said of determining who was right and who was wrong during the incidents. “But things are usually more complicated than that.”
 
OIR Group is a California-based firm that has audited police agencies’ responses to the civil unrest in 2020 in several American cities. It was paid $75,000 to assess the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety’s involvement primarily in incidents that occurred from May 30 to June 2 of 2020, and on Aug. 15 of last year.
 
Five OIR consultants offered insights into how the study was conducted and what was found. They found that “KDPS did many things creditably and without a discriminatory motivation.” But they also found that “room for improvement certainly existed – as is almost always the case with police agencies or any other organization in the aftermath of critical, high-profile incidents.”
 
Michael Gennaco, of OIR Group, speaks during a Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2020 virtual meeting with Kalamazoo’s city officials and the public.The consultants included Los Angeles Police Sgt. Jody Stiger, who testified as an expert witness in the April murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was fired following the May 25, 2020 incident in which Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, killing him. Floyd was a 46-year-old African-American man who was arrested for suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis store. Chauvin, who is White, was a veteran police officer who was found guilty of murder. The incident, recorded by a bystander and posted online, sparked protests throughout the United States, abroad, and in Kalamazoo.
 
Significantly, OIR Group indicated that KDPS tried to use a low-profile style of policing in the Aug. 15 Proud Boys incident that had appeared to be effective in policing protests that occurred earlier in the summer. But the Proud Boys incident was completely different. It involved the meeting of passionate groups of protesters and counter-protesters.
 
Referring to early summer protests, OIR reported that KDPS  “could point to successes in their controlled force deployments and ability to maintain order as legitimate protests devolved into vandalism and unruly behavior. But they faced questions and criticism as well – particularly regarding the deployment of chemical munitions and its aggressive enforcement of a curfew on the night of June 2.  The Department’s subsequent explanations failed to resolve all of the frustrations that had emerged.” 
 
Referring to the Proud Boys incident, OIR reported that many of those issues remained unresolved, and the Proud Boys march on Saturday, Aug. 15 “re-framed those earlier encounters by providing what many people considered a study in contrasts. Where the department had been pro-active and decisive at times in shutting down activity on June 1 and 2, it adopted a notably ‘low profile’ strategy in its initial responses to the Proud Boys’ provocative, well-publicized arrival in the city that afternoon. Unfortunately – but predictably – encounters between the Proud Boy demonstrators and counter-protesters soon descended into physical clashes.”
 
OIR stated that KDPS enforcement actions left some members of the public with the impression that the Proud Boys “had been given more latitude and support than had demonstrators for racial equity and police accountability.” None of the nine arrests made during the Aug. 15 incident were Proud Boys.
 
Michael Gennaco, of OIR Group, speaks during a Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2020 virtual meeting with Kalamazoo’s city officials and the public.“Initially the report shows roughly the same things that the city’s internal investigation showed late last year,” said Kalamazoo resident Will Baker, who was among commenters who wondered whether the study was worth the $75,000 the city paid for it. “And I wonder if it was wasted money or more of a show to say ‘OK the city has done something,’ instead of actually getting whatever the truth may actually be.”
 
Vernon Payne, chairman of the Citizens Public Safety Review and Appeals Board, said there are nuances and layers of valuable information in the 111-page study that may not be understood in a first reading. He implored others to read it thoroughly to make sure they understand it. He said he has read it three times.
 
The report and its analysis is dense and include 40 recommendations, from suggestions on determining arrest strategies in crowd control situations to suggesting that KDPS work with city officials and community representatives to assess its strategy for addressing criminal misconduct when there is large-scale unrest.
 
Among the many suggestions are: 
 
• KDPS should utilize their vehicle public address system or alternative audio system to clearly and loudly communicate with crowds, especially when issuing dispersal orders or other instructions; 
 
• KDPS and the city’s leadership should develop principles around when the imposition of a police zone is appropriate in the protest context; and 
 
• KDPS should formally address the wide-scale lapses in adherence to the body-worn camera policy that occurred during the May 30 to June 2 operational period.
 
“I think it’s a fair report,” said Citizens Review Board member Larry Tolbert. “I’m not asking anyone in Kalamazoo to forget what Kalamazoo has gone through — not just in June and July, but for decades.”
 
But he said he thinks that with new KDPS Chief Vernon Coakley (who was promoted from assistant chief on Oct. 1, 2020), “I think the community is moving in the right direction.”
 
Coakley fills the top cop spot vacated after Chief Karianne Thomas was heavily criticized for her handling of the incidents and was fired.
 
The response of Kalamazoo police to civil unrest during the summer of 2020 is the focus of a new 111-page report. Kalamazoo officers are shown preparing to clear the Arcadia Greek Festival Site on Aug. 15, 2020.Review Board member Eric Gardner concurred, saying, “I think the OIR Group did a great job. I think it wasn’t biased in any way. I think it was transparent on both sides and moving forward, I love the recommendations -- that we can move forward -- and I see changes now in the police department. So let’s keep it moving forward.”
 
Mayor David Anderson said the study is the first step in what will be an ongoing process to make positive change. “This isn’t the end. This is part of a continuing process,” he said, describing the report on  KDPS’ response to the incidents as step two, following the decision months ago to have an independent review. Compiling the study included community input sessions that were conducted primarily online, and started last January.
 
Zachary Lassiter, of Kalamazoo, said he is disappointed that Kalamazoo Public Safety did not turn over some of its reports to investigators, disappointed that the city paid $75,000 for the study, and is “disappointed in general.”
 
He said he thinks there needs to be a change in leadership and focused on City Manager Jim Ritsema, saying Ritsema lied in announcing the resignation of former KDPS Chief Thomas (she was actually fired) and apologized for the arrest of a local journalist during the Aug. 15 Proud Boys incident but quietly appeared to recant it.
 
Among other things, he asked how public safety officers can be expected to change under such leadership and he said, “The Public Safety Review and Appeals Board needs to be a commission-appointed board and not under the power of Jim Ritsema. And the KDPS Office of Professional Standards should be put under that board and not under Public Safety.”
 
Chambers said that the study appears to coddle public safety officers “when there were a lot of mishaps and a lot of missteps that Public Safety took on several events this past summer.”
 
Police response to the civil unrest and protests that occurred last summer are the focus of a 111-page report by OIR Group. Shown here is a July 11 gathering in Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo.She said, “This study didn’t do anything except to show that there are still flaws in our system and that we are still hiding things because that’s what our Public safety did. We’re still hiding things and they are not being held accountable. We need to do better.”
 
Gennaco said, “One of my colleagues is wont to say, ‘Most often, the truth – to the degree there is a truth – is somewhere in the middle’ and we tried to find where that truth is in the spectrum. But it’s not all one way or another. There are criticisms and there are compliments because the Department of Public Safety and your city deserve both. They deserve compliments and they deserve critiques when appropriate.”
 
Gennaco said, “Our goal was not to play ‘Gotcha.’ Our goal was to identify both of those.”
 
Stephen Connelly of OIR said, for instance, that the operational planning skills of the department were very, very impressive in some ways during the protests that occurred in late May and early June, and “They are very, very good at some of the coordination/organization and planning that other agencies do not have.”
 
But he said peaceful protests during the daytime devolved as individuals looking to be destructive filtered in at night and “KDPS struggled to navigate between the protection of legitimate First Amendment activity and their desire to just control the situation, to shut down unlawful activity and restore order to the extent possible. And those blurred lines created a few different scenarios where we feel like some of the decision-making probably merited some reconsideration and we’ll be talking about that.”
 
Jacob Pinney-Johnson asked members of the Kalamazoo City Commission, “What does accountability for racial injustice look like?” and “What does accountability for the racial trauma that was perpetuated on behalf of the city and KDPS look like?”
 
Saying he was among those who were pepper-sprayed last summer as they were standing up for racial justice, and that he has been constantly harassed by police as he grew up in Kalamazoo, Pinney-Johnson said he’ll take money as compensation.
 
“For me, it’s a check,” he said. “So you can make that payable to Jacob Pinney-Johnson … I really honestly, whole-heartedly feel like the city owes residents who have endured racial trauma and violence on behalf of the negatives of our city leaders and officials, as so I look forward and I expect to see some kind of compensation for that.”
 
Gennaco said the intent of OIR Group’s effort is “to be helpful and come up with a framework through which the city’s leadership can work with the Department of Public Safety to better prepare for the next round of challenges that any public safety organization will have. I won’t be exactly the same as last year. But there will be future challenges And to the degree that our recommendations will assist in that regard, we are hopeful that they will.”

As the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety handled racial injustice protests last summer and a march last August by a far-right, neo-fascist hate group the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety did some things right and some things wrong.
 
That finding by an independent law-enforcement consulting firm is not very satisfying for those who say Kalamazoo Public Safety was quick to confront protestors during otherwise peaceful protests that occurred following the March 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota but reluctant to confront members of a combative Proud Boys group that marched through downtown Kalamazoo on Aug. 15, 2020.
 
“I definitely do not think that the report gave us the answers that we were looking for as well as just left us with more questions than it was (did) solidified answers,” said T.C. Custard, a Kalamazoo resident who was active in George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last year.
 
She said a report compiled by consulting firm OIR Group “didn’t reveal anything that we didn’t already know” and could be misinterpreted.
 
Shardae Chambers, of Kalamazoo, said, “This report had a lot of flaws and a lot of errors in it where things were not discussed. And I feel that for as much as we paid for this study to be done, this group that was doing the study should have pressed on Kalamazoo Public Safety to give more details, to give more updates, to give more findings, to give more of their (police) reports. There should have also been talks and more details into why the police chief was told to resign. There should have been a lot more details.”
 
More than one commenter asked why KDPS apparently did not release some of its police reports to OIR investigators. Gennaco said the group’s analysis did not mean to leave that perception. “We don’t believe there were documents hidden from our view.” He said the long-distance nature of data collecting and other things caused the process to take “longer in our view than perhaps it could have been.”
 
Chambers and Custard were among five Kalamazoo residents to comment on a 111-page report on the police response to incidents last summer in central Kalamazoo during a joint meeting of the Kalamazoo Citizens Public Safety and Review and Appeals Board and the Kalamazoo Board of Commissioners. The virtual meeting was conducted on the Zoom gathering platform. It was set to review OIR’s report, which was released late last week.
 
“Some would prefer that we call things either one way or another,” Michael Gennaco, a founding principal of OIR Group, said of determining who was right and who was wrong during the incidents. “But things are usually more complicated than that.”
 
OIR Group is a California-based firm that has audited police agencies’ responses to the civil unrest in 2020 in several American cities. It was paid $75,000 to assess the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety’s involvement primarily in incidents that occurred from May 30 to June 2 of 2020, and on Aug. 15 of last year.
 
Five OIR consultants offered insights into how the study was conducted and what was found. They found that “KDPS did many things creditably and without a discriminatory motivation.” But they also found that “room for improvement certainly existed – as is almost always the case with police agencies or any other organization in the aftermath of critical, high-profile incidents.”
 
The consultants included Los Angeles Police Sgt. Jody Stiger, who testified as an expert witness in the April murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was fired following the May 25, 2020 incident in which Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, killing him. Floyd was a 46-year-old African-American man who was arrested for suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis store. Chauvin, who is White, was a veteran police officer who was found guilty of murder. The incident, recorded by a bystander and posted online, sparked protests throughout the United States, abroad, and in Kalamazoo.
 
Significantly, OIR Group indicated that KDPS tried to use a low-profile style of policing in the Aug. 15 Proud Boys incident that had appeared to be effective in policing protests that occurred earlier in the summer. But the Proud Boys incident was completely different. It involved the meeting of passionate groups of protesters and counter-protesters.
 
Referring to early summer protests, OIR reported that KDPS  “could point to successes in their controlled force deployments and ability to maintain order as legitimate protests devolved into vandalism and unruly behavior. But they faced questions and criticism as well – particularly regarding the deployment of chemical munitions and its aggressive enforcement of a curfew on the night of June 2.  The Department’s subsequent explanations failed to resolve all of the frustrations that had emerged.” 
 
Referring to the Proud Boys incident, OIR reported that many of those issues remained unresolved, and the Proud Boys march on Saturday, Aug. 15 “re-framed those earlier encounters by providing what many people considered a study in contrasts. Where the department had been pro-active and decisive at times in shutting down activity on June 1 and 2, it adopted a notably ‘low profile’ strategy in its initial responses to the Proud Boys’ provocative, well-publicized arrival in the city that afternoon. Unfortunately – but predictably – encounters between the Proud Boy demonstrators and counter-protesters soon descended into physical clashes.”
 
OIR stated that KDPS enforcement actions left some members of the public with the impression that the Proud Boys “had been given more latitude and support than had demonstrators for racial equity and police accountability.” None of the nine arrests made during the Aug. 15 incident were Proud Boys.
 
“Initially the report shows roughly the same things that the city’s internal investigation showed late last year,” said Kalamazoo resident Will Baker, who was among commenters who wondered whether the study was worth the $75,000 the city paid for it. “And I wonder if it was wasted money or more of a show to say ‘OK the city has done something,’ instead of actually getting whatever the truth may actually be.”
 
Vernon Payne, chairman of the Citizens Public Safety Review and Appeals Board, said there are nuances and layers of valuable information in the 111-page study that may not be understood in a first reading. He implored others to read it thoroughly to make sure they understand it. He said he has read it three times.
 
The report and its analysis is dense and includes 40 recommendations, from suggestions on determining arrest strategies in crowd control situations to a suggesting that KDPS work with city officials and community representatives to assess its strategy for addressing criminal misconduct when there is large-scale unrest.
 
Among the many suggestions are: 
 
• KDPS should utilize their vehicle public address system or alternative audio system to clearly and loudly communicate with crowds, especially when issuing dispersal orders or other instructions; 
 
• KDPS and the city’s leadership should develop principles around when the imposition of a police zone is appropriate in the protest context; 
 
• KDPS and the city’s leadership should develop principles around when imposition of a police zone is appropriate in the protest context; and 
 
• KDPS should formally address the wide-scale lapses in adherence to the body-worn camera policy that occurred during the May 30 to June 2 operational period.
 
“I think it’s a fair report,” said Citizens Review Board member Larry Tolbert. “I’m not asking anyone in Kalamazoo to forget what Kalamazoo has gone through -- not just in June and July, but for decades.”
 
But he said he thinks that with new KDPS Chief Vernon Coakley (who was promoted from assistant chief on Oct. 1, 2020), “I think the community is moving in the right direction.”
 
Coakley fills the top cop spot vacated after Chief Karianne Thomas was heavily criticized for her handling of the incidents and was fired.
 
Review Board member Eric Gardner concurred, saying, “I think the OIR Group did a great job. I think it wasn’t biased in any way. I think it was transparent on both sides and moving forward, I love the recommendations -- that we can move forward -- and I see changes now in the police department. So let’s keep it moving forward.”
 
 
Mayor David Anderson said the study is the first step in what will be an ongoing process to make positive change. “This isn’t the end. This is part of a continuing process,” he said, describing the report on  KDPS’ response to the incidents as step two, following the decision months ago to have an independent review. Compiling the study included community input sessions that were conducted primarily online, and started last January.
 
Zachary Lassiter, of Kalamazoo, said he is disappointed that Kalamazoo Public Safety did not turn over some of its reports to investigators, disappointed that the city paid $75,000 for the study, and is “disappointed in general.”
 
He said he thinks there needs to be a change in leadership and focused on City Manager Jim Ritsema, saying Ritsema lied in announcing the resignation of former KDPS Chief Thomas (she was actually fired) and apologized for the arrest of a local journalist during the Aug. 15 Proud Boys incident but quietly appeared to recant it.
 
Among other things, he asked how public safety officers can be expected to change under such leadership and he said, “The Public Safety Review and Appeals Board needs to be a commission-appointed board and not under the power of Jim Ritsema. And the KDPS Office of Professional Standards should be put under that board and not under Public Safety.”
 
Chambers said that the study appears to coddle public safety officers “when there were a lot of mishaps and a lot of missteps that Public Safety took on several events this past summer.”
 
She said, “This study didn’t do anything except to show that there are still flaws in our system and that we are still hiding things because that’s what our Public safety did. We’re still hiding things and they are not being held accountable. We need to do better.”
 
Gennaco said, “One of my colleagues is wont to say, ‘Most often, the truth – to the degree there is a truth – is somewhere in the middle’ and we tried to find where that truth is in the spectrum. But it’s not all one way or another. There are criticisms and there are compliments because the Department of Public Safety and your city deserve both. They deserve compliments and they deserve critiques when appropriate.”
 
Gennaco said, “Our goal was not to play ‘Gotcha.’ Our goal was to identify both of those.”
 
Stephen Connelly of OIR said, for instance, that the operational planning skills of the department were very, very impressive in some ways during the protests that occurred in late May and early June, and “They are very, very good at some of the coordination/organization and planning that other agencies do not have.”
 
But he said peaceful protests during the daytime devolved as individuals looking to be destructive filtered in at night and “KDPS struggled to navigate between the protection of legitimate First Amendment activity and their desire to just control the situation, to shut down unlawful activity and restore order to the extent possible. And those blurred lines created a few different scenarios where we feel like some of the decision-making probably merited some reconsideration and we’ll be talking about that.”
 
Jacob Pinney-Johnson asked members of the Kalamazoo City Commission, “What does accountability for racial injustice look like?” and “What does accountability for the racial trauma that was perpetuated on behalf of the city and KDPS look like?”
 
Saying he was among those who were pepper-sprayed last summer as they were standing up for racial justice, and that he has been constantly harassed by police as he grew up in Kalamazoo, Pinney-Johnson said he’ll take money as compensation.
 
“For me, it’s a check,” he said. “So you can make that payable to Jacob Pinney-Johnson … I really honestly, whole-heartedly feel like the city owes residents who have endured racial trauma and violence on behalf of the negatives of our city leaders and officials, as so I look forward and I expect to see some kind of compensation for that.”
 
Gennaco said the intent of OIR Group’s effort is “to be helpful and come up with a framework through which the city’s leadership can work with the Department of Public Safety to better prepare for the next round of challenges that any public safety organization will have. I won’t be exactly the same as last year. But there will be future challenges And to the degree that our recommendations will assist in that regard, we are hopeful that they will.”

All photos by Al Jones.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.