Review of Kalamazoo Public Safety’s handling of protests is set for ongoing debate

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

It will be weeks before an independent investigator is hired to determine what went wrong and what went right when social justice protests hit a fever pitch on the first weekend of June in downtown Kalamazoo.
“The city is beginning the procurement process now and will be bidding out the work and reviewing qualifications through July,” Jeff Chamberlain, deputy manager for the city of Kalamazoo, said of recruiting an outside investigator. “It is anticipated that a firm or individual will be selected this summer, but a specific date is not known yet.”
Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema announced plans on June 12 for the investigation – focusing on protests that happened from May 30 to June 2, and keying on the civil unrest that followed. Those involved, including KDPS, have said events that started as large but peaceful protests resulting from the May 25 police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, ended with windows broken at dozens of businesses as well as other vandalism along the Kalamazoo Mall and sporadic damage along West Main Street out to Oshtemo Township.
Floyd, who was African-American, died in Minnesota after a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Onlookers, some of whom filmed as police held Floyd on the ground and pleaded that he could not breathe, yelled for police to let up. But they did not. A convenience store clerk had claimed Floyd, who did not appear to be combative, bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
The killing caused an international outcry against police brutality and sparked major protests in many U.S. cities and abroad.
The scene of peaceful protests in Kalamazoo.Members of the Kalamazoo City Commission heard hours of comments from outraged citizens who called in to participate in the commission’s digital meeting on June 15, some accusing Kalamazoo Public Safety officers of unnecessarily using force against protesters, tear-gassing teen-agers and firing pepper-spray pellets at protesters at close range and without warning. They chastised Public Safety and demanded change, mentioning a social media video clip that showed police shoot a tear-gas canister at several protesters in downtown Kalamazoo just after the protesters lowered themselves to the ground and were laying in front of advancing officers.
“I’m disgusted with some of the actions that took place a couple of weeks ago,” said Jacob Penny Johnson, who described himself as a fourth-generation Kalamazoo resident, a father, and a community social worker. “And I expect better from my local officials and leaders.”
He said he and his friends were peacefully protesting when they were pepper-sprayed by police without warning, from a range of about 10 feet. He said that left him partially blind for 30 to 45 minutes.
KDPS Chief KarianneThomas said at that point “two to two and one-half hours into the civil unrest – everyone had been told to leave. Everyone knew they had to leave.”
Following incidents of damage to businesses, looting, and information the department had from various sources, KDPS issued a curfew on June 2 and closed off parts of the downtown business district, using vehicles and personnel from the Michigan National Guard. 

During the city commission meeting, she said that while she regrets the intimidating look of the military – as well as that of a KDPS crowd-management team -- none of the National Guard members were armed. And KDPS needed the additional manpower to cordon off the downtown area while allowing regular police officers to work inside it. Other area police agencies were already helping, she said. And that National Guard, which started to help at 4 p.m., was dismissed at 11 p.m.
“That situation unfolded very rapidly,” Thomas told commissioners. “It was not just in one location. It was pockets and groups of individuals (causing damage). It was various locations downtown.”
Aside from that, she estimated that after about 10 p.m., protesting had ended and civil unrest had begun.
“There were some people there to cause damage,” she said. “There were some people there to just observe and be part of the crowd. Everyone was there for a different reason. But I would not have called it a protest after 10 p.m., which caused us to react -- to the damage and the looting, the breaking of windows, the car windows being broken out -- with a large contingent of officers.”
Dorla Bonner, who was appointed director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the city earlier this year, is expected to work with the city’s Community Public Safety Review & Advisory Board to recruit an outside investigator to review the events surrounding the protests and the city’s response. The firm is expected to determine whether Public Safety’s procedures were followed and whether existing procedures are appropriate. It is also expected to make recommendations and needed changes.
Other steps will include:

• Updating the city’s traffic stop study, which was completed in 2013;

• Review the role of Community Public Safety Review & Advisory Board’

• Keep citizens informed throughout this process with the addition of a public information officer.

Johnson, whose comments summarized many of those delivered to the city commission said he doesn’t know a black man in Kalamazoo who has not been harassed by the police, demanded comprehensive police reform “and full transparency as we work towards dismantling our current policing system and as we work toward more community policing.” Among other things, he also demanded that city and county officials be held responsible for their inactions and for their actions against protesters.
Various others called on the city to defund KDPS, saying the department accounts for more than 40 percent of the city’s annual budgetary expenditures and that is money that could be better spent in other ways.
“While I was thankful to see the removal of the National Guard,” Johnson said, “I was hurt to see the disregard for the protesters here in Kalamazoo. It hurt to see the militaristic response to us.”

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.