Letter from the Editor: Ann Arbor’s move to limit police stops may seem extreme. Facts suggest it’s overdue

Ann Arbor traffic stop

An Ann Arbor police officer stops a motorist on Seventh Street on Feb. 12, 2022.Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News


In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, public debate seemed to race to opposite poles: Defund the police; or vigorously enforce the laws and support police unquestionably.

Protestors took to the streets in a super-heated atmosphere that was reminiscent of the social turmoil of the Vietnam War era. “Meeting in the middle” for constructive solutions to police-community turmoil seemed elusive, if not naively optimistic.

But a remarkable vote of the Ann Arbor City Council last week showed what practical progress might look like when it comes to making community policing more equitable. In that draft vote, the council voted 9-0 to forward a law that would ban police traffic stops for minor offenses, such as a loud muffler, outdated registration or cracked windshield. A final vote is set for July 6.

“City officials are saying there’s little evidence that stopping someone for a broken taillight, thinking there might be some more serious crime they can uncover by pulling them over, has a great public safety benefit,” said Ryan Stanton, who covers city government for The Ann Arbor News.

“The data shows what it does is disproportionately target Black people. So that’s what the city is trying to avoid here – they are trying to put an end to racial profiling.”

The use of profiling was in the spotlight nationally after Floyd was detained and suffocated by police based on suspicion of using counterfeit money at a convenience store. Police tactics, especially “pretextual stops” for minor offenses, came under scrutiny and debate.

Council Member Cynthia Harrison, D-1st Ward, is the city’s first Black council member in 15 years. Spurred by national data showing traffic stops disproportionally target minorities, she and the Ann Arbor Police Oversight Commission worked with Eastern Michigan University to analyze police traffic stop data from 2017-2019 in Ann Arbor.

“You’ve got someone who has great personal experience with these types of issues taking the lead on this issue here,” Stanton said.

If Harrison had a hunch, it was dead on. The results of the study, published this week by MLive, should end debate about whether there is a difference in policing based on race.

“Our analysis identified significant disparities across every dimension examined, with non-white motorists being stopped and searched more frequently and white motorists being stopped and searched less frequently than would be expected in every instance,” states the draft report produced by the EMU researchers.

“Every dimension … in every instance.” Let that sink in. So, this isn’t Ann Arbor leaders simply pushing an ultra-progressive social agenda. This is quantifying a problem of extensive, systemic bias and taking practical steps to address it.

Ann Arbor is unique in Michigan with its Driving Equality Ordinance, but the focus on police tactics is not. Grand Rapids is still reeling in the wake of a police shooting of a Black driver in April 2022 – a confrontation that was sparked by a routine traffic stop.

In the cities of Jackson and Saline, questions surrounding police chases of motorists are raw after the deaths of two teenagers and multiple serious injuries that occurred when drivers fled separate attempted traffic stops.

And just this past week, MLive published the results of a review of a “cultural issues” within a Michigan State Police post that saw three officers charged and two commanders demoted and reassigned for violent encounters with Saginaw citizens. Those details emerged from Freedom of Information Act requests from Bay City Times reporter Cole Waterman for the investigative report.

These problems have existed in communities since well before Floyd’s death, noted Sara Scott, director of local news and investigations for MLive. But everything that has happened since has heightened the need for in-depth coverage of the role of police, especially as that relates to racial minorities, she said.

“Our job is to go into those communities, do the fact finding, find the data and trends and then use our expertise to analyze that and provide some context to our readers,” she said. “Hopefully, that context will lead to solutions.”

Solutions can be elusive in some instances because the roots of the problems can be complex. For example, Scott pointed out, the reason the State Police has troopers in Saginaw’s inner city is because the community lacked the resources to police itself effectively.

But Ann Arbor is showing that some problems are obvious and the solutions perhaps closer at hand. It just takes a hunch, some clear-cut data and the resolve to make a community a better place for all.

“Ann Arbor in the last few years has really been building up an equity focus on all that it does in city government,” Stanton said. “This is just the latest iteration of that. The city’s really taking a progressive approach to recognize the disproportionate impacts on people of color and other minority groups and trying to adjust for that.”

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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at editor@mlive.com.

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