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Right to remain secret: Why police misconduct records stay hidden in Michigan

Bill pushing for transparency in police discipline stalls in Lansing
Secret police records
Posted at 4:58 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 16:58:10-04

(WXYZ) — The calls for change in our state started more than a year ago, first on the streets of Detroit, then spreading to Lansing, Grand Rapids and all throughout Michigan.

But more than a year since momentum for police reform throughout the state and country began, a slew of proposed police reforms introduced in Lansing have gone nowhere.

This is the story of how even a simple one aiming to bring records of police misconduct into the sunlight has stalled, too.

“Derek Chauvin was not an anomaly. Almost every major department has one or two guys,” said Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit). “But they create bad relationships with the rest of…the community.”

Before he was a state representative, Carter was a police officer. He spent more than 25 years as a Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy and, not long after he was elected, Carter introduced legislation aiming to making it easier for the public to view records of police discipline.

“You have too many officers with checkered disciplinary records being leaders or field training officers, training other officers to do it,” Carter said. “That ends up with lawsuits, and taxpayers are tired of paying.”

Michigan law as its written today allows some departments to keep records about misconduct shielded from public view. Agencies have used an exemption for police personnel records as permission to deny requests for even sustained disciplinary records.

Carter wants to change that.

“If the investigation substantiates that, then why shouldn’t the public know? We know there are bad attorneys, right? There’s the attorney grievance commission,” he said.

“Why are police records of misconduct held in such a dark corner? We can’t do that anymore.”

Still, some of Michigan’s largest police agencies routinely do.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, 7 Action News recently requested records for all disciplined this year from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. Citing the police personnel records exemption, the request was denied.

7 Action News asked the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office for all employees disciplined at least five times. Citing the same exemption, that request was also denied.

A request to the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office seeking records for their most disciplined deputy was denied, too.

Only the Detroit Police Department and Michigan State Police agreed to fulfill similar requests made by 7 Action News.

“I think that police departments by and large go out of their way to withhold as much information as they legally can,” said Kyle Kaminski, the managing editor of the Lansing City Pulse.

After video surfaced in 2019 of a Lansing officer there punching a handcuffed teen in the leg, Kaminski requested all of the department’s disciplinary records dating back three years.

“And was met with a denial: not a single record would be turned over to us,” he said. “If the cops didn’t have anything to hide, then they should also be supportive of this free flow of information and how the system works.”

7 Action News requested an interview with the Police Officers Association of Michigan to discuss whether it would support the bill, but President Jim Tignanelli declined an interview.

To get an officer’s perspective, 7 Action News spoke with retired Detroit Police Assistant Chief Steve Dolunt.

“If departments are disciplining their own officers, shouldn’t the public get to know as much about that as they want to?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“It depends on what the discipline is,” Dolunt said.

“If it’s use of force and it’s excessive use of force, I don’t have a problem (with the records being released) because they should be fired anyway,” he said. “But someone just files complaints against me for demeanor or whatever, I have an issue with that.”

Rep. Carter’s legislation would only apply to sustained allegations of misconduct—even though he thinks the public deserves to see unsubstantiated allegations, too. But he’s willing to make compromises, he says, to get something passed.

Still, even after making concessions, Carter’s bill hasn’t received even a hearing.

100 days since it was introduced, it’s stalled in Rep. Mike Mueller’s government operations committee with no sign it will ever leave.

The Republican lawmaker declined our request for an interview about the bill. Before he took office, Rep. Mueller was a sheriff’s deputy.

“Lessons not learned will repeat themselves,” Carter said. “We’ve watched this over and over and we’ve done nothing about it.