A look in the mirror

A consultant hired by the city of Kalamazoo didn’t just recommend 40 policy changes, it also suggested better communication to the community and a police department more receptive to critique – two ways to avoid a repeat of the summer of 2020.

This is the second of two status update stories for the community, a year after the OIR Group’s report to the City of Kalamazoo. Read the first story about the 40 recommended policy changes.

Two public rallies two months apart in downtown Kalamazoo were also the convergence of two, sometimes-overlapping throughlines of American history the entire country was grappling with during the summer of 2020: the unresolved relationship between U.S. police and how they have deployed the use of force upon Black and other communities of color, and the resurgence of white nationalist extremist groups that were energized in the run-up to a polarizing election.

The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) and City of Kalamazoo leadership were criticized for mishandling both the protests against police violence and the march by the Proud Boys group that turned into a street brawl.

A California-based consultant, the OIR Group, was contracted to evaluate what took place and recommend changes. A year since it was released, city and police leadership still appear reluctant to tackle a key recommendation: “a commitment by KDPS to enhance its many strengths as an agency through greater emphasis on public engagement and transparency, and through a more robust culture of self-scrutiny and internal review.”

The OIR Group’s report also included 40 recommendations for policy changes.

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“But as much as rigorous internal review matters,” it said in the report, which is available on the city website as part of a new push for transparency, “it should also be accompanied by a strong ‘outward facing’ engagement. This includes a willingness to share information, acknowledge problems, and maintain receptivity to community priorities and preferences.”

City and police leadership, through Communications Manager Michael Smith, declined requests for in-person interviews for this story. Smith facilitated written answers to questions posed through email.

Between the refusal to have an in-person interview and the limited scope of the answers to questions from NowKalamazoo, however, the city avoided the opportunities to discuss the larger, systemic issues that remain at play, or dig much below a surface level review of the OIR Report’s recommendations.

The protests against police violence between May 30 and June 2, 2020, were met by an aggressive police response. At one point this included deployment of the Michigan National Guard, and the use of chemical munitions on protesters breaking city curfew. Many were non-violent, like those tear-gassed while standing in a closed-off downtown intersection as a means of protest. In another instance during those four days of contention, there is video evidence of a small group of people laying on the ground in surrender as they were approached by law enforcement officers, who appeared to fire pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tear gas at them but then not make arrests.

According to the OIR Group report, the KDPS Operations Plan for June 1 “projected the possibility of unrest on to the planned protests (which turned out to be quite benign) while seemingly not anticipating or addressing the collateral, opportunistic criminal behavior (vandalism, looting) that had been rumored – or distinguishing between protest-related civil disobedience and blatant criminality. In this way, it foreshadowed one of the recurrent criticisms of KDPS that would follow: that, in its concerns about disorder and the potential for looting and property damage, it imposed a blanket enforcement strategy that failed to give appropriate space to the sincere (and primarily peaceful) protest movement as it unfolded on Monday and Tuesday.”

Two months later, the Proud Boys group held a planned rally in downtown Kalamazoo. This time, police only made their presence known upon clashes with counter protesters, ignoring their very own research into the risk the Proud Boys pose to communities. Ten people were arrested after the rally on Aug. 15, including eight counter-protesters, and a clearly marked legal observer and a journalist.

“Rather than a gathering of individuals demonstrating in support of a cause or protesting police violence,” the OIR Group’s report recounts, “the August event was from the very beginning understood to be a march by a group with a history of antagonizing counter-protesters and instigating violence, whose ideology was highly offensive to those who had been engaged in the earlier summer protests.”

NowKalamazoo‘s coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota; the Proud Boys rally later in that summer of 2020 and our in-depth investigation into KDPS’s preparation and actions that day; and, the aftermath of it all has exposed a pattern: a willingness to be forced to make changes to police operations but not to reflect on – let alone admit to – mistakes that led to the changes being forced upon KDPS in the first place.

What transpired led to the ouster of KDPS Chief Karianne Thomas in late 2020. Notably, according to the internal documents that outlined the KDPS preparation for the Proud Boys rally, Thomas’ senior staff were the ones making hands-on decisions for the rally, including informing Thomas and thus the city commission and administration. All of those senior staff were promoted in the aftermath of Thomas’ firing, though her replacement as chief, Vernon Coakley, is currently on suspension pending the investigation into multiple internal allegations of harassment.

Due to their importance for the community, we are publishing the questions NowKalamazoo asked to which answers were incomplete or inadequate:

Nearly all of the KDPS/COK research and investigation prior to the Proud Boys event pointed to the dangers posed by the Proud Boys to the community, and it is apparent that a lot of preparation went into the operations plan for that day. Now having gone through this process, and almost completed these recommendations from OIR, would you create a different Operations Plan now with the information you had gathered prior to that day?

In the City of Kalamazoo, we support the right of groups to assemble in our community peacefully. However, these situations reinforce the importance of working closely with our community to develop and implement policies and protocols that keep us all safe. With that in mind, and what we now know, it is possible that things may have been handled differently.

Of the recommendations you have completed, which do you think will be the most impactful in terms of public safety?

We do not feel it was a single recommendation that impacted Public Safety. It was hearing from the community that there were concerns about Public Safety’s response and handling of the events of 2020. It was important to internalize and understand what the community expects of Public Safety during public assemblies in the future.

Outside of the 40 recommendations of the OIR group report, what other policy, protocol, operational, or other changes have been made as a result of the lessons learned from the summer of 2020?

The importance of alternative approaches and strong lines of communication.

Upon reflection, what are the main things you would have done differently related to the BLM protests, as well as the Proud Boys incident.

Early collaboration with stakeholder groups about understating the situation at hand.

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