Traverse City News and Events

New Anti-Racism Group Meets With County Commission, Sheriff

By Beth Milligan | June 18, 2020

Members of a newly formed Northern Michigan Anti Racism Task Force appeared before Grand Traverse County commissioners and then met privately with Sheriff Tom Bensley Wednesday to discuss proposed policing reforms – echoing conversations held earlier this week at the Traverse City commission and in other communities across the country.

Commissioner Betsy Coffia requested a discussion item be included on Wednesday’s meeting agenda to address “increased safety for people of color in Grand Traverse County.” The request allowed for members of the Northern Michigan Anti Racism Task Force – a group that organized a Black Lives Matter rally in Traverse City on June 6 attracting more than 2,000 people to the Open Space – to present a series of 10 demands of immediate changes they hope to see enacted at the Traverse City Police Department and Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office.

The list includes ending profiling practices – such as officers responding to citizen complaints regarding people of color because they “look suspicious” or “don’t belong” in a certain area – and providing biannual implicit bias training to officers. The list calls for mandatory use of body cameras and dash cameras, securing commitments from police unions to not protect members who engage in criminal behavior toward individuals in custody, and establishing an independent citizen oversight commission for the TCPD and Sheriff’s Office. The commission would contain “human rights commission representatives, civil rights attorneys, as well as a majority of at-large black and other BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) and other marginalized constituencies such as disability, LGBTQ+ and migrant workers,” according to task force members, who said that “police cannot and should not investigate themselves.”

Other demands include restructuring department budgets to boost non-policing community, addiction, and mental health resources, and halting all U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) holds of nonviolent people detained by local authorities. Holly T. Bird – a task force member and local Native American attorney – told commissioners that local departments conducting ICE holds has been ruled “unconstitutional” by some higher courts and is a voluntary practice that could be ended immediately without impacting the Sheriff’s Office budget. Doing so would protect “our local migrant workers who feed our area with their work…so that they can do their work without fear,” Bird said. “We need to embrace our neighbors.”

Several task force members told commissioners they have personally experienced racial profiling in Grand Traverse County. Courtney Wiggins, a Traverse City resident and business owner, told commissioner she lives “ with racism every day. It is ingrained in our system. Racism isn’t always visible either…we are trying to help folks unlearn and relearn,” she said. Marshall Collins, a Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) employee, said he’s encountered racial profiling on “numerous occasions” and is working both with local schools and the anti-racism task force to improve conditions. “We are not here to defund the police or our law enforcement,” he said. “We want to work side-by-side with our law enforcement.”

County commissioners primarily listened and did not offer input on the list of demands Wednesday, though Commissioner Bryce Hundley said many of the reforms were “worthy of pursuing” and that he hoped the presentation would be the “start of a conversation that’s not just talk, but actually yields results.” Hundley said in particular he was supportive of using body cameras and instituting changes to profiling policies. On Monday, Traverse City commissioners scheduled a July 6 vote on a budget proposal to outfit the Traverse City Police Department with body cameras at a cost estimated up to $100,000. Task force members told county commissioners that private donors had already pledged $25,000 toward helping the Sheriff’s Office obtain similar equipment.

Following the commission meeting, Sheriff Tom Bensley met privately with task force members. Bensley described that gathering to The Ticker as “a good starting point,” saying he is “trying to get a real handle on their concerns” – though he objects to the term “demands,” saying the term is “somewhat aggressive when you’re trying to sit down and have a meaningful dialogue.” Bensley says he is not opposed to using body cameras, but notes his department is roughly four times the size of the TCPD and that he is not sure where funding would come for the equipment. Bensley also said his department is slated to receive implicit bias training in the near future and that he expects state and federal mandates requiring additional training will be forthcoming in the wake of nationwide protests.

The sheriff defended his department’s cooperation with ICE, saying that holding individuals for federal authorities should only be a concern for those who are here illegally. “We try to cooperate with all our federal departments,” Bensley says, adding that federal authorities provide significant assistance back to his department. He also expresses skepticism about carving large amounts of funding out of his budget and putting it toward mental health or other community agencies, saying such a move amounts to “defunding the police” and will result in fewer officers in Grand Traverse County, which has not funded any new officers since 2004. Bensley said that many community agencies also aren’t available to respond 24/7 to calls. “We’re the default agency open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he says. “A lot of organizations who are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm are hard to find at 1:30am on a Saturday morning.”

Bensley says he plans to continue conversations with the anti-racism task force, with another meeting taking place as soon as next week. Bensley says potential reforms to the Sheriff's Office could be considered “proactive” measures, as he personally hasn’t heard complaints about racial profiling or excessive use of force among his officers. “I’m looking at the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office, not something that happened in Minnesota or anywhere else,” he says. “We are always doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

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