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Kalamazoo leaders want changes after report finds mistakes in response to protests

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City leaders in Kalamazoo say they hope a new report spurs change in the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.

They held a public meeting Tuesday night to discuss the findings of an outside report on the city’s response to protests and demonstrations last summer. The city hired California-based OIR group to study the response after residents complained that the city’s public safety officers reacted harshly to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in May and June, while taking a hands-off approach to a demonstration by the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, later in the summer.

The report found a number of mistakes in both instances.

During the May/June protests, the report reveals most KDPS officers didn’t wear their bodycams, which left an incomplete picture of how the events unfolded. Many residents complained about KDPS’s use of tear gas and pepper balls to disperse the crowds in those incidents. OIR concluded the lack of bodycam footage made it difficult to assess the use of chemicals against the crowds.

“We do not have a basis to know that any of these uses of chemical agents violated policy in the technical sense or was malicious or punitive in its orientation. (Here again, the sparse reporting and lack of video evidence complicates the assessment.),” OIR wrote in the report. “But the disconnect between public perception and the Department’s assertions suggests that, if nothing else, better communication – both in real time through formal announcements and warnings, and in terms of subsequent explanations to the community – was warranted.”

The OIR group said poor communication was also a problem for KDPS’s response to the August Proud Boys rally. During that incident, on August 15 of last year, KDPS took a more passive approach to the Proud Boys group, but ultimately stepped in to control the crowd after fights broke out. When KDPS officers attempted to clear part of downtown, though, they cleared a park where peaceful counter-protesters had gathered. In the process, KDPS made arrests, including a reporter for MLive and another person identified as a “legal observer” of the protests. To many in the community, the more aggressive response to a group that included Black and brown protesters while letting the white, far-right Proud Boys demonstrators walk freely, showed clear bias by the department.

OIR’s consultants say they were unable to find evidence that this bias was intentional, but they still criticized KDPS for its response.

"There should have been a lot more details and this study it seemed almost as though our public safety officers were almost coddled," said resident Shardae Chambers, about the new report.

“In looking at the events of August 15, we found that the Department’s initial strategy was flawed, that its subsequent characterization of the counterprotesters as the aggressors was over-simplified, and that the choice to shut down further demonstration activity landed unfairly on peaceful counterprotesters,” the report says. “And, again, poor communication with the public in the aftermath added to the frustration and diminished trust.”

On Tuesday evening, some residents and commissioners pointed out that the absence of evidence of intentional bias in the department didn’t mean that there was no bias.

“When they determined it was unsafe, they only sent certain people home, and they only arrested certain individuals,” said city commissioner Eric Cunningham. “I think for me, that is very clear.”

A number of residents who called in to leave comments during the virtual meeting said they didn’t believe the OIR report went far enough in examining the city’s response to the protests.

“There should have been a lot more details, and this study, it seemed almost as though our public safety officers were almost coddled, when there were a lot of mishaps, and a lot of missteps, that public safety took on during both – took on several events this past summer,” said resident Shardae Chambers.

The report laid out a list of 40 recommendations for the city to improve its response to future events, including improved policies and training around crowd management, use of force, and body-worn cameras.

City leaders at Tuesday’s meeting – which included members of both the city commission and the Community Public Safety Review and Appeals Board – said they want to see action from the city on those recommendations. But some also said they wanted more.

“A lot of what we have seen is what we’ve already known,” said Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin about the OIR Report. “And so what are we going to do moving forward, listening to the community.”

One change Griffin said she’d like to see is to not just change policy around KDPS’s use of tear gas, but to eliminate its use entirely.

The full OIR report is available here.  

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