Report on KDPS response in 2020 notes pros, cons, public communication failures

Kalamazoo County

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — An outside firm hired to look into how the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety handled anti-racism demonstrations and a Proud Boys rally last summer released its report Friday, saying that while the department made several good decisions, it also made some bad ones.

However, the report rejected a simple classification of right and wrong, going on to indicate that one core issue was the erosion of the public’s trust amid a breakdown in communication.

The city of Kalamazoo hired the California-based OIR Group in November to conduct the review of several 2020 incidents, including:

  • A May 30 peaceful protest over police reform in which officers in riot gear pushed their way into the crowd to allow to cruisers surrounded by protesters to drive away.
  • A spate of vandalism on the night of June 1 in to June 2 in which officers used tear gas to get people to break up.
  • Another peaceful protest on the evening of June 2 in which officers used tear gas on protesters who broke the curfew instituted after the vandalism.
  • The way KDPS responded to an Aug. 15 rally by the Proud Boys, a hate group, and a subsequent brawl.

OIR’s 115-page report noted that many of KDPS’ problems stem from the disparity in how it handled those May and June protests and how it responded to the Proud Boys rally.

In reference to the May and June cases, the report found KDPS “navigated significant challenges … and could point to successes in their controlled force deployments and ability to maintain order” without anyone suffering serious injury.

But it also said that KDPS’ “aggressive enforcement” of the June 2 curfew without satisfying explanations of its actions later undermined the public’s confidence.

Police launch tear gas into a crowd of protesters about 40 minutes after a 7 p.m. curfew went into effect on June 2, 2020.

“The use of tear gas as a crowd control measure was extraordinary, for example, and the deployment of chemical munitions against individuals who were lying in the street, seemingly passive, created troubling visuals,” OIR wrote in part. “There were concerns that the response was excessive and lacking in nuance – that the Department’s reaction to limited destructive behavior at times became a broad brush that violated the spirit of First Amendment protections. This impression was crystallized for many when a newly imposed curfew on June 2 was enforced against a crowd of protesters who had taken over an intersection but were otherwise peaceful.”

In the end, it concluded there were “strong fundamentals, effective supervision — but mixed results” regarding the May and June responses.

It argued that on June 1, the department focused too much on the planned protests, which were ultimately peaceful, and didn’t make enough provision for rumors about vandalism, which did ultimately come to fruition — though it noted that “to its credit, KDPS adapted to these circumstances as the night unfolded.”

The overnight vandalism, in turn, prompted a stronger response from KDPS. A curfew was in place and the Michigan National Guard called in to help enforce it. That was an unpopular decision. Then, the department maintained a hardline enforcement stance even though the protesters were peaceful, focused on exercising their First Amendment rights and not interested in causing property damage.

“The Department’s choice not to make that distinction was, in our view, unfortunate,” the report reads.

It said that while KDPS had many good reasons to defend its actions and a history of progressive programs, leadership seemed to point to those as a reason why it didn’t need to do more.

“…One ironic effect of the Department’s positive accomplishments is that they seemed to serve as barriers to the fair and objective internal consideration of the complaints and questions that were pouring into City officials. In a pattern that continued through many of their interactions with OIR Group, Department leaders gave little quarter when it came to acknowledging any sort of shortcoming or ‘learned lesson’ from the challenges of those four days,” the report says.

An example of this, the report indicates, is that KDPS didn’t review complaints linked to the May and June incidents in the way it normally does. Separate emails were combined into single complaints, it said, and not all of them went through the Office of Professional Standards.

That defensive attitude, the report says, only helped worsen the situation surrounding the Proud Boys, a hate group, on Aug. 15. The planning this time, the report said, was “questionable.”

“The decision to remain ready but ‘off-stage’ at the outset of the Proud Boys march seems to have been driven in part by the negativity their crowd control techniques had engendered in June,” the report says. “This was true in spite of the fact that the situations were clearly distinguishable –that the antipathy toward law enforcement (emphasis from OIR) that had provided the very essence of the George Floyd demonstrations was subordinate in August to the enmity between a white supremacist group from outside Kalamazoo and a passionate group of counter-protesters.”

OIR says KDPS knew there was a high likelihood of some sort of violence, discussing that in its plans, but, inconsistently, decided to stay out of sight. The report said KDPS was worried about escalating the situation or looking as though it sympathized with the Proud Boys and that a pastor had asked them to stay out of sight, but went on to note that “none of these explanations aligns with best practices for crowd management.”

A far-right group and counter-protesters clashed in Kalamazoo on Aug. 15, 2020.
A far-right group and counter-protesters clashed in Kalamazoo on Aug. 15, 2020.

The report stressed that it did not see anything that indicated KDPS was somehow more sympathetic to the Proud Boys than the anti-racism protesters. Still, the report concluded that KDPS’ plan for the rally was “flawed,” its assessment later that counter-protesters were the aggressors “over-simplified” and its communication with the public afterward “poor.”

The report goes on to say that OIR placed undue blame on a local church leader — Pastor Nathan Dannison — for instigating the conflict and for his request that they stay away, saying they were “tricked.” That, the report says, was out of line, giving too much weight to his control of the counter-protest and what he wanted from police.

Instead, the firm argued, KDPS should have made itself more visible, and also done more to speak with Proud Boys leaders that day to find out where they were going.

“Of course, there is no guarantee that a KDPS presence would have thwarted clashes between the Proud Boys and counter-protesters, but the absence of law enforcement at the scene virtually guaranteed the fight would start,” the report said.

In all, OIR had 40 recommendations on how KDPS can improve that come down to “embracing a paradigm of clear communication, receptivity, rigorous self-scrutiny, and openness to reform.”

That will include building stronger relationships with and offering more information to the community so it’s clear what will lead to an arrest during a protest. KDPS could also work with community leaders to help them understand when and why it will use certain crowd control techniques. Notable, the report suggests that KDPS be less inclined to use tear gas.

The recommendations also look at focusing how KDPS decides to make arrests to those who are being violent or destructive and offer more training to recognize journalists and legal observers. It added that officers need more instruction on making sure they are activating their body cameras and that KDPS should consider releasing that video more quickly after an incident.

OIR will present its findings to the Kalamazoo City Commission and Citizens Public Safety Review and Appeals Board at 6 p.m. Tuesday, after which there will be time for public comment. You can watch it live on the city of Kalamazoo’s YouTube channel.

“We take the findings and recommendations from this important report very seriously, and we plan to use this independent review as a tool to help us learn, grow and improve,” City Manager Jim Ritsema said in a Friday statement. “We will work with KDPS and our community to develop a plan to implement key changes and improvements detailed in this report so we can build upon our successes, learn from our mistakes and better serve the residents of Kalamazoo through effective and transparent community policing.”

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