Police Chief Mike Cox
He pursued justice after being beaten by fellow officers in Boston. Now he's opening up the AAPD.
From the February, 2020 issue
"Some of it I can't attest to, because I just flat-out don't remember," says Mike Cox of the beating by his fellow Boston cops that changed his life and his career.
Ann Arbor's new police chief knows it began in January 1995 with a shooting death followed by a long high-speed chase. More than twenty police cars pursued four men in a single vehicle until the suspects ditched their car and ran in different directions.
Cox was the first officer out of his car. "I was in the anti-gang violence unit," he says in a soft voice. "At some point I think I was mistaken for ... the people that I was chasing. They were black and they were in plain clothes, and I was black and I was in plain clothes.
"The last thing I remember is one of the people went over the fence and then I was on the fence," Cox says. He apparently fell, and the rest is hazy, except for the pain.
He doesn't know how many cops beat him "because, even looking up, I got hit.
"I had multiple injuries," Cox continues. "I had a pretty bad ... scar that my hair still doesn't grow over ... My kidneys were messed up, [and] the ligaments in my thumb [were torn]."
The beating stopped only when a cop recognized Cox. But instead of helping or calling for emergency medical treatment, they left him bleeding and kept their mouths shut afterwards.
Cox was out of work for six months recovering from his injuries. Despite multiple internal investigations, no officers were identified as taking part in the beating, and no one came forward to admit responsibility.
"I don't know if it was a cover-up," Cox says. "But the fact is [the officers involved] didn't get caught and [they] didn't come clean." He finally sued the department to get to the truth and "was able to prove a certain amount of people were involved."
He won a financial settlement and
three cops were fired--but the only conviction was overturned on appeal, and two officers were reinstated. It sounds like a case study for the Black Lives Matter movement. But asked if his experience is an example of bad policing or police violence against black men, Cox replies, "I hadn't thought of that."
To him, it's a case study in management--a "reminder" that police departments have to police themselves. "We have a lot of regulations, [but] you have to make sure people are being held responsible for what they do."
The incident forced Cox to reconsider the career he loved. "I thought I was doing God's work," he says sincerely. "I thought I was the police officer. My partner and I, we were very active, and I'd say very, very good officers.
"But the fact is I had a choice between walking away ... or digging in and fixing something."
He didn't walk. "If I was going to be in policing, it was gonna get better, and I was gonna make sure of that."
Cox stayed with the Boston PD, rising through the ranks from sergeant detective to internal affairs division commander, and finally to superintendent in the police academy. When he retired after thirty years, he says, the department had "changed tremendously" for the better, with much more transparency and accountability.
Most cops start young, and Cox was no exception. For him, as for many other officers, retirement didn't mean leaving policing. In September, he was sworn in as Ann Arbor's fourth police chief in seven years.
The department had struggled to implement a community policing policy for years, but the need became urgent after the 2014 shooting death of a knife-wielding black woman by an Ann Arbor cop.
The officer was determined to have acted in self-defense, but protests led city council to create a civilian police oversight commission. And when it was time to hire a new chief, the city specified that it wanted one who would make community policing standard operating procedure. Cox's Boston experiences made him the candidate most likely to lead the changes.
To Cox, community policing starts with better communication. Police "have a rich tradition of not wanting to explain ourselves," he says. "That's part of the problem. We know we're right [and] don't need to explain."
The new chief thinks otherwise. "We need to have a strong communication with the public," he says. City council already has approved his request for an officer to assist the oversight commission, and he's hoping that they'll let him add a public information officer in the next budget.
With a dedicated communication liaison, Cox says, "we can make sure that the flow of information is happening quicker than what it currently does. And more importantly, it's a single source of information, so we're always on the same page."
Cox says he's also working to "reinvigorate" the city's citizen crime-watch groups. "We had a meeting [with] thirty-something people representing all these different crime-watch groups," he says. "We've been trying to set up more meetings throughout the city to get them up and running again. City council is helping us find places to set up some of these watches."
Some of that help is coming in his monthly meetings with each ward's councilmembers. They "talk about things," he says. "I explain our perspective, what we're seeing, what's going on, [and they tell me] any concerns they might have."
The creation of the oversight commission was highly acrimonious, but Cox seems satisfied with the result. As a "representative of the public," he sees the commission as an asset to community policing. "Their role is to come in, ask questions ... and look at the facts and circumstances" when the department's performance is questioned. He expects it to be a two-way communication, with members giving the department an independent view of its work but also explaining police work to folks with complaints, and, if appropriate, to the public in general.
Cox says the initial reaction to his efforts within the department is "good," and he believes it'll get better--community policing, he points out, is "the fun part of the job.
"We're not locking people up. We're not wrestling. We're not fighting. It's a different form of policing, and most people tend to like it." He's already initiated more foot patrols in the malls and downtown to give officers a taste of it.
Cox says he'd like to think that what happened to him in Boston "wouldn't ever happen in Ann Arbor. But I would never say that it couldn't happen here. I do know this: I will ... do everything possible to make sure that the conditions here won't make it likely."
The AAPD's top job has recently been a revolving door, with successive chiefs retiring and moving on within a few years. But Cox wants to break that pattern--he says he'd like this to be his last police job.
"I'm fifty-four," he says. "I hope to work for ten more years, hopefully, if they'll have me."
[Originally published in February, 2020.]
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