Last April, city council voted unanimously to develop an unarmed safety response program. Mayor Christopher Taylor drafted the resolution personally against the background of the Black Lives Matter movement nationally and, locally, simmering anger over the 2014 killing of a knife-wielding woman by an Ann Arbor police officer.
He did so, he says, “because it’s important that every member of our community be and feel safe–and not every call to 911 requires police response. There are lots of things that police are asked to do for which they have insufficient training. And it’s important that we recognize … and respond to that.”
When I asked Taylor who to talk to about how the plan might work, he suggested Donnell Wyche, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church and member of the activist Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety (CROS) and Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton.
Wyche moved here almost twenty years ago when he worked at IBM in Southfield. Later, he joined Vineyard as youth pastor “and sort of just worked my way up.” Homeless people he met through the church’s outreach ministry got him into police reform.
CROS, he says, came together “maybe two weeks after they passed the resolution back in April. And we’ve been meeting weekly ever since.” In November, they called for an independent, publicly funded team with its own emergency number–and no ties to the police.
Wyche says they’re envisioning something like Recycle Ann Arbor, which performs services for the city under contract. They’re talking to a couple of long-established nonprofits about filling that role, he says, but it’s too early to identify them.
The group’s proposal didn’t specify the incidents the team would respond to, but the council resolution mentions “activities that do not require police officer involvement, such as nonemergency medical calls, homeless encampments, medical transport requests, some mental health in crisis calls, and other similar calls with no direct nexus to suspected criminal activity or clear and present threat to the physical safety of others.”
CROS estimated that a two-year pilot program would cost $3 million a year. Perhaps assuming there would be offsetting cuts in the police department, they write that it would nonetheless save “the City and taxpayers an incredible amount of money.”
The proposal calls for a staff of sixteen that would include specialists in triage and de-escalation as well as folks who “have been previously incarcerated … had mental health struggles … experienced houselessness,” and who’d been trained to work with people in similar circumstances. They would have their own headquarters, vehicles, and dispatchers.
“We are really, really interested in seeing an unarmed response that doesn’t co-respond with police,” Wyche says, “because there are folks in our community who just will not call 911.”
For example, he says, police officers might overhear a medical 911 call and go to the scene to find that, for the second time, a child in the family has broken an arm. “Now with the officers there, they may say, ‘Gosh, we’ve had to respond to two calls of your kid breaking an arm.’ Are you a safe family for this kid? And now all of a sudden CPS [Child Protective Services] is involved. So that’s why we’ve been advocating for a separate number.”
Clayton says his deputies have better things to do than show up uninvited at medical calls, and AAPD chief Mike Cox says that’s true in the city, too. In any case, EMTs, like cops, are legally required to report possible child abuse.
Wyche agrees that’s so, but insists that a police presence can only make things worse. “Unarmed response that is not tied to the automatic carceral and surveillance system creates opportunities for community members to engage with people who are focused and trained on the care and dignity of everyone involved,” he says.
He brings up a real-life incident two years ago, when sheriff’s deputies punched a woman and tasered her husband when they refused to move away from the scene of a suspected shooting.
Wyche says he initially had been “impressed and sort of enlightened” by Sheriff Clayton’s initiatives, which include a countywide millage that funds both police and mental health services. But the incident “seemed like a betrayal.”
Bodycam footage showed the woman was biting the deputy’s arm when he hit her, and an investigation by Michigan’s attorney general found his actions justified. But Wyche concluded that Clayton’s “commitment is to his sheriff’s deputies. His commitment is not to the residents of this county. And I was gutted.”
Clayton agrees with Wyche that some people hesitate to call 911. “That’s a real fear. I would never dismiss that.
“But to continue perpetuating what I think to some degree is a false narrative doesn’t help,” adds the sheriff, who started as a part-time corrections officer, rose to first lieutenant, and won the top job in 2008. He says he tells his friends who want to abolish the police that, instead, “we need to work on the culture of police, the relationship with the community, to keep trying to earn other communities’ trust.”
Clayton doesn’t reciprocate Wyche’s personal distrust, and he’s open to the concept of what he’s advocating. “I think we owe it to ourselves to explore this thing of unarmed response,” he says. But what the pastor frames as a new beginning, the sheriff sees as another step in an ongoing effort “to build out the Washtenaw County continuum of community responders.” For example, he says, in the townships they police, his deputies have eight years’ experience working with an unarmed crisis response team from the county’s Community Mental Health unit (CMH).
“The crisis team responds to anyone in the community who’s in a mental health crisis,” CMH director Trish Cortes explains. “We get calls from individuals who are in crisis, family, friends, business owners, doctors, offices, and law enforcement.
“Someone might be in a mental health crisis, and if they are suicidal or having psychotic symptoms or any other symptoms … that might put them at risk of harm, if we don’t outreach in person. [We] provide a lot of assistance and guidance over the phone as well–family members are wanting to learn how to navigate mental health symptoms of their loved one wanting information and how they can help talking parents through tough conversations they need to have with their kids.”
Clayton says his deputies also back up Child and Family Services workers on cases involving “alleged criminal activity or threats to public safety and well-being.” He’s also working with CFS to create joint police-clinical teams to respond when their cases involve “individuals with a BHD” (“behavioral health disorder,” a clinical term that often translates to substance abuse). And once CMH can hire more case managers, he’s ready to fully “roll out our law-enforcement-assisted diversion/deflection program” that gives people in mental health crises a place to stabilize without being arrested or jailed.
He sounds a little impatient at Ann Arbor’s cluelessness about what happens beyond its boundaries. “We’ve had conversations with the leaders of the city and essentially say, ‘When you guys figure out what you want to do, let us know, but let’s just be clear: We’re moving forward with strategies that we’ve already developed …You can come on board if you want. If you don’t, you wanna do your own thing, God bless.”
Coming on board is unlikely as long as CROS is leading the city effort. Though the council resolution repeatedly mentions the possibility of working with the sheriff’s office, Wyche has yet to contact Clayton.
“I don’t have the sheriff’s number,” he says. “If the sheriff wants to talk to me, I am easily accessible.”
CROS did meet with Cortes. Wyche declines to discuss it, saying he would need her permission to do so. But Cortes says she was unimpressed with members’ grasp of the issues.
“They really didn’t know what they didn’t know about what is or isn’t happening in the community,” she says. “We just walked away with an impression that they were misinformed about many things.”
Chief Mike Cox defends his officers’ work, but isn’t territorial about it. “We are one of the few public agencies that will respond to almost anything,” he says. Those responses are “overwhelmingly successful, without a lot of issues, regardless of some of the rhetoric you might hear.”
Otherwise, he’s good with what he’s hearing so far about the new unit. “I like [that] the process is being more inclusive, more research-based, and certainly thoughtful,” he says. “If they create a unit that can respond to help the public and the officers aren’t armed and that makes people feel more comfortable, I’m all for it.”
Interim city attorney Milton Dohoney also is fine with the concept. “There is clear evidence that there are multiple situations where the response from the government … doesn’t require a badge and a gun,” he says.
“But it’s all in the details. How does it happen? How does the public call in, where do they call? All of those things would have to be worked out.”
In a December report, Dohoney and his staff laid out their recommendations on some key issues. For mental health crises, they recommended working with CMH and the sheriff’s diversion program. For other services, they recommended working with CROS and other stakeholders to develop a program that “complements the work of CMH and the Sheriff.” And as council had directed, they recommended routing calls through Clayton’s Metro Dispatch.
Giving unarmed response a separate dispatch and phone number, Dohoney says, would be “very expensive.” And he’s “been upfront with both council and community members on the difficulty in conditioning the public to learn a new number.” In a crisis, Dohoney believes, many “are still gonna call 911.”
Money, of course, is one of the devilish details. Dohoney and Wyche agree that a pilot program could tap the city’s $24.1 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act. But the administrator thinks CROS’s $3-million-a-year budget is too low.
“Three million was our starting point,” responds Wyche. In a press release as the Observer went to press, CROS member Molly Kleinman wrote, “$3 million pales in comparison to the $31 million AAPD budget, while getting us closer to a world where we approach people in crisis with care and connection, rather than guns and criminalization.”
The staff report, the group wrote, “dismisses key elements of the CROS plan to place a priority emphasis on the cost and expense, while making suggestions that have already been proven less effective by researchers … With the distribution of ARPA funds and the city’s commitment to unarmed response, the care of our community must be prioritized over cost, not the other way around.”
It’s certainly easier not to worry about the price while the ARPA money lasts. But what happens when it stops at the end of 2024?
Wyche suggests the city could tap its rebate from the county police and mental health millage. Taylor rules that out, however, saying council promised voters it would spend that money for affordable housing, climate action, and pedestrian safety.
Another unresolved detail is what, if any, legal authority team members will have. People in crisis can cause disturbances that scare people into making 911 calls. If they do so on someone else’s property, the owner can ask the police to remove them.
West-side homeowner Victor Stephens did that repeatedly in 2014 when a woman he described as his ex-girlfriend lost control. The second time, one of the responding officers shot and killed Aura Rosser.
Wyche believe that an unarmed responder might have saved her.
“I reject the premise that the only way we can respond to harm and threats is with more violence,” he says. “I think it is as possible that with the creativity that we have within the community, we could have come up with a solution that would’ve been able to preserve Ms. Rosser’s life. There are people who know how to deal with folks who are posing physical threats and how to de-escalate.”
“We’ve seen this happen time and time again,” Wyche continues. “When we choose to preserve life, we can find a way and we often do find a way to preserve the life of everyone that’s involved.”
Dohoney is much more wary. “If it is known that a weapon is involved it carries a high degree of risk to send an unarmed person into that type of situation,” he emails. “It is conceivable that they may be able to talk the person down. However, if they go in there and get seriously hurt or worse there would be an appropriately high level of scrutiny around that approach.”
“The safety of response personnel is a top priority,” stresses Mayor Taylor. “The provision of service is a top priority. We need to make sure that we provide services to folks in a way that preserves the safety of everyone.”
Wyche says that unarmed responders would have the option to call for police backup, but based on experience in other cities, predicts that it would rarely be needed.
Council has yet to discuss Dohoney’s recommendations, but the interim city administrator believes “within the next few months council is going to take the issue up.”
Dohoney sees the utility of unarmed safety response but needs to know what council wants.
“The main thing that I would stress is that we still have to do a deep dive on figuring out what’s possible and what’s feasible for Ann Arbor,” Dohoney says. “That has not yet been decided. Within the next few months we believe it will be.”