This is the first of two status update stories for the community, a year after the OIR Group’s report to the City of Kalamazoo. Part two looks at the report’s other recommendation: that police be less defensive and more self-reflecting when critiqued.
When the city of Kalamazoo hired a consultant to independently review the 2020 protests against police violence and a hate group’s rally two months later, elected officials and those in city and police administrations praised it as a process for taking complaints seriously.
It was both the response and solution to criticism that policing had been overly aggressive from May 30 to June 2 in cracking down on protesters after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and too hands-off when the Proud Boys rallied on Aug. 15.
The process was given so much deference that city leaders declined to answer most questions about police reform and policies until the California-based OIR Group finished researching and analyzing what transpired that summer and delivered a final report.
More than a year since the report was made public, 32 of the 40 recommendations for improving policing and governance policies have been completed. Two of the 32 are listed as completed but with training still underway. Five of the eight recommendations yet to be completed require community input still, and three are in review or have a pending timeline for training.
That report praised the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for its clear planning and execution, and said that KDPS was more restrained in its use of force than other departments around the country facing similar protests that year. But it also criticized the plans for each of the incidents for how it deployed tear gas and other crowd control strategies that created the conditions it was intending to avoid; for further shooting itself in the foot with poor communication to the public; and, for being resistant to the constructive criticism and self-reflection necessary to address the root causes that led to the OIR Group being hired in the first place.
The OIR Group relied on KDPS after-action reports from the crowd management team, arrest reports, operation plans, incident reports, body-cam footage, complaint files, relevant department policies, and interviews with police and city officials and community members to produce its 118-page independent review. Its 40 recommendations covered areas like strategies for crowd control management, policies for arresting or detaining journalists, when to declare a police zone, communicating orders to crowds, learning from after-action reports, and developing an effective tracking method for less lethal munitions.
NowKalamazoo made multiple requests for interviews with police and city leaders through newly hired City Communications Manager Michael Smith and a second spokesperson. We asked to discuss the status of recommendations, the city’s priorities for police reform, and changes to the city’s approach to transparency and communication a year after the report’s release.
Those requests for traditional interviews were declined, though Smith agreed to communicate via email and facilitate questions to police leadership. During multiple email exchanges, city staff continued to answer questions, though answers were often short, lacked clarity, and cherry-picked certain elements of each question.
The original report and a status of recommendations can be found here in a page on the city website created as part of a push for transparency. It’s unclear how often it is updated. Four recommendations were marked as completed after NowKalamazoo began asking questions about the status in August, around the one-year mark from the report being made public. Kalamazoo officials clarified that the OIR transparency page had not been updated for months, though Smith says the website page will be updated more frequently once the community engagement committee convenes.
Multiple recommendations included a deliberate engagement with the community on policies and changes to them. Kalamazoo police are “in the process of convening a group of residents from across the City of Kalamazoo,” Smith wrote in one email response to questions. “We have invited a wide range of community stakeholders to join this committee. That includes neighborhood leaders, members of civic organizations and the business and faith-based communities.”
The group will weigh in on some of the free speech policies and “a timeline of their work will be shared once available,” Smith wrote.
Though the city’s plans for input gathering have been clarified, it is still unclear how the city plans to effectively inform Kalamazoo residents, as recommended. Most but not all policy changes occurred within “Policy 430,” dealing with public gatherings, also referred to as “first amendment assemblies.”
A revision of policies for how police inform crowds about “potential use of force” if they don’t disperse when ordered (Recommendation 14) is dependent on that community input process that has yet to be put in place. In turn, police won’t be trained until the policy is formally updated.
Some of the completed policy changes address core complaints leveled against KDPS for their handling of protests against police use of force, often referred to as the Black Lives Matter protests that summer. For example, the update to Policy 430.6 states: “Chemical agents will not be used on individuals involved in a protest who are only displaying passive behavior and do not immediately appear to be a present threat to the safety of the department and public while considering the totality of the situation at hand.”
In the aftermath of the Proud Boys rally, 10 people were arrested including a journalist and a legal observer. KDPS will now “ensure that field supervisors are consulted before officers arrest or detain journalists or legal observers” (Recommendation 4, marked as completed), but has not yet trained supervisors “on the need to exercise discretion prior to approving arrests” (Recommendation 5, not yet completed), according to the online status update and Smith. He added that some changes have already been made, such as “dealing with the media, more informative dispersal order, body camera usage and the City’s communication plan for First Amendment assemblies,” though didn’t provide specifics.
After initially downplaying any possible missteps, and proposing to regulate the media and conduct training for how they should act while covering events, the city’s immediate response to the protests and rallies that summer was focused on ways to improve communication to the public. It began reforming policies about actions at times of mass gatherings while striking a balance with the constitutionally-protected rights to rally. Senior management in the city administration created a series of policy reviews and launched the transparency portal in the city website. As complaints remained unresolved, it contracted with a public relations firm and, months later, hired an employee of that firm to be its spokesperson. (Earlier this year, that person was replaced by the two spokespeople, including one who is a former journalist.)
In the meantime, damage to the city’s reputation was exacerbated by administration decisions. City Manager Jim Ritsema initially apologized for the arrest of the journalist and legal observer, but then retracted that in private conversations with police. Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas, facing the brunt of the critique, was ultimately fired, though Ritsema also told the city commission and public that she resigned.
With trust shaken, it added weight to the OIR Group’s report and the city’s implementation of recommendations. In part two, we’ll look at the OIR Group’s recommendation that police be more willing to accept criticism as a key tenet of reform.
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