Policing & Abolition in Ann Arbor

Amber Hughson

As a long-term result of grassroots organizing by Ann Arbor to Ferguson, (1) Radical Washtenaw, and Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives (A3BL) following the local murder of Aura Rosser in 2014 and of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, policing is on the minds of Ann Arbor residents once again. In 2017, social circles, reports, and articles insist (however buried in subtext) that Ann Arbor does not have a policing problem, but that there may be some distrust between residents and the police, in some communities. The Human Rights Commission’s report, “Civilian Police Review: Recommendations for Strengthening Police Community Relations” contributes to that interpretation. As does City Council’s $230,000 hiring of Hillard Heintz, a private firm with roots in law enforcement, currently conducting an inadequate review of AAPD. I’m posting this note as a first attempt to publicly intercede in that narrative because like the history of policing in this country, these positive attitudes about policing are embedded in anti-Blackness, however shrouded in liberalism they may be.

Because most residents in Ann Arbor will never be personally impacted by the directly violent policing that we see on social media and in the news, many have decided that policing is a problem in other cities, but not at home.

We do not live in those other cities.

We live in a city where AAPD uses a guise of liberalism to say we don’t need a Civilian Police Review Board, or anything like it.

We live in a city where the only means of making a complaint about mistreatment by the police is to a single sergeant in the police department itself.

We live in a city where the police do not publicly share their policies on use of force, lethal or otherwise.

We live in a city where the police frequently refuse activists access to information protected by the Freedom of Information Act.

We live in a city where policing makes up the largest expenditure ($26.65 million of $104.3 million) of the city’s annual budget; and the same is true ($49.4 million of $224.7 million) of the county’s annual budget.

We live in a city where 95% of the police are not residents of the neighborhoods they police (3), and where residents have no say in how they are policed.

We live in a city that is policed by not one but three collaborating law enforcement bodies: Ann Arbor Police Department, the University of Michigan’s Department of Public Safety, and the county Sheriff’s Department. We also reside at the center of several intersecting highways, patrolled by Michigan State Police.

We live in a city where a millage supposedly for “community mental health” will contribute two-thirds ($10 million) of its monies to discretionary funds for law enforcement, while only one-third ($5 million) will go directly to Community Mental Health services.

We live in a city where the officer who murdered Aura Rosser in 2014, David Ried, is still on duty due to a weak and likely corrupt internal investigation.

We live in a city that willfully undermines the fear, frustration, and anger of Black residents who experience overpolicing, harassment, and the incarceration of family members as an aspect of their daily lives.

We live in a city that has a consistent presence of federal law enforcement, (I.C.E., U.S. Marshals, and border patrol), harassing, detaining, and deporting our neighbors.

We live in a city that contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline through the policing and detention of youth to treat behavioral misconduct, particularly young Black and brown folks.

We also live in a state where since 2006, local law enforcement have been given $40 million in military grade weapons retired from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be used on civilians.

As other cities battle overt corruption and epidemics of directly violent suppression, we must recognize that our city’s system of policing is also a problem. And, to be clear, the problem is not that residents do not trust police officers enough—however true it may be that residents do not trust police. The problem is that policing is inherently harmful and violent (4), even if there are no reported physical injuries. The fact that police departments fail to collect or publicize data on their misconduct or racial patterns of arrests is not reason to assume the absence of harm (5). The act of patrolling neighborhoods looking for people to ticket, fine, or arrest is always already harmful (6,7,8), especially for those who will be jailed for being unable to pay; especially for those who fear for their lives at the sight of a cop car because of the color of their skin, and because their families are incarcerated or have experienced harassment; especially for those who fear deportation, and see no difference between AAPD and ICE.

For the most protected class of people in Ann Arbor, patrols may be an indication that their wealth and property are safer from the least protected classes of people in Ann Arbor. In order to ensure that sense of safety for university, hospital, and tech industry elite, who are predominantly white, poor and folks of color are constantly surveilled, held under suspicion, questioned for simply socializing in public spaces (9), and under constant threat of being fined, ticketed, or arrested for non-threatening behavior such as loitering, vagrancy, and noise (10). If you’ve ever hung out near public bus stops, Liberty Plaza, or in the neighborhood where I live, their constant surveillance of the activities of poor and folks of color would be clear. Even people who are never stopped are potently aware that their existence in this otherwise wealthy space is suspect, unwelcome, and may be interrogated at any time. This is inherently harmful, especially so as officers patrol neighborhoods carrying lethal weapons immediately at their disposal. Individual officers with bias or engaged in exploitation are a problem (11), but the most ever-present, all-encompassing problem is that no matter how well intentioned an officer is, the system of policing is one of authoritarian, weaponized control over residents, enacted in a way that is inherently racist and classist. There is no evidence that this practice of policing, which actively seeks out nonviolent behavior to control, reduces or deters crime.

In Ann Arbor, a traumatic conflict is dealt with by calling people who bring lethal weapons into the situation, and whose solution is to put people in handcuffs, ultimately into a system which puts millions of people in cages for nonviolent crimes. We must acknowledge that our appearance and our class dictate how we understand this relationship to the police, and set our sights on how we can create healthier ways to provide safety, address harm, and heal from harm. All of our neighbors need to explore how they can handle conflict without involving the police and how their admiration of police contributes to the suffering of generations of families. This is the conversation about police that we need to be having (and some folks already are).

Despite the impression given by most of Ann Arbor’s politicians, real protection for Ann Arbor residents comes from care, not policing. Real protection for Ann Arbor residents does not come from communities building relationships with individual police officers who will always already have authority over those relationships. There is no evidence that community policing reduces rates of police misconduct, police brutality, or over policing. Real protection for Ann Arbor residents does not come from a diverse police force. There is no evidence that racial diversity in the police force reduces police misconduct, police brutality, or over policing. This is because it is the institution of policing and its ends–the armed enforcement of classist, racist laws—that cause harm, not the discretion of individual officers. We need less predatory enforcement, not more procedures and tools that bolster enforcement. We need a path toward the abolition of law enforcement as we know it.

Even if you cannot envision a world without police, there is work to do in providing the real protection of creating free and accessible food to eat, places to sleep, physical and mental health care, equal education for people of all ages, and kindness, trust, empathy, and enjoyment in shared public spaces (17). Real protection comes from restorative and transformative justice practices (18) that heal harm caused by residents and public employees. Real protection comes from the decriminalization of nonviolent behaviors and from nonviolent, healing ways of addressing violent behaviors(19), and we can all begin our journey of moving away from a mentality of punishment and retribution and toward something better.

Immediately actionable reforms that will protect Ann Arbor residents include:

  • Mass political education on the history of policing in colonialism, male authority over property, and slave patrols (20, 20a, 20b)
  • Mass training on interpersonal conflict resolution techniques as an alternative to calling the police on neighbors and fellow residents for nonviolent disputes
  • Disarming the police of all lethal weapons that they carry on their person or in patrol vehicles
  • Eliminating all routine patrols or stationary monitoring conducted by police officers, making them only responsible for answering calls directly related to violent violations of the law
  • Creating an independently funded, unarmed, independently run rapid response deescalation team for addressing mental health, domestic violence, and interpersonal conflict (including unarmed property disputes) (21)
  • Banning police officers from all school environments
  • Eliminating the use of detainment (in handcuffs, in jail, on tethers, or otherwise) for all youth
  • Establishing an independent, elected Civilian Police Oversight Board with the power to make decisions about how Ann Arbor is policed (A)

Beyond the scope of officers on the street, the following are suggestions for criminal justice reforms at the state and local level:

  • The elimination of confinement for all youth, including jail, tethers, or otherwise (22)
  • Decriminalization of the use and possession of drugs and paraphernalia, as these charges disproportionately jail and impoverish people of color
  • The elimination of all laws against vagrancy and loitering, as these charges disproportionately jail and further impoverish the poor
  • The requirement that mental health crises be addressed by urgently responding mental health professionals, not armed police officers
  • Creating an independently funded, independently run restorative and transformative justice program, to be used as an alternative to jail or tethers, by request of those directly harmed
  • The elimination of monetary bail, which demands that the poor remain in cages long after the wealthy are able to walk free (23)
  • The elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing for any and all offenses (24)

Other additional organizing efforts that are badly needed are:

  • The expansion of free, accessible mental health care that is entirely disconnected from law enforcement, so that women like Aura Rosser receive care and support rather than a bullet to the chest
  • The expansion of free and affordable housing options with long-term goals toward ending foreclosures, gentrification, and housing insecurity

All of this requires long-term, community based organizing. Depriving law enforcement of power and distributing that power to communities requires us to understand the roots of colonization and anti-Blackness in modern policing, and to admit that Ann Arbor is not a paradise that is free of the systematic racism and violence faced in communities across the country.

If you’re interested in organizing toward any of these ends, please reach out (amber.hughson@gmail.com). There are reading suggestions at the end of this note, if you’d like to explore the problem of policing more. It will take collective work to change the dominant narrative about policing, in a city where people’s experiences are so segregated. I’m hoping to see you all out there.


In response to the diligent, passionate work of past activists, which resulted in the Human Rights Commission’s recommendation that the Ann Arbor City Council establish a Civilian Review Board, I’ll say that residents should absolutely have an independent, objective, resident controlled body to which they can submit complaints and concerns related to police misconduct (12); and such a body should be empowered to participate in decisions (13)—not make toothless recommendations–about changes in policies, practices, and resolution of conflict. Such a body should be made up of people most directly impacted by police violence: people of low socioeconomic status, people of color, trans folks, people who have formerly been incarcerated, communities of mixed documentation, and mentally ill people. This board, as well as the public, should have easy access to information about how decisions about policing are made, where and how neighborhoods are policed, what weapons and resources are made available to police, and data on what civilian behaviors result in encounters with police and how often. The need for civilian power to make informed decisions about how public safety is conducted is absolutely essential.

Unless fully funded, independent, and empowered to change policy, a Civilian Review Board functions to influence the punishment of individual officers after they have caused harm, perpetuating an ideology of retribution as justice (14). At its weakest, a Civilian Review Board seeks to legitimize the police in the eyes of the public, by creating systems of accountability and transparency that address incidents rather than institutions, giving no power to communities (15,16). Creating a Civilian Review Board with real teeth, rather than one meant to quiet civilian voices and temper a spirit of abolition, will take immense community organizing, which has only just begun.

  1. “We will answer provocation by further mobilizing support for the humanity of all people of color” —Austin McCoy, 2014.
  2. Affordable housing discussions in Ann Arbor revolve around enthusiastically advocating that a small number of affordable units be made available as well as vouchers for the extremely impoverished (which are both needed to address a large population of homeless folks in the city, who also do not have adequate public shelter during winter and whose tent communities are actively destroyed), without discussing the long, ongoing legacy of Black communities being relocated and priced out of neighborhoods, of segregated neighborhoods, and of tens of thousands of workers commuting into the city because they can’t afford to live where they work, all of which indicate a spectrum of housing insecurity related to the city’s relationship to the University of Michigan, Michigan Medicine, and private development interests which draw tax revenues while pushing folks of color and poor folks out.
  3. Notably, law enforcement officers indicate that they are not residents in Ann Arbor because they claim they cannot afford to live within the city.
  4. Camp, Jordan T. and Christina Heatherton. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Verso. 2016.
  5. Loyens, Kim. “Why Police Officers and Labour Inspectors (do Not) Blow the Whistle.” Policing 36.1 (2013): 27–50.
  6. Sexton, Jared. “Racial Profiling and the Societies of Control.” Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy. Duke University Press, 2007.
  7. Alexander, Michelle. “The Lockdown” from The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2010.
  8. “… Kelling and Wilson admit that while this way of policing shows no reduction in crime or any effect on crime rates altogether, it does give people (some residents and those with commercial interests in the neighborhood) a sense of safety. Despite mentioning early on that “the foundation concluded, to the surprise of hardly anyone, that [policing during the Newark Experiment] had not reduced crime rates,” they go on to argue that this feeling of safety brought by the police presence prevents more violent crimes from occurring. Occasionally evoking racist tropes, such as referring to people as “animals” or communities as “jungles,” Kelling and Wilson argue that the role of the police is to maintain a type of social control” from When People are Property by Raven Rakia, 2014
  9. “I’m affected greatly by police brutality. Directly and indirectly … Even seeing other human beings being harassed by police, I still feel violated cus it’s violent. It’s not acceptable at all. It’s a total disregard for people’s value … the way police carry themselves and the way they talk to people, is disgusting. It’s horrible. It’s violent. It’s a flexing of authority. They like oppressing people and it seems like that’s the whole intention. To like take people’s power away from them. A lot of times I feel like my power is being taken away” from We Charge Genocide’s “Police Violence Against Chicago’s Youth of Color,” Report to the United Nations, 2014.
  10. Weitzer, R. and Steven Tuch. “Race and Perceptions of Police Misconduct.” Social Problems, vol. 51, no. 3, 2004, pp. 305–325.
  11. “The proposal to address the problem of police terror in Black communities with the objective or demand of ending racial prejudice in the police department contains an inherent flaw: it reduces the Black community, the victims of police terror, to secondary subjects and raises the white racist police, the offenders, to the level of primary objects of the campaign.” From: Adams, M. and Max Rameau. “Black Community Control over Police.” Wisconsin Law Review, page 524, 2016.
  12. Currently, all complaints and concerns about policing and police misconduct are given directly to a Lieutenant in the Ann Arbor Police Department, this is the only means of making a complaint.
  13. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community,” from the Black Panther Party (BPP) ten-point program, 1966.
  14. Prosecuting Cops does not Equal Justice” by Mariame Kaba.
  15. “… state legitimacy is the most imperceptible yet crucial form of power. It relies on the psychological and social conditioning of people to create an acceptance of the state and the forms of power it normalizes: imperatives to obey the state’s offices and authorities and to fear the state’s ability to enforce its rules without violent repression of serious dissent and disobedience. The first and most important objective of movements against state power must be to deny the state’s legitimacy in theoretical and concrete ways.” Alfred, Taiaiake. Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. University of Toronto Press, page 56, 2005.
  16. “Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity,” the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.” From Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.
  17. “We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings … We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people … We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails … We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” From the Black Panther Party (BPP) ten-point program, 1966.
  18. Transformative Justice: A Curriculum Guide
  19. Davis, Angela. “Abolitionist Alternatives” from Are Prisons Obsolete. Seven Stories Press, 2003.
  20. “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society,” from the Black Panther Party ten-point program, 1966.

20a. The History of Policing in America.

20b. “The ugly history of racist policing in America.”

  1. Ann Arbor has a little known public service called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), which is affiliated with Community Mental Health and works with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department. There is very little information available for public understanding about how this program operates. The program responds after a traumatic event has already taken place. Washtenaw County also has a 24-hour response line for mental health: 734-544-3050. A description of other urgent community mental health services available in Washtenaw County can be found here.
  2. Krisberg, Barry. “Juvenile Justice and the American Dilemma” from Juvenile Justice: Redeeming Our Children. Sage Publications, 2005.
  3. Transformative Bail Reform
  4. Travis, Jeremy. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States : Exploring Causes and Consequences. The National Academies Press, 2014.


What to do Instead of Calling the Police

Huey P. Newton, Panther Pig Patrols

State Terrorism and Racist Violence in the Age of Disposability

Police Reforms you Should Always Oppose

Adams, M and Max Rameau. “Black Community Control over Police.” Wisconsin Law Review, page 524, 2016.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2010.

Camp, Jordan T. and Christina Heatherton. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Verso, 2016.

Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy. Duke University Press, 2007.




  1. Larssen

    Only a day or so after reading this piece, I encountered this story, via NPR, on AAPD cops harrassing a Black man … the host of the show, as it turns out.

  2. Jeff Hayner

    I certainly appreciate the idea that to achieve radical change one (we) must take radical action. Love seeing city council squirm under the weight of their conscience as resident after resident lays out the long list of failures that flow from council’s actions, and failures to act. Of course, almost everything the pro-growth council majority does is in direct opposition to the changes you wish to see. Make no mistake, council is determined to protect the wealth that is their ticket to power.

    I attended last night’s work session and was happy to meet some of the folks on HRC after listening to them speak so eloquently to these very issues you lay out above. Hope springs eternal. Many in the council majority are spineless, desperate to signal their social virtue to maintain support of Ann Arbor’s “progressive Dems” voting block. Those in the minority are sincere in their support of the values of the entire community, not just U of M and gentrifying developers. There may never be a better time to make community gains, keep at it!


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