2016 has brought its share of challenges, not the least of which has been racial and ethnic tensions from the police shooting deaths of unarmed black men around the country, to the campaign rhetoric of the President-elect, to the white supremacist messages spray-painted on campus buildings at Eastern Michigan University. The Washtenaw County Sheriff is hoping, by taking it head-on, this area will be a model for how to address these issues.
Through the first part of 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti began to assert itself, demanding better police interactions, a true end to profiling, discrimination, and full and fair access to opportunity.
With tensions at a peak, Sheriff Jerry Clayton partnered with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and WEMU to host a forum on policing and community interaction. More than 600 attended that event at the EMU Student Center ballroom.
Amid the emotions on high, Clayton says he experiences things in black and blue. He is a black man and a cop. Through that lens, Clayton says he understands the marches and rallies and recognizes the potential value.
"Historically, our country has been built to a large degree on protests in challenging government's role on the impact of people's lives."
After the community venting expressed at the major forum, Clayton called for solution-based engagement. He held a series of education forums to educate the public on department policies and create a better sense of transparency and trust. Those sessions drew between 50-75 people per session, but, in the Sheriff's mind, still have some lasting impact.
"The response we had was fair--you know, 50 to 75 people at a different event. But the people that were there were engaged, and they asked good questions. And they challenged our thinking on certain things. And I believe those people go out, and they touch other people in the community. So, there's a ripple effect involved."
After fall incidents of racism and ethnic intimidation at Eastern Michigan, the University of Michigan, and in Ann Arbor, Clayton called for another forum in which 250 people attended to learn about how to use the law to guard against such offenses. He says it's worthy discussion to carry into the New Year.
"How do we navigate this as a community? We're trying to be as inclusive as possible and really starting to set expectations. This is how we're supposed to treat each other, not this discriminatory, aggressive manner. That's not acceptable here. How do we continue to perpetuate that position versus the other?"
The Sheriff says his office in 2017 will also employ the use of body cams to enhance transparency and offer protections to both the public and his deputies. He says there will be a new policy developed on substance controls, and there will be public forums on both. That, and the sense of place and purpose around here, leaves him optimistic for 2017.
"We live, work, and play in a really good county in a really good community. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but a solid county with good values. I think that continues. I think we have an opportunity to model the kind of behavior and interactions that should be replicated not only in southeast Michigan, but maybe nationally."
Everyone knows there is a lot of work to be done. Sheriff Clayton says he's working.