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| 5 min | by Doug Marrin |

Chelsea City Council reviewed Chelsea Police Department (CPD) policies and training with Chelsea Police Chief Ed Toth at its June 15, 2020, meeting.

During the public comment portion of the council meeting, citizens spoke on wanting to know more about subjects such as complaint processing, transparency, de-escalation training, chokeholds, racial profiling, experience level of the officers, implicit bias training, officer accountability, and handling of mental health issues.

“This is an item that I requested to be put on the agenda because I think it’s important to be transparent, and I also think its good for people to have information,” Mayor Melissa Johnson told the council and audience listening in on the virtual meeting.

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Mayor Johnson asserted that the review and discussion was not a comprehensive analysis of the complicated world of law enforcement at all levels, but a look at the City of Chelsea’s local department. Chelsea’s law enforcement serves only the City of Chelsea and follows a “Community Policing” model which differs in ways from its larger urban counterparts. The Mayor would also repeat several times during the discussion the open-door policy both she and Police Chief Toth have to sit down with anyone who may have questions or concerns.

“Basically Community Policing deals with building partnerships with members of the community and engaging in problem solving,” explained Chief Ed. “A lot of times these are quality of life issues and trying to head off a problem before it becomes a problem.”

Mayor Johnson pointed out that some of the community organizations the police department partners with include the Chelsea School District, St. Joseph Hospital, the retirement communities, the Senior Center, Faith in Action, mental health services, child protection agencies, and others from the business community.

To illustrate the Community Policing model, Chief Toth used the example of getting a call from a senior citizen at three o’clock in the morning who was having a problem with their water heater. CPD has a working relationship with a plumber who is available nights. A call was made and the problem was fixed for the night until it could be permanently fixed the next day.

Chief Toth further described Community Policing as “basically helping citizens in any way we can.”

Councilmember Cheri Albertson further elucidated Community Policing by explaining the model is not just a philosophical approach to law enforcement. “It’s in fact a very organized form of police department and structure that is meant to address the needs of the community in which it resides.”

Albertson, who did a one-year study on police departments large and small, also said the Community Policing model is designed for transparency and for extending officers into the public to foster positive engagement.

The training officers receive is quite detailed and Mayor Johnson referred anyone wishing more information on training specifics to the MCOLES website which can be found at https://www.michigan.gov/mcoles/0,4607,7-229–148096–,00.html

 “The officers who work here have a significant amount of law enforcement experience,” said Chief Toth.

CPD employs ten full-time officers and five part-time. The senior member of the force began law enforcement in 1970. The newest officer began in 2012. Eleven of these officers have more than twenty-five years of experience each. Chief Toth told the council that in a small town such as Chelsea, the police department gets to know members of the community fairly well and the familiarity helps soften some situations when meting out consequences for infractions. But even with hundreds of years of combined experience, officers’ training is ongoing both online as well as in-person classes.

Mayor Johnson reviewed the ongoing training that officers receive in the areas of:

  1. De-escalation and minimizing Use of Force
  2. Use of Force
  3. Cultural Awareness and Cultural Diversity
  4. Anti-Bias
  5. Responding to mental Health Illness with Compassion
  6. Racial Profiling
  7. LGBTI issues
  8. Hate Crimes
  9. Ethics
  10. Constitutional Policing and Responding to First Amendment Protected Events
  11. Understanding Anxiety Disorders, OCD, and PTSD
  12. Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

The department’s policy manual has over 100 policies. To keep the policies current in the minds of the officers, Chief Toth sends out a daily training bulletin which gives a scenario that specifically relates to a department policy. A test accompanies the bulletin to help instill and maintain the policy into reflexive, workable knowledge.

Chief Toth spoke on “Use of Force” reporting by using the example of placing someone under arrest. On rare occasions, that person may get physical to the point officers restrain them by putting them down on the ground. He explained after such an incident, officers are required to fill out a form specific to Use of Force. The report is reviewed by the immediate supervisor, and then by Chief Toth, and then filed. If an injury is sustained by the arrestee, an evaluation is made as to whether it was the result of an excessive Use of Force. A national database is kept on Use of Force incidents. If CPD has any Use of Force incidents, in addition to the local documentation, the report is submitted to the federal government.

Councilmember Rick Catherman asked the question, “Can you address ‘Bias Based Policing’ and what that entails?”

“The title is a little bit misleading,” responded Councilmember Albertson. “It can be interpreted as ‘policing’ when in fact it is the teaching on how to avoid bias-based policing. That’s just a clarification of language.”

“That is correct,” echoed Mayor Johnson. “It’s teaching about bias-based policing – a policy which has an inappropriate reliance on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc.”

Councilmember Peter Feeney asked the Chief as to how he monitors the officers’ mental health.

Chief Toth responded by explaining that he and his supervisors spot check in-car videos looking at how officers are interacting with the public. Another effective metric, albeit informal, is to listen to the conversation in the squad room. It is the culture of a department that is key to how they serve. “You have your policy, procedures, and training, but the culture of the agency actually trumps policy, procedure, and training,” commented Chief Toth.

The Chief also considers how the department is perceived in the public’s eye as being a critical indicator of officers’ temperament. In the 14 years he has been with CPD, complaints have typically numbered none to zero annually. One year saw five complaints, but those were officers reporting on each other.

“I’ve never really heard anything significantly negative about the department,” said Chief Toth. “Now, the people that we arrest are not happy about it, but the majority of people that we are in contact with are happy with the service we provide. If there are people out there that aren’t happy with the service, you need to get a hold of me.”

In regards to transparency, Mayor Johnson said, “There are a number of different ways that we share information from the city out to the public.”

One of those ways is in regular police reports; weekly summaries of notable incidents and detailed monthly reports which can be found on the City’s website. The information can also be found on CrimeMapping.com. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can also be made through the city office. The department also has a standing invitation to anyone who wants a first-hand look at what the CPD does by offering ride-a-longs.

When it comes to submitting a complaint, there is a form that can be filled out or “just send me an email,” said the Chief. “We will look into what the issue is, and there’s normally a letter or call back as to the outcome of it.”

“And like any profession, there’s always room for improvement,” added Toth. “Although most of us have been doing this for a lot of years, we can always get better at what we’re doing.”

When asked specifically about the use of chokeholds, Chief Toth responded, “They quit teaching that maneuver at the Academy in 1990, so that’s 30 years ago. Departments that are still buying into that, I’m just not sure where that’s coming from exactly.”

“We have annual in-service training that does regular updates with a best practice as of today that we do every year including those best practices on Use of Force,” added Johnson.

Councilmember Pacheco raised the question if there has been any discussion regarding a citizen oversight committee.

“We do have a lot of opportunities for the public to come and ask questions,” said Mayor Johnson. “We always have an open door policy at the police department. Certainly, all of Council’s contact information is online with telephone numbers and email. If anyone has any questions or comments or has a complaint about any of our police officers I would certainly encourage you to reach out.”

The discussion also touched on other subjects that included training costs, public engagement such as school presentations, and mental health issues in law enforcement.

The entire discussion can be found on the City’s website on the City Council’s recording for the June 15 meeting.

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