Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin called ELi in today to talk about how she is using her federal office to provide the East Lansing area with help on issues of policing and the pandemic.
Following the killing of George Floyd by police, the swell of “activist action on the ground” over the last few weeks has led to a moment where there is now “a real federal conversation about policing standards,” Slotkin said.
She is co-sponsoring the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, legislation put forth by House Democrats aimed at dealing with use of excessive force, misconduct, and racial bias in policing.
But does she support movements to defund the police, as East Lansing’s City Council has debated?
“I don’t think that is practical,” she told ELi. “I do think we are in a moment to have a serious conversation about re-envisioning and re-imagining what policing looks like. But I don’t support defunding the police.”
Slotkin indicated that she has not been closely watching the ongoing investigations into East Lansing Police Officer Andrew Stephenson, who has been accused by at least two African American men of brutality. Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon recently requested that the Attorney General assign a special prosecutor for that case.
But, Slotkin said, “what happened to George Floyd is the reason why I’m flying back to Washington to vote on police reform legislation. It has been creating a galvanizing moment.”
She notes that even in “small, white, conservative communities” like Holly, Michigan – where she lives – there have been protests against police brutality. She said she participated in a George Floyd protest there along with Holly’s police chief and town supervisor. (In East Lansing, a majority-progressive city, the interim Police Chief, City Manager, and City Council members have not actively participated in protests, although some have observed and walked behind protestors.)
Slotkin said today that she is sympathetic to “the feeling of good cops who feel like they are trying to do a good job and they get lumped in with bad cops.” She said she has “heard poignant stories from police leadership about attempts to get rid of bad cops, and so I think I don’t want this to be an ‘us versus them’ conversation.”
She said it was time to put in place legislative reforms “so good cops can continue to be good cops and run their shops that way.”
Asked about the place of police unions and union-negotiated contracts in this discussion, Slotkin said she would “urge police unions to think about their responsibilities for introspection.” She said collective bargaining should not be used to “put the rights of a bad cop over the needs of a community.”
I asked Slotkin if this language of “good cop/bad cop” was helpful for thinking about cases like the one in East Lansing where an officer engaged in behavior later described as brutal and excessive use of force by two African American men, behavior witnessed by other officers. In both of those cases, the men arrested suffered injuries to their faces and heads. Both made complaints, but police investigators did not find any wrongdoing.
Slotkin responded that the legislation being put forth by Democrats in the House calls for legal responsibilities for law enforcement officers to act and to report when they see wrongdoing. She said that when she was in the CIA, she was subject to such requirements.
She called “eerie” the video of the death of George Floyd where “all the other cops [were] standing there, just standing by” as if such actions were “mundane.”
Slotkin sees the combination of the killing of George Floyd and the pandemic as firing up young African American activists in particular.
On the issue of the pandemic, Slotkin had much praise for MSU President Sam Stanley, including hailing his decision to suddenly end in-person classes – a move that then led to massive partying and Stanley’s urging students to leave the East Lansing area.
She said she has worked with MSU, during the health emergency, on obtaining FDA approvals for MSU-based discoveries and on mask sanitation.
She referred to “a big zoom call in the middle of the worse part of COVID” that included leadership from MSU and East Lansing, including Mayor Ruth Beier. (Her staff offered to provide ELi the list of who attended, but has not yet.)
Slotkin indicated she stands ready to facilitate communication between City and university leaders to consider how to bring tens of thousands of students and workers back to East Lansing safely.
She said she’s been having many discussions with local, regional, and statewide leaders to work on police bias and excessive force problems, as well as on problems presented by the pandemic.
When asked how she’s handling these matters differently than her predecessor Mike Bishop would have, she said the biggest difference is that she shows up.
“I tell people I’m a bit of a cheap date,” she explained. “As long as I can make [an invitation] work with my schedule, I will be there. I think people want to know they will have someone who will fight for them.”