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Appeals court: Police department must share unredacted use-of-force policy

Carolina K. Smith

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled the City of Sault Sainte Marie must make its police use-of-force policy available to the public.

The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel held the city cannot redact large portions of its policy on a vague argument of protecting officers’ safety. The court held none of the requested information dealt with operational details that would put officers in danger.

From the opinion authored by Appeals Court JudgeSima Patel:

The use-of-force policy is clearly intended to guide the police in making future decisions pertaining to when the use of force is appropriate and the degree of force that may be appropriate. The policy does not give instructions on use of force in specific situations, but rather outlines broad policy prescriptions that should guide law enforcement personnel when engaging in use of force. The policy therefore does not contain “operational instructions” and is not exempt from disclosure.

The freedom-of-information request was filed following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd as many communities were questioned by citizens on law enforcement use-of-force policies.

Stephen van Stempvoort is an attorney who argued on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Press Association. He said the public is safer and police officers are safer when the rules are clear.

“If everybody knows what the parameters of the interaction between an officer and a citizen are, then everybody will be able to adjust accordingly,” he told Michigan Public Radio. “There won’t be as many mistakes that are made.”

The opinion noted the Michigan State Police and many other law enforcement agencies make their use-of-force policies public.

“Given this easy and widespread exposure, and the similarity in subject matter discussed, it is telling that the city could not produce any particularized evidence that the availability of these policies has resulted in endangerment of the life or safety of law enforcement officers, their families, or the general public,” it said.

The decision can be appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. An attorney who argued the case for Sault Sainte Marie did not reply to a request for comment.

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Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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