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Washtenaw United: An historical and personal perspective on law enforcement

Washtenaw County/City of Ann Arbor
(From L to R) Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton and Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Jerry Clayton

Jerry L. Clayton is a 30+ year Public Safety Services professional, currently serving his fourth term as the Sheriff of Washtenaw County. Sheriff Clayton leads an organization of approximately 420 staff, serving a population of over 358,000, covering a 720-square mile geographical area.

During his career with the Sheriff’s Office, Jerry served as a front-line Corrections Officer, Deputy Sheriff and command officer. He was also appointed to the following executive positions; Corrections Commander, Police Services Commander and SWAT Team Commander).

Jerry has been a certified criminal justice trainer and instructor for more than twenty-five years. He has provided training, and consulting services to a variety of private and public-sector clients, including the United States Department of Justice, the National Sheriff’s Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sheriff Clayton serves on the boards of numerous local organizations. These include the Washtenaw Area Council for Children, the local Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the Washtenaw County Mental Health Treatment Court Advisory Board, Washtenaw County Continuum of Care Board (ending homelessness) and the SafeHouse Center.

Jerry has received international recognition for his expertise and work in the Criminal Justice profession. In 2016, he was invited as a representative of U.S. law enforcement Barcelona, Spain. In 2017, at the invitation of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, Sheriff Clayton was the representative from the United States and a presenter at an international conference on law enforcement and bias-based policing in Geneva, Switzerland. In February of 2018, Sheriff Clayton participated in a US-UK exchange in London, England, focusing on Building Leadership for Fair and Effective Policing.

Sheriff Clayton attended Eastern Michigan University, majoring in Public Safety Administration. He also graduated from the EMU School of Staff and Command and numerous other Leadership programs. Jerry is married to his wife of 30 years, Sybil, and has 3 sons.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox was appointed Chief of Police of the Ann Arbor Police Department in the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan on July 15, 2019. Prior to his appointment Chief Cox was a 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Department. While last there he served as the Bureau Chief and Superintendent of the Bureau of Professional Development, overseeing the Boston Police Academy, The Firearms Training Unit, the Police Cadet Unit, Recruit training and in-service training for all sworn Boston Police personnel.

Chief Cox served a total of 15 years on the Command Staff in diverse functions over that time. Before the Academy, Chief Cox was the commander of the Operations Division, primarily responsible for the Emergency 9-1-1 Response Services for the City of Boston. In addition, Chief Cox was previously assigned to the head of Internal Affairs as the Assistant Bureau Chief of Professional Standards, Zone Commander of Area E, and the Commander of the Forensic Division and Assistant Bureau Chief of the Bureau of Investigative Services.

Before Chief Cox’s Command Staff assignments at the Boston Police Department, he worked as a Sergeant Detective in the Intelligence Unit where he performed Dignitary Protection duties, served as the liaison to the U.S. Secret Service, and supervisor assigned to the Joint Terrorist Task Force. At this rank, he also served assignments in the Internal Affairs, Recruit Investigations, and Audit & Review Units. As a Police Officer, Chief Cox worked in Area B-3 until joining the City-wide Anti-Gang Violence Unit until his promotion to Sergeant in 1995. Chief Cox is a two-time Medal of Honor recipient and received numerous other Commendations and awards while serving in the Boston Police Department.

Chief Cox is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Police Executive Research Forum and holds degrees from Providence College in Business Management, Curry College where he obtained a Master’s in Criminal Justice, and Boston University’s Questrom School of Business where he obtained an MBA.


Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department

Ann Arbor Police Department

Michael Cox

Jerry Clayton


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and welcome to the final Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and today we're going to look a little history of the relationship between law enforcement and the community of African-American men and women in our country and take a look at where we are now and where policing is headed in our community moving forward. We're going to do so through the eyes of two Black men who have chosen a career in law enforcement. Our Washtenaw United guests today are Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox, and thank you so much for making time for us today.

Michael Cox: Thank you for having us.

David Fair: And the other guest is Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Sheriff Clayton, thank you as well.

Jerry Clayton: Again, thanks for having us.

David Fair: This country was established through violence, and modern-day policing can be traced back to the slave patrol, as it was called. The earliest formal patrol was created in the Carolinas in the early seventeen hundreds and had a mission of using terror to establish and squash slave uprisings and returned runaway slaves to their owners. Excessive force to control and produce desired behavior was at the center of all of these patrols. I'll ask this question of each of you starting with you, Chief Cox. When you entered law enforcement, how familiar were you with the history of policing?

Michael Cox: Um, I wasn't very familiar. I know that, you know, I grew up in the inner city, in Boston, in Roxbury area, and we didn't have a lot of contact with police. It wasn't the kind of thing that, you know, family, you know, talked about or encouraged. It was just something we, you know, we were taught to stay away from. But the reality is I didn't know much about it until I got a little later on and I actually met a Black officer, supervisor sergeant, at the time, which actually started to give me a different impression of policing.

David Fair: And Sheriff Clayton, was it a part of your educational or historical knowledge before you decided to enter the force?

Jerry Clayton: No, not formal. I had a grandfather. I'm a child of the South, a grandfather who actually the first time he saw me in uniform, turned his back and we finally had a discussion and he told me about the history of police through his eyes and how they helped perpetuate the...he couldn't walk past darkness or he might not come home, and the police were part of that. So, that was my first introduction into, I would say, how some Black folks view policing through that lens.

David Fair: Once we got rid of the slave patrols through legal methods, it was about the 1868 era. That's when we saw the advent of Jim Crow because municipalities were leaning on police to exert excessive brutality on African-Americans who violated any Jim Crow law. Many of those laws, they actually remain in place until the late 1960s. Now you're both old enough to know people who were subjected to this nightmare. And, Sheriff Clayton, you just touched on your family and its response to your choice of careers. What was your personal or familiar experience with Jim Crow, and how did that inform how you chose to go about your life?

Jerry Clayton: Again, as a young kid, I know my parents were impacted by it. They told me where we could go, and, in certain ways, we traveled as we moved North and then traveled back in the summers in the South. But they never told me why. I didn't know why we had to avoid certain places. I didn't know why we didn't go into certain restaurants. I didn't know why if my dad would drive in past the police. There was a different kind of tension in the car. I didn't have any idea of that. And it wasn't taught in school. And, once again, as I said, when I got in the profession and I got the reaction from family and friends, especially older folks, then I started to realize, "Whoa. There's something going on here."

David Fair: Chief Cox, what was the desire to become a law enforcement officer? What drove you towards that avenue of professional life?

Michael Cox: Wow. So, you know, I actually just go back on what Sheriff Clayton was saying. He just took me back in the moment in time where, you know, my parents were born in the 1920s, and they came they moved from the south to the north to get away from that, the Jim Crow laws, and so their children could be educated. And, you know, when he was mentioning about not knowing why. They talked about, you know, moving from the south, but they didn't get into the why either. And so, not talking about policing, you just understood there were things that you just didn't do. You didn't cross lines. You didn't, you know, put yourself in the position where they can be called on you or against you in some way, shape, or form. And so, that's how I kind of grew up in it. I mean, he just took me back in the memory there, just by describing what he did. But the reality is I didn't know anything about police. And when I met the one Black, you know, sergeant at the time, as a young person who encouraged me to go into policing, who talked to me, who seemed very nice and caring. I mean, that was the first time that I had an interaction with an officer that was, you know, both good because I didn't really have any interaction with officers in general. And, you know, he, you know, he encouraged me. He kept saying this. I was like, "Hey, you know, I want to help people too." He was like, "You know, you're a good young man. You can you can do good. You know, this is a good profession." And, I started, you know, I started to think about that through the encouragement of what he provided me. And it wasn't something that, you know, at the time my, you know, my father died at that point, but that my mother encouraged me into it. She was just like, you know, "You sure you want to do that?"

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU as we are concluding our Black History Month conversations by talking policing with Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox and Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton. Chief Cox, it was back in 1995. You were actually the victim of excessive force by members of your own police department. You were an undercover officer in Boston at the time, and they apparently mistook you for a gang member. How has going through that incident inform the manner in which you choose to lead the Ann Arbor Police Department?

Michael Cox: That was a very impactful event in general. It's probably how I chose to, you know, if I was going to be in this profession, what I was going to do from that point on. And, you know, I dedicated myself to making sure that didn't happen, whether it was in that department and not being chased out of a place and a job that I know helped people of color and help people in general to, you know, where they are today. You know, I spent a lot of time and effort researching and, you know, trying to think about best practices that help the profession become a true profession so we can help people and overcome some of the past history of abuse and things that have happened. And since that moment, for the most part, I've dedicated myself, you know, to making sure that this change--positive change--in working with the good people that actually do this job right. And there's a whole bunch of them. And so, yeah, it was very impactful and a lot of ways and which you ended up leaving for me, coming here after retiring from Boston to actually, you know, take the helm of a police department and make sure we do everything possible, you know, at having the first opportunity at the lead of the organization to make changes, to make sure that we we change policing forever.

David Fair: Sheriff Clayton, you have a long career in law enforcement. Have you had experience with being subjected to bias or perhaps even violence in your career because of the color of his skin?

Jerry Clayton: And let's just talk about in my life. So, yeah, let's talk about it from that perspective. Well, yeah, I remember, you know, in high school in Detroit, going to an arcade and wanted to jump out crews from DPD jumped out on us on a Friday night and put us up against the wall. So, that was an experience. It was sort of an interesting experience because we were, I thought, really good kids, and I didn't understand why. But, you know, all of that shapes. But, listen. It is, you know, we talk about this from a policing perspective. What shapes my perspective is being Black in this country for 57 years and raising three sons that are African-American and having nephews and all of that. All that shapes. And, you know, I find it interesting that we get these type of questions, right? And this is a fair question. You know, do these experiences as being black shape your perspective and how you lead an organization? Well, let me ask one question back. Have you ever asked a white man that? And here's why I ask that. It's because that's the norm, right? So, where we are today is because of societal bias and societal culture. And anyone that thinks that police aren't representative of that is mistaken. So, when we talk about reform, we talk about all that. All this matters. We should be doing it. We should be changing our police culture. But we also have to change societal culture and the fact that we focus on, you know, what shaped your experience. I'll say this. There's a whole lot of white males and females, but predominantly white males that have led police agencies for three or four hundred years where their experiences have shaped policy and their experiences has shaped the profession. And that's what we're facing right now. So, folks like myself and Chief Cox, we are a small percentage in the larger architecture of policing. And what I find very interesting, and I will stop in a second, but I got to get this out. In this whole thing around reform since George Floyd and then after that, you've had people like Carmen Best and--I forget--Chief Hall in Dallas and other African-American leaders in this profession take the brunt of these issues around reform. Why? Because they've been pushing these progressive liberal spaces. It should be pushed everywhere. But in those conservative spaces, in those spaces that don't feel that pressure, those people continue to do where they've been doing policing. And it's folks like us that, remember, Black folks in this position have just started to get in these positions in the last 30 or 40 years. We weren't to architects of the structural racism in these agencies, but we're sitting at the table now trying to push back against 300 years of practices. But we're the ones, oftentimes, that get the brunt of it in these liberal spaces, where in these other spaces, they contain business as usual. And I see it and we see it every day as it manifests itself on video. So, when you ask about what my experience is, that experience it, it hasn't ended. And it continues to influence and frustrate me in this position.

David Fair: And you asked the question of me that I think I owe you a response to and is, "Have I ever asked that question of a white man?" And the answer is no. And I acknowledge that is a big part of the problem. We're talking policing as we conclude our Black History Month conversations on Washtenaw United. We've covered some American history on the subject and some of the personal experiences that have shaped the lives and careers of our guests, Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox and Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton. And where are we now and where will we go when it comes to local and American law enforcement? Well, that part of the conversation is coming up for you in part two later today. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

To listen to Part 2 of this conversation, click here.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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