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Washtenaw United: A different approach to policing and public safety in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County

Lisa Jackson
Dr. Lisa Jackson

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.'


Dr. Jackson is associate professor and department chair in the Psychology Department at Schoolcraft College. She earned her doctoral degree from the University of Michigan specializing in behavioral neuroscience.

She is currently the Chair of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission in Ann Arbor, MI. She focuses on fostering a transparent, accountable and mutually beneficial relationship between the AAPD and the community. That includes making practices more transparent, setting up systems of accountability, reviewing complaints against police, policies such as the use of force and making recommendations re: training and community interactions.

She was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) where she examines issues of training, selection, employment, and licensing of police officers across the state of Michigan. She has a specific interest in the mental health of law enforcement officers and training of officers with regard to mental health issues in the community.

She is a founding member of the grassroots group the Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety which was formed to ensure that Ann Arbor, and ultimately, Washtenaw County, have public safety that is grounded in providing care, is community led, evidence-based and progressive.

She was the president and on the Board of Directors of Ozone House in Ann Arbor, a youth and family services agency that serves homeless and at-risk youth and young adults.

At the Project for Research on Black Americans, in the Institute for Social Research, she investigated how affects the mental health of African American women. Through the University of Michigan Medical School’s Office of Health Equity and Inclusion, she looked at health disparities including social determinants of health and disparities in access to and delivery of health care. She is interested in other health issues in young people including reproductive health, mental health and substance abuse.

Her research focused on how sex differences in neural function affect behavior, including how ovarian hormones affect depression and cocaine addiction in women. Her research included an animal model of cocaine addiction and human brain imaging research.

Dr. Jackson is a Ford Foundation Fellow, a Society for Neuroscience Fellow, a Harry S. Truman Scholar and a recipient of an American Psychological Association Fellowship in Neuroscience.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and on this week's edition of Washtenaw United, we're going to look at efforts underway to create greater relationships and trust between police and the communities they are paid to serve and protect. We're talking about accountability. I'm David Fair, and I don't need to tell you it's not an easy process, nor are there simple solutions. Our guest today is an activist pushing forward to help overcome the obstacles to a number of avenues. Dr. Lisa Jackson is founding member of the grassroots group Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety. It was formed to ensure public safety in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County is community-led, evidence-based, and progressive in providing care. She currently serves as chair of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission in Ann Arbor and is also an appointed member to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Dr. Jackson, thank you so much for the time today.

Lisa Jackson: Thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: Was there a defining moment that led to your decision to become an activist in this arena?

Lisa Jackson: You know, I don't think there was one single defining moment. I think there were many, many moments, as many of us who have experienced that kind of led to this point--you know, interactions that I've had with law enforcement, others that I've known watching my dad, who was a mental health worker. I think all of those things kind of, over time, just made it clear that, you know, you can't complain if you're not doing something. And so, to jump into the arena did not seem like an option any more. It seemed, you know, imperative to get busy and start thinking about how to change the system for folks.

David Fair: To turn an eye specifically on Ann Arbor for a moment, it was 2014 when there was a huge public outcry for more community oversight of police. It was November of that year, police were called to an apartment complex on a domestic disturbance call. There, they found a 40 year-old woman named Ora Rosser. She was holding a knife, and in the end, an officer shot her to death. No charges were ever filed in that case. And beyond the incident itself, it did create a call for unarmed mental health experts to accompany police in cases where mental health may be front and center. Some of that has happened in Washtenaw County. Is unarmed response a part of what you're advocating?

Lisa Jackson: Absolutely. And while we think that mental health workers, behavioral specialists accompanying police can be very useful, what we know for sure is that there are many people who will not use 911, for example, or interact with law enforcement because they're worried about a) the escalation that can happen with law enforcement or they've had previously bad experiences with law enforcement, etc.. And so, we know that if we can obtain a separate number that people can call in an emergency, if they're having an issue, and they call it, they know that law enforcement will not be responding, then we know there are people who are currently paying taxes but not utilizing the system who can get care as well. And we expect that. You know, what's fair and reasonable is that everybody in our community have access to public safety so that they can feel safe.

David Fair: Since the Rosser incident, there have been a horrifying number of incidents in which people of color, particularly Black men, have been killed by police. And that goes to the matter of trust you've been speaking of. For those interested, you can find that long list simply by searching, "Say Their Names." George Floyd is the name that launched a "defund the police" sentiment in portions of communities across the country. We hear some of that here in Washtenaw County. What's your take on that position?

Lisa Jackson: You know, I think it's complicated. And I think maybe the take-home point should be that it would be tough to, you know, completely just on a dime, stop and get rid of all law enforcement as we know it without having something else in place to replace that. And so, I think an unarmed response is part of that process. And one of the things we hear in opposition to defund the police is, "Oh, my gosh! Communities with high crime are those who really don't want to defund the police." And I would push back on that to say that many communities that are underfunded and under-resourced use the police and use 911 for many different kinds of things. And so, what we need is not more police and more policing. What we need are more social services for people to get their needs met.

David Fair: This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking policing and community relations with Dr. Lisa Jackson, who, among other things, is a founding member of Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety. Now, since you've begun your work on these various organizations and commission, what are the primary issues you've identified that demand both immediate and long-term reform?

Lisa Jackson: Gosh, that's a long list. But I think one of the things that we think about is the way that mental health calls are served. We know that there are people who could use experts but feel intimidated by having a law enforcement respond. We've had direct contact with people who talk about the fact that they or their friends will not call for help because they don't want a police officer, and there needs to be an alternative to that. We think about young people who may be engaged in alcohol use or drug use, and maybe there's an overdose where they absolutely need help but don't want to call police because they know that they're going to get in trouble for, you know, using etc. or they're a minor in possession. And so, we know that there are people in situations where an unarmed response would be better, and we know that that could be part of a larger public safety response. And I think when we think about it, we don't just think about things to which police respond, we think about other kinds of things to which no one responds. We've heard from people who are having problems, say, for example, a child on the autism spectrum who's larger than the parent. And the parent is having trouble, you know, with the child physically and can't get them into a car for a doctor's appointment and would hesitate to call the police because they don't want that to go out of control. There are parents who have kids on the autism spectrum who are driving, who are terrified that, you know, their child is going to get pulled over and maybe misunderstood by police. So, I think within the systems that currently exist, there's lots of room for improvement. But I also think that there are ways in which we're not currently thinking about public safety, that we need to start thinking about public safety. It is allowing us to start thinking about systemic change and how we can transform systems that facilitate in some ways racism and trauma and how we can expand what we see. So, we don't want to just sort of fix what's already there. We actually want to think about providing services in ways that aren't currently available to people. And the key to doing that is to get out and engage with folks and ask them what they want, to ask people what they need, and develop a program that will be led by the people that it serves.

David Fair: That also needs to be a two-way street to some degree. I think all of us, in one degree or another carry implicit bias. Whether we learned it through those systemic policies and practices you referred to, or through socialization, it does exist in law enforcement and in the community. I think we as a community have a responsibility to also recognize and deal with our own implicit bias. If only police work toward that end, there's still going to be a chasm. So, how do you propose to deal with that in our homes, in our neighborhoods, so that we have that dialog that is on the same footing?

Lisa Jackson: I think if we could offer implicit bias training to every single person in the United States, that would be fantastic, but not very realistic. Being aware of one's implicit biases is important, but I really like to think about--especially when we think about law enforcement--what's most important is focusing on things that we can see and count in measure, such as behavior. And so, it is possible to behave respectfully of people who are in crisis, behave respectfully with people who are different from you, even if you have implicit biases against them. And so, behaving in an appropriate way across the board for everyone without exception is what's most important.

David Fair: Have you found, as you have gone through this process and started the conversations, that area law enforcement leaders are receptive to more dialog and adding more diverse voices in decision-making about police policy and community interaction?

Lisa Jackson: I think it's tough. It's been a mixed bag. I have, of course, worked with the Ann Arbor Police Department, and I found that there has been some reluctance to become more transparent. I think some of that is normal and to be expected. And so, one of the things we hear often is, "Hey, you're not police. You don't know what we do. You don't know how we do it. And so, you can't comment on what we do." I think, actually, citizens who are not police should have a very loud voice and thinking about how they want to be policed. And in the case of the Police Oversight Commission, we certainly have gotten training. We spend lots of time with police learning about what they do in formal ways and also in informal ways. Over time, we have been able to prevail in some ways, in terms of transparency, I think accountability is a much tougher struggle. So, when I am reviewing cases with police leadership and I'm looking at complaints that people have lodged, there are times that I'm saying, "Hey, how come that officer was not disciplined for that? It's a clear breach of policy!" And the police have on some occasions not been able to explain why that person was not disciplined.

David Fair: As we have found out, Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox will be leaving the city to head up the Boston Police Department. Will your group be seeking a voice in influencing City Council on whom to hire next?

Lisa Jackson: Our commission was involved in the hiring of Chief Cox. In fact, his hiring was delayed--or the hiring of anyone was delayed--until the commission was well-established. We expect to participate in the process of hiring a new chief. We hope to participate more substantively than we did in the past, where we were sort of brought in at the end. And so, we certainly expect to participate, and we are hoping and certainly lobbying to do so in a more substantive way than we did with Chief Cox.

David Fair: Based on your experience to this point, are you optimistic about the current trajectory of change?

Lisa Jackson: I'm optimistic about change. I'm not sure if I'm optimistic about the trajectory. I'd like it to be a lot more steep than it is. But I am a realist. And I think that adding an unarmed response program will actually shift the slope of that trajectory quite a bit. And I think it is something that we have seen through the data in the City of Ann Arbor. That is something that many, many people are interested in, and we are optimistic about that.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for your time and your perspective today. I appreciate it.

Lisa Jackson: Thank you so much for talking to us.

David Fair: That is Dr. Lisa Jackson, founding member of the grassroots group Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety. It was formed to ensure public safety in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. It is community-led, evidence-based, and progressive in providing care. She's currently serving as chair of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission in Ann Arbor and was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. Today, she was our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on Dr. Jackson and the work being done, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Ann Arbor Independent Community Police Oversight Commission

Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES)

Coalition for Re-Envisioning Our Safety (CROS)

CROS Endorsements


United Way of Washtenaw County most recently invested in the work of CROS through a $50,000 Justice Fund Grant in June 2022 to support their ability to:

  • Advocate for an unarmed public safety program to respond to behavioral health crises, people struggling with homelessness and other crises that people may face such as evictions.
  • Working within all of our communities to advocate for a system that serves them because we are all interconnected and everyone in our community needs to be treated with care, dignity and respect.
  • To transform our community towards collective wellness and healing.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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