In it for the Money: Local Police Control

How we do it here in Ann Arbor

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Since the heyday of Occupy Wall Street we’ve seen a fair bit of bi-coastal police misconduct in heavy rotation on both the mainstream and people-powered news mills. As a result, folks like us – and by “us,” I’m specifically calling out folks like me [1] and, likely, you – are increasingly attacking the basic idea of policing as an institution.

Now, I’m sorta-kinda willing to let this slide with right-wing and Libertarian folk – who are already committed to dismembering public servants and grinding them up to sell as school lunch protein-patty filler [2] – but if you’re progressive, you’re at least nominally committed to the notion that, as communities, we’re best off when we combine our resources and chip in to safeguard the public good – with public safety (and public safety personnel) being an obvious component of this.

Anecdotes Versus Evidence

Even if we grant that every instance of reported police misconduct is a sure sign that a given law enforcement agency is rotten to the core, there are still roughly 14,614 law enforcement agencies in the US, employing 700,000 officers (and another 300,000 civilians). These aren’t soldiers of fortune air-dropped by some foreign power; that’s a million-ish of our friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens patrolling our neighborhoods [3].

Are some of those folks arrogant, vicious, or sociopathic bullies? Yup. Does the NYPD have ethical problems? Oh Hell Yeah they do. Do the Oakland Police have a history of brutality? Well documented. Is UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike a jerk? Quite likely.

But does that come anywhere close to characterizing one-million American workers? Even taking every single news story together, do we come anywhere near approaching a statistically meaningful sub-section of “the Police” in this country? [4]

No. Clearly, no. Just like the leather-elbowed professors quip, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “evidence.”

In fact, recent studies attempting to quantify systemic biases and abuses among police have often turned out to be fascinating failures. We are left with the distinct – and for some folks, bizarrely disquieting – possibility that there may not be anything inherently corrupt about the Police, or corrupting in ceding a slice of power and authority to sworn local law enforcement.

No Police Here

Second, and almost equally important, in America there are no capital-P “Police.” We don’t have some single monolithic Police force here. We have a dozen thousand individual local agencies. Not only are these not organized in a single top-down hierarchy, but there’s often very little coordination among agencies within a state or locale, let alone a larger region.

Sure, there’s been a lot of talk about coordination and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies (especially since 9/11), and there is some evidence of collaboration, even right here in southeastern Michigan – like CLEMIS, the Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System. That’s run by Oakland County’s IT department, and Ann Arbor is a participating member.

Let’s hope the information sharing by CLEMIS among participating agencies is better than the ability of CLEMIS to provide basic crime data in response to requests from journalists for that information. According to the folks at The Chronicle, it took CLEMIS four months to produce crime statistics for the Ann Arbor jurisdiction.

As a general indicator of the cat-herding nature of coordinating law enforcement agencies, the General Accounting Office reported in 2011 that over one-third of all federal law enforcement agents reported getting into inter-agency tug-o-wars during an investigation, and that these conflicts hampered the investigation 78% of the time – and that’s just four agencies (the ATF, the FBI, the DEA, and the U.S. Marshals) all organized under the same entity (the U.S. Dept. of Justice).

On the federal level? Forget about it.

Local cops across the country can’t even pull it together to collectively chip in on Washington lobbyists. NAPO, the National Association of Police Organizations, is the biggest law enforcement lobbying group, and only represents about a third of all officers, and even those only indirectly (NAPO serves police unions, and doesn’t seem really actively to connect individual officers).

The point: There is no more connection – in culture, in standard operating procedures, in training, or in hierarchy – between cops in NYC and Kansas City and Ann Arbor than there is among teachers or firefighters or sanitation workers in these same far-flung locales.

It is as irrational to let the comportment of a Kansas City officer inform your opinion of what you should expect from your local law enforcement as it is to permit your opinion of Woody Allen to allow you to conclude that Jewish men are generally short, funny and married to their semi-stepdaughters [5].

Our Monkey Minds

What’s tripping us up here is the collision of something that we, as a species, are great at (pattern matching) and something we’re terrible at (geographic differentiation of narratives).

Our clever monkey brains’ love of finding and grouping patterns is well established – just ask any game designer or marketing brander. If you haven’t the foggiest what I’m talking about, this is a tidy little intro, and this is a fantastically persuasive six-minute video on the issue with Simon Singh.

The shortest possible version: Our chattering, clever little brains are the most recent release of a 4.4-million-year hardware/software development project optimized for finding patterns, sorting these patterns, then grouping them within a fascinatingly variable set of schemata. These days we dedicate the bulk of our processing power to cataloguing stories.

We’ve been working the patterns game for 4.4 million years, but the stories game is really new. We’ve only had spoken language (and thus the capacity to share stories) for about 100,000 years – an evolutionary blink; if all of hominid history was crammed into one year, then we would have just figured out how to talk, and started to work toward sharing anecdotes, around brunch time on December 31.

Even if we just dial our focus down to true homo sapiens like us – who arose 200,000 years ago – then we’ve had roughly as much time on this earth pre-language as we’ve had since. And we’ve only been dealing with a “global” notion of news (the idea that there is a Here and there are Somewhere Elses, and that stuff happens in all of them simultaneously, regardless of whether we’re there to give a crap or not) is probably just a few thousand years old. [6]

So, of our “homo sapiens” time, half of that was spent building Models of Our Immediate Locale based on what we directly observed. In the next half, we started to develop Models of Our Immediate Locale based on what our friends and neighbors saw and described. In other words, it’s only in the last 2% or so of our time as homo sapiens that we’ve been getting Reports from Places We’ll Never Visit – and that entire homo sapiens period is less than a day of our full year as the most notable monkeys on this marble.

The result: We are the animals that are really great at taking stories and using them to form Models of Our Worlds, and really bad at differentiating between Foreign Concerns and Local Concerns.

Officer Friendly

Just as a quick mental exercise, take a moment to frame out what “police” means in your head, and then ask yourself: How much of that is based on actual interactions with or trustworthy reports of actual officers in my actual community?

Say “police” to me, and what immediately pops into my head aren’t our shorts-clad bicyclists in blue – which are certainly the cops I’ve most often seen in person in Ann Arbor – but the helmeted and shield-baring riot cops I see in footage of the OWS police riots. I’ve personally had plenty of crummy interactions with plenty of law officers all over this great land. Asked for my snap judgement, I’m as sour on the police as any other scraggly beardo (scroll up to my headshot; this is not the face of a man who gets through airport security hitchlessly).

But, when I actually force a recollection of my actual interactions with actual Ann Arbor police, they’ve mostly been pleasant, or at least respectful. I can think of two occasions that were solid wins (in that I called the police and they then arrived and were helpful) [7], and one that wasn’t great, but was at least reasonable: While a student at the University of Michigan I was briefly detained and questioned by AAPD officers one evening for walking down the street. Evidently, they suspected that I’d been involved in a home invasion and had stolen a stereo – which was sort of reasonable, as they were responding to a report of a suspected burglar described as a white male approximately 6-feet tall, and I was carrying a stereo.

Of course, your experience with our local police may vary. Another Ann Arborite, Blair Shelton, described his experiences during the public commentary portion of last Monday night’s city council meeting; these interactions with AAPD were not as cordial as mine, plausibly owing to the fact that while we are both men around six feet tall, we are also men of decidedly different complexions – but more of Shelton’s perspective in a minute.

If you’re inclined to think that I’m totally full of shit, or that Blair Shelton is full of shit, or that both of us are full of shit – well, I applaud your healthy distrust. That’s a good defense, and a relative new skill for humans. Pat yourself on the back. Fortunately, this topic is treated at length by better folks than me. I strongly suggest you could start with Daniel Gardner’s excellent and lucid “The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain,” or any of the more recent work by Bruce Schneier.

Ceding Control

So what? So what if we treat 14,000 different little law enforcement tribes as if they are one monolithic, armed nation? So what if we use the behavior of the most nefarious boys in blue to frame our idea of what the other 700,000 cops enjoy? There are still plenty of cops out there doing bad things, and isn’t it our job as citizens to stay informed about that? Isn’t it wise to keep that all in mind when Officer Friendly stops you on the street with a few “innocent” questions?

No, it isn’t wise, and our job as citizens – as humans – isn’t to be informed, it’s to fix broken things (which is a few steps down the road from just staying informed). In short, the quickest way to ensure that the other 14,000-ish police agencies become as bad as NYPD is to let ourselves think of the American Police as a single, unified body that is even remotely as bad as its worst actors. Unfortunately, barring active mental effort on our part, the default setting for human beings is to do just that.

The vital fact that’s lost on the monkey mind is that the police are a local unit of government. They aren’t a vast army of NYPD-style blue shirts and white shirts acting under shadowy foreign directives; Ann Arbor only has somewhere around 120 sworn officers (of whom around 60 cops are the “patrol officers” one generally pictures when someone says “police” – and that number has been shrinking).

You could buy enough donuts to give every sworn AAPD officer a coffee break for less than the cost of a Friday night out downtown [8]. And they aren’t ruled by some far-off conspiracy directing a nationally coordinated militarized force. They’re under the command of (SPOILER ALERT!!!) the chief of police, who takes direction from city administrator Steve Powers, who is the administrative hand of the city council, who can be super responsive to your grousing.

By way of a quick example [9], following the passage of the PATRIOT Act – and subsequent public outcry – the Ann Arbor city council told our local police to refrain from taking advantage of the new powers permitted under that act. AAPD was directed to: (1) stay away from superfluous immigration enforcement; (2) refrain from covert surveillance and property searches; (3) decline to participate in FBI interviews outside of the realm of actual criminal investigation (unless the suspect requested AAPD be present); and (4) report to the city council any invitations that any federal agency might extend to AAPD.

And this is far from an exceptional case. The city council – our city council – will tweak the enforcement priorities of our local law enforcement based on our complaints.

Which brings us back to Blair Shelton, who addressed the Ann Arbor city council on Monday night (video here; skip ahead to the 23-minute mark). Owing to both his personal experience and experiences shared with him by others, Mr. Shelton has grave concerns about the judgement shown by many AAPD officers – including deputy chief John Seto, who will serve as interim chief of police when police chief Barnett Jones retires at the end of this month.

Shelton’s opinion of deputy chief Seto isn’t based on far-off tales of what happens in Oakland or NYC; it’s based on his first-hand experience. And, more importantly, he hasn’t let the deeply disturbing corruption in those far-off operations taint his notion about how local government should function – and does function, provided we show up to turn the cranks and nudge the occasionally recalcitrant wheels back into forward progress.

Shelton is concerned about the local police, so he raises those concerns with the local city council. He is working to make our community work right. He’s being a good neighbor.

The Grousing Ratio

Our cops aren’t skull-knocking stormtroopers; they’re us. If we don’t like how they operate, we can complain to our city council reps, and things can change.

NYC has an army of 36,000 sworn officers – which sounds downright threatening. But in a city of 8,175,133 souls, that means their citizens-to-officer ratio is about 2,200:1 – or half what we have in Ann Arbor. But our cops don’t feel like an occupying army, likely owing to key differences in municipal government: In NYC the police answer to a commissioner who is appointed by the mayor; if you need to kvetch about impropriety, then you are a single voice lost in the hail of 8 million mouths grousing at one mayor. That’s a grousing ratio of 8 million-to-one; long odds of being heard, let alone actually listened to.

Here in Ann Arbor we’ve got 11 council members, for a grousing ratio of a tidy 10,000:1. And, frankly, just the raw numbers are meaningful: While I have trouble imagining many citizen organizations in NYC that top 36,000 members, I know that Ann Arbor is chock full of citizen groups that outnumber our police force.

Agitate here and things can change. Let your monkey mind do what it does naturally, and you’ll slip into chunking the AAPD into that mythical, shadow-shrouded, heartless gargantua with mirrored eyes, pepper-spray breath, and a million-and-a-half baton-wielding arms.

No sane citizen would ever think to grouse to anyone about a terrible thing like that.


[1] Left-leaning, socially liberal, educated to over-educated folk living in Ann Arbor – like I imagine the bulk of The Chronicle’s readership to be.

[2] Or something like that; I’m 90% sure a pro-Gingrich SuperPAC radio advertisement suggested that Romney attributed almost this exact plan to Ron Paul’s sister during an unaired portion of one of the recent debates. More or less.

[3] The most readable aggregated numbers I could find on local law enforcement were from 2009, which is why I’m being mealymouthed here. In light of the continuing weak economy, and the soft real estate market, I expect that revenue for local government continued to slide from 2009 through 2011. Thus, I suspect these 2009 numbers are a bit higher than what we have on the street today, in 2012.

[4] There actually is a solid effort to aggregate every such news story; it’s called the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. For 2010, it found that just under 1% of all U.S. law officers were involved in any sort of misconduct – and the worst offenders aren’t who you think they are.

[5] Or, to wax Lincolnite on it: “To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” In this case Lincoln was talking about the collective punishment of Jews, who were accused of general collusion in smuggling and commodities speculation during the Civil War, and were thus ejected wholesale from U.S. Grant’s jurisdiction (which constituted the most developed and habitable wedge of the Confederacy). As luck would have it, Slate has recently done a nifty little write-up on Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11, saving me a lengthy tangent here. Check it out!

[6] If you peg such a notion to written language and extensive trade networks – and there are valid reasons to do so – then you’re talking about 5,000 years, with Egyptians being among the first to get hep to the size of the world.

[7] One example of a win: One evening this past August some nefarious teens were breaking into cars on my block and fronting hubristic in overly clear voices. My wife called the cops while I screamed at them to get the fuck away from my fucking imported economy-car. When the police arrived – true to Ann Arbor’s stereotypical bucking of stereotypes, the cruiser carried a young woman and an African-American man I likely could have jumped over, given a running start – I was treated with the respect due to a law-abiding citizen like myself, despite the fact that I presented as a wild-haired madman clad only in a pair of pajama pants and wielding an iron fireplace poker.

[8] Consider: 

  • Jewish Community Center Kid’s Night Out childcare for my five-year-old: $20
  • Dinner for two at Blue Tractor: $40 (includes two entrees, two beers, tax, and 18% gratuity, because my wife and I both have food service on our resumes)
  • Movie at the Michigan: $15 (we’re members!)

TOTAL: $75

Holy crap! That’s a lot more than I thought – and we just added a new baby to the mix. Toss in paying for a sitter for her, and we can buy Munchkins and joe for every cop in Ann Arbor for less than the cost of one Friday night respite (based on numbers from the Dunkin’ Donuts at 608 S. Hewitt in Ypsilanti).

[9] Basically handed to me on a platter by this paper’s editor, Dave Askins, who serves up salient city council lore on short order. Askins also saved me from dropping several megaton-size homers in this column, for which I am deeply indebted to him – although not so indebted as to eliminate the money he owes me for writing this column. I am, after all, in it for the money, kids.

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. By bonnie
    March 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm | permalink

    Perhaps one of the easiest and best ways- that I know of- is to get to know your local police better (or to help the police better know you). Around these here parts, policing agencies offer Citizen’s Academies.

    Washtenaw County Sheriff: [link]

    City of Ypsilanti: [link]

    City of Ann Arbor: [link]

    Pittsfield Township: [link]

  2. By bonnie
    March 21, 2012 at 2:15 pm | permalink

    That should read- “one of the easiest and best ways that I know of *to remove fear of police*”. Whoops.

  3. March 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm | permalink

    Your argument that police brutality is the result of a few bad apples rather than systemic corruption would hold a lot more water if bad cops ever suffered consequences for, say, breaking down the wrong doors during a drug raid, or shooting unarmed people in the back, or beating a mentally handicapped homeless man into a coma.

  4. March 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm | permalink

    No food service on my resume but I always tip 20%. I thought I heard that was the minimum for good service. (Besides, the math is easier.) And, no, we don’t go to expensive restaurants very often.

  5. By Bob Jones
    March 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm | permalink

    We live in a time where local police and goverment officials, can decide the faith of a person or organazation with out due process. Ann Arbor needs to get their minds out of the “Good old boys” control of the city. It makes me laugh I attended the city council meeting on March 19th, city council raised there concerns about the tornado wich tore apart Dexter and also told the other council members that Dexter Pickney road would be open soon….some council members were concered about not being able to reach their favorite watering hole Nights. What im trying to say is, we have a great city with many amazing cultures that live in harmony with each other, the fear tatics used by our police department and City Attorneys office should be looked at. We are planning a rally for the April 2 city council meeting its being labeld the “Movement “we expect a couple hundred people to show their supplort and their will be many speakers….
    Please attend we want this meeting to be remembered
    Thank u

  6. March 21, 2012 at 3:23 pm | permalink

    Re (3), I think you make the writer’s point rather well. Those things didn’t happen here. (The pepper spray incident wasn’t on the UM campus, either.)

  7. By Rod Johnson
    March 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm | permalink

    re 5: Ann Arbor council members were concerned about getting from council (in Ann Arbor) to Knights (in Ann Arbor) via Dexter-Pinckney Road (not nearly in Ann Arbor)?

  8. By Joe Dohm
    March 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the great article, and all of your articles, Erik.

    I appreciate that law enforcement is not a monolithic institution, but most departments are influenced by factors that are largely the same across the country. While bad behavior in NYC is not evidence of problems in AA, it should make us take a second look at our department. On a more basic level, misconduct can create a culture of fear that spreads across the entire country. I want to feel safe with law enforcement wherever I go, not just at home.

    Personally, I am cautious around all law enforcement because officers have so much power. Statistically Ann Arbor police may be great, but I don’t know if the officer I am dealing with is sleep deprived or was just hired and successfully hid the fact that he is actually a real jerk. I’m not sure, but I probably break the law on a pretty regular basis. Ignorance is no excuse, but knowing all of the laws that apply to me is an impossibility.

  9. March 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm | permalink

    Re: [5] and subsequent request for clarification about traveling to Knight’s.

    The comment at the council table about Knight’s related to access during the Dexter Avenue improvements (the road where Knight’s is located). It was clarified that the restaurant would remain accessible to patrons during the construction project.

  10. By Rod Johnson
    March 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm | permalink

    Ah, it was the Dexter-Pinckney reference that threw me.

  11. By Steven Conn
    March 21, 2012 at 6:19 pm | permalink

    Thank you, David, for the thoughtful column. I spent ten years in Ann Arbor in the 70s and 80s and from my few engagements with the city police, I find myself in agreement with you. However, 20 years in Our Nation’s Capital has left me less favorably inclined toward law enforcement. But as you say WRT NYC, urban policing is a very different animal, even more so when intensified by anti-terrorism.
    BTW, I just bought your novella and downloaded it to my Kindle. The title alone was worth the purchase price!

  12. March 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm | permalink

    Funny that, minutes before this column was published, The Ann Arbor Chronicle ran a “Stopped. Watched.”, also by Mr. Nelson, observing that “AnnArbor’s got a DAMN RIOT TANK!!!” and a commentor there noted “That’s a battering ram on the front. Apparently a few years ago a bunch of southeast Michigan counties got Homeland Security money to buy three of them. One’s in Warren, one’s in Southfield, and this one run by the Washtenaw County Sheriff. They are shared among the city of Detroit and SE michigan counties as part of the “Southeast Michigan Urban Area Security Initiative””.

    So. A riot tank (with a battering ram), purchased with federal money, and shared by regional “law enforcement” agencies. Seems to me that contradicts a bunch of the arguments made in this column.

  13. By Mark Koroi
    March 21, 2012 at 10:44 pm | permalink

    I saw Blair Shelton’s public commentary in which he relates the demeaning and sarcastic comments he claims Officer (now interim police chief) John Seto imparted to him many years ago during a police-citizen interaction.

    Anybody who has not downloaded that commentary, please do so.

    If anyone does not know Mr. Shelton’s history, he was the Plaintiff in the suit filed by the National Lawyers Guild challenging racial profiling and DNA testing of local black men during the serial rapist attacks in A2 during the 1990s.

  14. By Leah Gunn
    March 22, 2012 at 7:04 am | permalink

    That “tank” that was purchased with federal funds was bought by Sheriff Dan Minzey – yet another reason I am glad we got rid of him!

  15. March 22, 2012 at 7:44 am | permalink

    Local police are essential to a free society. The scary stuff is mostly done by the Feds. FBI planting GPS trackers on cars, NSA illegal wiretaps, and TSA illegal searches at the airports.

  16. By Bob Elton
    March 22, 2012 at 8:27 am | permalink

    Actually the most egregious abuse of police and city, and statre, power is the aggressive prosecution of traffic and parking offenses.

    Egregious because it’s so widespread.

    And even worse, parking and traffic offenders are almost never given the most basic American legal right of presumed innocence.

    I could write a book on this, but I settle for talking about it on my radio show ocasionally.

    Bob Elton

  17. March 22, 2012 at 9:47 am | permalink

    Re: lawsuit filed challenging DNA testing as part of serial rapist investigation. The complaint filed by Shelton is included under one of the links above, which I’ve also included here: [link]

  18. By Matt Demmon
    March 22, 2012 at 11:09 am | permalink

    I sure am happy when my home gets broken into, and the police are there shortly to investigate. I’m even more happy with the police when my best friend gets into an accident, and the police arrive on the scene within 3 minutes, well before the paramedics or the firefighters.

    I’m not so happy when someone is tailgating me on the freeway for 5 minutes with their brights on, and won’t pass no matter how much I slow down, so I speed up to get away from them, and it turns out to be a cop who writes me a speeding ticket.

    Maybe life just isn’t fair and you have to take the good with the bad!

  19. By John Floyd
    March 24, 2012 at 7:19 pm | permalink

    I’m confused about which city council is referenced in this article. It can’t be Ann Arbor’s, because it refers to a “…city council, who can be super responsive to your grousing.” Maybe this was a reference to Dexter’s city council. It might explain the reference to Dexter-Pinkney Road.

  20. By Alan Goldsmith
    March 25, 2012 at 7:11 am | permalink

    “That “tank” that was purchased with federal funds was bought by Sheriff Dan Minzey – yet another reason I am glad we got rid of him!”

    Leah, you are right about THIS issue. Now can you do anything about the Minzey face stickers still littering gasoline pumps across the County? Lol.

  21. April 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm | permalink

    My only “dealing” with Ann Arbor Police came from when my wife was rear-ended in a city parking garage downtown. The woman who read-ended her refused to give her any information (name, etc) and tried to leave. The police wouldn’t come stating that they only respond to crashes on public property. They informed us that my 5’0 less than 100lbs wife should advise the driver who was trying to leave to go to the police station.

    I had to get very strong and go all the way up to the “watch commander” to get an officer there. When they responded, they were more concerned with why they needed to respond. Long story short, with the police report completed on scene, we didn’t have to pay the deductible for the vehicle repair. You shouldn’t have to fight to get a police officer to help you with an uncooperative person.

  22. By Rod Johnson
    April 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm | permalink

    I had a similar experience. I was rear-ended in a surface lot. The driver then got out of her car and went *shopping*. I called the police, who took 15 minutes to drive over from a station that was 100 yards away (those happy community policing days), and was told nothing could be done, though both cars, and then the driver herself, who finished her shopping while we were talking, were right there. I demanded at least a police report, and it turned out the driver didn’t have a license…and still nothing could be done because we were on private property. My only recourse was to contact the owner of the Plymouth Road Mall and… have something happen, exactly what was unclear. A frustrating experience.