Grosse Pointe Park to explore stronger ethnic intimidation law

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 11, 2021

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GROSSE POINTE PARK — Grosse Pointe Park officials could be breaking new ground in Michigan.

In response to one resident’s decision in February to display a Ku Klux Klan flag in a side window of his home, where it directly faced the home of a Black neighbor, Grosse Pointe Park City Councilwoman Darci McConnell asked if the city could look into possibly enacting a new ethnic intimidation ordinance to address actions like this in the future. During a May 10 Park City Council meeting by Zoom, McConnell asked if the matter could be referred to the city’s Ordinance Review Committee and City Attorney Thomas “Jake” Howlett for further study.

“I support exploring this issue,” City Councilwoman Aimee Rogers Fluitt said. “It’s an important issue. Our county prosecutor herself said perhaps the law needs to be changed.”

Earlier this year, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office was unable to pursue charges against the Park resident who posted the KKK flag because “unfortunately (the act) … was not a crime … under current Michigan law.”

Although Michigan does have an ethnic intimidation law on the books, to be charged with violating it, a person must have physical contact with someone else, must damage or destroy property belonging to another person, or must threaten to harm someone or damage someone’s personal property. Worthy said the KKK flag display “was despicable, traumatizing and completely unacceptable,” but didn’t rise to the level of a criminal charge under the state’s law. The resident who hung up the flag did so in his own home and removed the flag when police were called to his home and asked him to take it down.

Mayor Robert Denner said that while he did “support the objective,” he was a bit apprehensive about the Park being the one to forge a new law in Michigan because any law they might enact would likely face legal challenges and expend resources the small city doesn’t have.

“I’m concerned that this will create a drain on our city resources … because new areas of law tend to get challenged in court,” said Denner, noting that no other cities in Michigan have an ethnic intimidation statute that would target acts like the KKK flag display. “A city like ours is not well positioned to be the first one in.”

Denner said it might be preferable for a larger Michigan community to enact a law like this first and battle those legal challenges, so that the Park would then have “a model to follow” that could withstand a lawsuit.

City Councilwoman Lauri Read, who chairs the Ordinance Review Committee, said she would be willing to undertake study on this issue to see “what we can do.”

“We do not want to pass an ordinance that will not withstand court scrutiny,” said Read, an attorney by profession.

Read said this would just be for the committee and Howlett to review and bring back their findings to the council.

Howlett said he had “done some preliminary looking” at an enhanced ethnic intimidation law.

“It’s a difficult situation, from a legal standpoint,” Howlett acknowledged, given constraints by the court and the Constitution.

However, Howlett said he could continue to study the question and offer an update at the next Ordinance Review Committee meeting.

City Councilman James Robson said that, as an Ordinance Review Committee member, “I’m in favor of it being studied by that committee.”

Denner said he was comfortable with having the committee study this, saying he knew they would “make an informed decision for us.”

City Councilman Vikas Relan said he was also in favor of having the committee undertake this study.

“This is a very important step,” Relan said. “I think it’s a valid journey that we can take.”

Cynthia Douglas, of Grosse Pointe Woods, president of the Grosse Pointes & Harper Woods NAACP, said her organization was working with legislators on a new statewide ethnic intimidation law that could withstand legal challenges. She praised McConnell for introducing the ordinance in the Park.

“Thank you to Councilwoman McConnell for bringing forth this ordinance,” Douglas said.

Denner also thanked McConnell for raising this issue with the council and for the Ordinance Review Committee for being willing to delve deeper into it.

“I look forward to hearing a report back from the Ordinance Review Committee,” Denner said.

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