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Local chiefs discuss what they’re doing amid nationwide calls for police reform

By: Mike Koury | C&G Newspapers | Published June 23, 2020


OAKLAND COUNTY — For the last month, the United States and other countries have seen protests for Black Lives Matter, George Floyd and anti-racism, and against racial injustice and police brutality.

In that time, local heads of police in the Woodward Talk’s coverage area have had time to take in what they’ve seen and heard at protests, both locally and nationwide, hear the changes being asked for and how they apply to their departments.

A common call from protesters has been to “defund the police,” which means diverting funds from police departments to community programs and resources. Ferndale Police Department Chief of Police Vincent Palazzolo saw this call firsthand during a protest June 6 in Ferndale. While he’s not 100% certain on what it involves, he understands people want police to have fewer responsibilities in responding to certain situations, such as with mental health calls. That’s something he’d much rather see as well, though he’s not sure how that would be paid for.

“The reality is there’s going to be crime and when you pick up the phone at two in the morning, you’re gonna expect that the Ferndale police are gonna show up in a very quick manner,” he said. “So I think defunding the police, I don’t think has really been defined. If you want to put an emphasis on other social services and homeless outreach and things like that, I’m all for it. We don’t have a whole lot of money to give up as it is, and the city as a whole doesn’t have a whole lot of money. There’s a ton of great ideas, but nobody seems to want to be paying for those ideas.”

Berkley Public Safety Department Director Matt Koehn also doesn’t see how “defunding the police” could fit in a small city like his.

“I can see how it applies to bigger cities,” he said. “Another thing I don’t think people understand is we’re public safety here in Berkley. So we’re police, fire and medical first responders. So we have to do it all. It’s not just police. I know the terminology ‘defund the police’ isn’t exactly what it is. I’m just not sure how it fits at this level.”

Aside from the calls to defund police, much attention has been paid to the use of force by police officers, such as the use of chokeholds, and holding officers accountable for their actions if they do something wrong and hurt citizens.

Though other agencies in other states might do it, Huntington Woods Public Safety Department Director Andrew Pazuchowski said it’s never been a policy to use chokeholds where he has worked.

“I’ve been doing this job for 35 years. I’ve never been trained in use of a chokehold,” he said. “I have no idea where that’s coming from. Maybe some other states do that. When we do control techniques to arrest somebody, physical control techniques, not once have I been trained to do something like that.”

Koehn said his department has tried to be as proactive as it can when it comes to updating its policies and procedures, noting much of what’s being suggested that police adopt are things they’ve already been doing. He said that training in de-escalation and implicit bias has been recently taught in Berkley.

“(Implicit bias) is something else we stress, that just because you see something one way doesn’t mean the other person does, and really have empathy and understand other people’s feelings,” he said. Koehn further stated that communication is a big part of avoiding trouble and the biggest factor in de-escalating conflict.

With use of force, Koehn said Berkley’s officers train with a MILO simulation program from Oak Park to help teach the level of force an officer should use on the job. MILO stands for “multiple interactive learning objectives.” But in a situation where an officer does something wrong, Koehn stated that the department has policies in place that directs officers to intervene and report what happened to supervisors.

“We’re trying to make things more explicit to make sure our people do the right thing,” he said.

Palazzolo cited Ferndale’s participation in 21st Century Policing as pushing his department’s policies in a better direction. He said they do independent audits of officers’ traffic stops, and have placed an emphasis on officers to intervene if they see a fellow officer doing something wrong.

“All of our policies are current. We’ve embraced those and I think we’re sitting in a way better place than most departments in the area,” he said. Palazzolo also said that any departments in the country that try to protect officers who use excessive force or hide wrongdoing comes down to what is tolerated and what is not tolerated by their chiefs of police.

Along with the city of Huntington Woods, Pazuchowski put out a statement condemning the actions of the four Minneapolis Police Department officers involved in Floyd’s death, and that their actions and inactions cast a stain on “all law enforcement professionals and the dedicated men and women who strive to protect and serve their communities with honor.”

“I want to reassure the community that we do not condone and will not tolerate this behavior in Huntington Woods. Our profession is based on the core values of honesty, character, professionalism, respect, and accountability,” he stated. “As a nationally accredited police agency through CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), I have worked hard to address concerns regarding police policies and practices ranging from Use of Force, Bias in Policing, and Police Accountability and Transparency. Moreover, I will continue to work to improve this department moving forward.”

Pazuchowski later noted to the Talk that his department has been through implicit bias and cultural awareness training, and that anything done by an officer has to be documented, especially when it comes to guns.

“Anytime (an officer’s) weapon’s pulled out, there’s a review of that,” he said. “There’s a review of every single thing these officers do. There’s a review of every ticket that’s written and who they’re written to. All of this has to be documented.”

Koehn feels Oakland County police departments have been doing a good job, though he knows it’s not like that all over the country. It’s why he stresses to his officers to treat everyone with respect, but he also wants the public to engage with the police as well.

“Our door’s always open,” he said. “The officers are always free to talk to people. We encourage them to get out of their cars. So I think that’s the first step. … I can’t stress enough, please come to our events (such as Coffee with a Cop). Talk to us. Get to know us. We’re out there and anytime we can, we try to talk to people, and I think that’s the first step.”

After Ferndale created its community engagement officer position, Palazzolo said his department has been embedded with the local groups such as the Ferndale Inclusion Network, Alliance for Police and Community Trust and LPAC to further build relationships. He also stressed the importance for police officers to make sure their interactions with the public are ones that are good for everyone.

“We stress to our officers on the road that every time you make a contact with somebody, that is an opportunity to build a relationship with that person, and if a person has a positive contact with somebody from their local police department, they’ll go out and they’ll tell some of their friends,” he said. “Conversely, if they have a bad contact with the Ferndale Police Department, they’re also gonna go out and tell all their friends.”

Pazuchowski said he understands the anger and that the members of his department “support the marches and support the cause.”

“This is something that needs to be done and should’ve been done a long time ago in regards to inclusion and equality and how people are treated,” he said. “Everybody’s on board with that, and it’s not just law enforcement. It’s the citizens themselves. … We all need to work on this together.”