Barry Township, Mich., asks state for protection — from its own police department

Residents of Barry Township, Mich. (population: 3,500), are growing concerned about their police department.

With fellow residents milling around the parking lot outside, unable to access an already at-capacity meeting room, over 100 people inside the Barry Township Board of Trustee’s meeting Tuesday held little back in voicing their discontent with police presence in their community.As the township’s regularly scheduled meeting began with agenda business as usual, the moment that everyone in attendance was waiting for arrived with the call by Supervisor Wesley Kahler for public comments. It quickly became apparent that the majority of attendees had reached their limit of patience with Police Chief Victor Pierce and his police ‘force.’Tony Liceago, a 43-year resident and Delton Kellogg graduate, approached the podium first to ask why the township had so many police officers in Delton. “I understand there are five full time police cars, two Humvees, or whatever those things are, and a SWAT team, here, began the evening’s first speaker, Tony Liceago, a 43-year community resident and Delton Kellogg graduate. “Why so many vehicles, why such a show of force for little old Delton? This has been a family community for my family for so long and now, all of a sudden, there’s a force here.

There are also allegations of abuse of force.

“Where is the line between protection and harassment?” Tobias asked. “When we have teens being handcuffed and guns pulled on them, but not arrested, this seems more like harassment than protection.”Voicing her discontentment regarding the officers’ treatment of persons during non-criminal situations, Tobias then turned her comments towards Pierce, who continued to sit motionless for the majority of the public comments time frame.Recent arrests in Delton, including that of local business owner and county planning commission member Jack Nadwornik, had prompted many of the guests to the night’s meeting to share their own stories of their brush with the ‘law.’ Several residents stepped up to voice their concerns, each one telling of family or neighbors who had been stopped by the Delton police and subjected to what many called unwarranted and unnecessary treatments, statements made by officers to incite civil unrest, and implications of excessive force, with many of the comments eliciting applause from the bulk of the members of the audience.

That meeting of the Barry Township Board of Trustees was so heated and attracted such a large crowd that officials called a follow-up meeting in which the board forwarded a request to the Michigan State Police, asking that agency to investigate the township’s own police force.

A recurring theme here at The Watch is the way police militarization — in many cases driven by federal policies such as the donation of surplus military equipment — can affect the mentality of individual police officers, and on how police agencies and officers view their relationship with the community. The Barry County Sheriff’s Office (which serves all of Barry County, population: 58,900) is already under federal investigation. In March, an FBI raid on the department had the ancillary effect of drawing attention to the gear that the department had obtained from the Pentagon, including a Humvee and at least two tracked armored personnel carriers.

Of course, you can’t say for certain that the accumulation of war gear is why Barry County police seem to have such a confrontational relationship with the county’s residents. But it isn’t particularly surprising that both would be occurring in the same place.

One other observation: Most of the coverage linked above is from the Hastings Banner, the small paper that serves Barry County. It’s a little unusual to see a small-town newspaper report so skeptically on local law enforcement. There are lots of reasons for this. Beat reporters can be reluctant to upset the public officials from whom they need cooperation to do their jobs. Community leaders in small towns tend to know one another and to look out from one another — and that can include leaders like police chiefs and newspaper publishers. Finally, in this case, the story itself is about specific allegations of threat and harassment from local cops. So kudos to the Banner, to its editors and to reporters Constance Cheeseman and Julie Makarewicz for staying on this story.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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