How a Liberal Michigan Town Is Putting Mental Illness at the Center of Police Reform

In mid-April, Cynthia was among a small number of community members invited by Clayton to join one of the Managing Mental Health Crisis training sessions for law enforcement officers offered through the sheriff’s office. There were 31 registered participants representing 20 Michigan communities. She wanted to hear what misperceptions officers held about mental illness, and more importantly, how those misperceptions were being addressed and corrected.

As the training played on her laptop on one side of the desk in her home office, she was anxiously watching her iPad on the other side of the desk. On that screen, Anthony sat shifting uneasily in a Zoom square, appearing for a virtual bond hearing related to his current drug charges.

Anthony’s lawyer was arguing for what he called a “humanistic” approach, focused on in-patient mental health care rather than jail. The lawyer had letters from a substance use and mental health treatment center in the area that had worked with Anthony before and that had found a facility with a bed for him.

Judge Archie C. Brown, was having none of it.

“Mr. Hamilton has been in front of me for the last 11 years for numerous issues, as well. So let’s not forget that,” said Brown, who was appointed to the 22nd Circuit Court by Republican Gov. John Engler in 1999, during the tough-on-crime Bill Clinton years, and who has been elected four times since then. “Frankly, what I see from Mr. Hamilton is somebody who’s going to do what he damn well pleases. To hell with what the court is going to do.”

The judge denied bond.

“I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘How can this judge work for the same county as these people talking about increasing awareness and sensitivity around mental illness?’” Cynthia said, raising her hands to her face in exasperation.

No one knows whether a different kind of dispatch system that night in 2009 would have kept Anthony out of the cross-hairs of the criminal justice system. What might have happened if the responding officer had recognized the signs of Anthony’s mental health issues and shared that with the 911 operator? What if the 911 operator had alerted a 24-hour crisis intervention team that could have dispatched a trained counselor to help Anthony at the police station or before he ever got there? What if the officer had simply tried to locate Anthony’s parents instead of booking him? If he had treated Anthony as more in need of protection than the trash cans?

There are obvious deficiencies in the way people with mental illness are treated in the criminal justice system, and those deficiencies might be addressed by the reforms being implemented by Clayton and others. But Cynthia knows that underlying the systemic failures are pervasive and dangerous attitudes that work against the best intentions of the reformers. The kind of attitudes that see a Black man in a hooded sweatshirt and tense up. That kind that assume a kid like Anthony doesn’t live in a house with vaulted ceilings and large picture windows on a tucked away cul-de-sac. The kind that don’t consider that he has parents who would drop everything at a moment’s notice to pick him up, no matter where, no matter what time. The kind that don’t consider that public safety includes Anthony’s safety, too.

“It’s not politically correct to be racist in Ann Arbor. So I guess I lived most of my life with rose-colored glasses,” says Cynthia. “I feel hurt every day that the city that I was born and raised in, that my son cannot live and breathe and feel safe in my town.”

Anthony has been in jail for nearly seven months now. As he awaits his pre-trial date, the prosecutor’s office has offered a plea to one of the two felony drug counts. Anthony does not want to take it because he says it implies he is dealing drugs, which he insists he is not. He also has been tied up in the system long enough to know prosecutors tend to charge high, he told me, so they can get you to plea to something lesser. But if the prosecutor drops the count to possession only, Anthony reasons, he might have access to diversion, which is what he really wants.

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