Michigan state police director discusses racial profiling, community outreach

MSP Col. Joseph Gasper | Casey Hull

In the face of continued scrutiny of law enforcement across the nation, Michigan State Police (MSP) Director Col. Joseph Gasper has made diversifying his agency a top priority. He says this is more difficult because there’s been an overall decrease in police applicants across all departments. 

In an exclusive interview, Michigan Advance talked with Gasper last month about the myriad of challenges his department is facing, including concerns about racial profiling, community outreach and how the department interacts with communities of color.

This is another part of the Advance’s video series, “Inside Michigan Government,” interviewing key state department directors and taking you behind the scenes of your government and how decisions are made. 

Getting started

Gasper began his career with the Michigan State Police in 1998. During his first five years in the department, he worked on the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team.

“The biggest reason that I went into criminal justice was the idea of not only giving back to the community, but also being able to participate in criminal investigation,” Gasper said.

In 2004, Gasper was appointed to then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Executive Protection Unit. 

“Protecting the governor is an honor,” Gasper said. “It’s definitely a highlight of my career.”

As director, Gasper also serves as state director of Emergency Management and as Michigan’s Homeland Security director. 

He believes that allowing individual departments the flexibility to operate according to their areas specific needs is important. 

“My leadership philosophy is a decentralized decision making type of philosophy where I want everybody in the agency to feel empowered to make decisions and be able to articulate why they are making decisions,” Gasper said.

Diversity in the ranks

The MSP predicts that 325 enlisted officers will retire by 2022. The agency is faced with the opportunity and challenge of recruiting a diverse group of cadets to the MSP. 

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Of the previous three graduating classes into the MSP, only 12% represent people of color and only 7% were African American, as the Michigan Advance has reported. This is representatively low of the 14% of the state population reporting as African American in the last census. 

“We have to continue to run recruit schools and try to increase diversity recruitment,” Gasper said. “I think that it’s very important. First and foremost, we need to be representative of the communities we’re working in.”

Michigan State Police | Susan J. Demas

There are a “litany” of opinions, Gasper said, as to why law enforcement is having difficulty recruiting, including negative public opinion and media representation. 

“I think when you turn on the news or you read the reports, there is a proverbial cloud that is hanging over law enforcement right now,” Gasper said. “I think that helps to maybe deter some of the recent generations from going into law enforcement.”

In 2017, many professional football players knelt during the national anthem in order to bring awareness to racial profiling and police violence against Black men and women. Previous MSP Director Col. Kriste Etue was suspended for five days after posting a Facebook meme calling players who participated in the protest, “arrogant, ungrateful anti-American degenerates.” 

Black Lives Matter is a national movement which has protested against police violence. The Advance asked Gasper if its concerns are valid.

Kriste Kibbey Etue

“It is bothersome and it does sadden me that people have issues that require some type of engagement in civil unrest,” he said. “I think it speaks to a larger issue that their voices aren’t being heard and that being able to concentrate on the bigger issue is something that we need to be concerned with.”

The public has more ways to review officers’ actions now with phone photos and videos posted to social media, and in some cases, dash and body cams. Gasper acknowledges that does provide checks and balances.

“Sometimes the actions [of officers] are warranted and sometimes, quite frankly, they’re not. And I think that it’s important that when the actions are not warranted, that justice is brought swiftly to those. But at the same time, for those actions that were warranted, I would just ask for understanding.”

ACLU criticism

In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan criticized the MSP’s record keeping of traffic stops. 

When police officers conduct a traffic stop, they are asked to identify the race of the individual they stop. The ACLU pointed out there was an “other” category that could be used to dilute the statistics and hide discriminatory practices by officers. The MSP has since removed that option.

Michigan State Police patrol car | Wikipedia Commons

In March 2019, the ACLU of Michigan provided specific recommendations for the MSP. The primary request is for the MSP to employ qualified experts to assess whether the agency engages in racial profiling or discriminatory practices. The ACLU requested this based on “concerns” regarding traffic stop data provided to them by the MSP. 

“We have never accused the MSP of racial profiling because we don’t have the credentials to do that, we don’t have the expertise to do that,” said Mark Fancher, attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan.

MSP spokeswoman Shannon Banner said the department has conducted both a review of statewide MSP traffic stop data, as well as a specific review of First and Fifth District Hometown Security Team traffic stop data. 

“In both cases, the MSP did not find evidence of racial profiling,” she said.

Gasper said he is “specifically … interested in working with the ACLU to make sure that whatever their concerns are, that we’re addressing those, and having good conversation and discussion so that we can make sure, again, that we bring resolution to concerns that the general public might have.

“We’re constantly making sure that our enforcement action is appropriate – that we’re not targeting individual race or gender, but what we’re doing is concentrating on violations of the law,” he added. 

Mark Fancher

Gasper and Fancher had a meeting to discuss the specific issues the ACLU raised in March.

“I feel like we were able to answer many of their concerns,” Gasper said.

Fancher continues to believe that an independent assessment from outside MSP is necessary to provide a conclusive determination. 

“We think it’s a win-win situation,” Fancher said. “If the expert concludes that the state police are not profiling, then that gives a great deal of comfort, not only to the agency, but to the public.”

Fancher said that if the department is committed to increasing the diversity of their troopers that they need to first address the public perception that police officers engage in racial profiling. 

“If they really want to increase their applicant pool,” he said, “then they have to eliminate the perception in the state that they engage in racial profiling. That’s a good first step and you can’t do that without some expert help.”

Fancher also contested the idea that a more diverse police force results in less racial profiling. 

“This is my personal opinion, but I don’t think that profiling and discrimination has anything to do with the race of the officers,” Fancher said. “It’s an institutional question.”

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“I would think [bringing in an expert] would be a very desirable thing for the agency,” he said. “We [the ACLU] don’t see any downside to doing that. Just as was the case with Col. Etue, I didn’t sense that there was a willingness or a readiness to go down that road.”

“Both reviews show no evidence of racial profiling by troopers and these results have been shared with Mr. Fancher,” Banner said. “Given the department’s limited resources, there are no plans at this time to hire an outside firm to also review this data.”

The MSP did provide departments $980,000 this year for fair and impartial policing training. The training was given to officers and civilian members of the police force and has a focus on the science behind biases.

Community outreach

“We try to engage in as much community engagement as possible. We encourage positive interactions with the community, not just negative interactions where there’s somebody getting a ticket or somebody getting arrested,” Gasper said.

Trooper Marco Jones at a 2013 Prepare Fair | Michigan State Police, Flickr

Joining a game of basketball or throwing a football around were two examples Gasper cited of police having positive interactions without engaging in enforcement. He also wants MSP to increase recruiting efforts by reaching out to community groups.

The MSP has previously has previously worked with collegiate athletic departments and is looking to form a partnership with the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL). PAL is a youth sports program founded in 1969 and provides athletic opportunities for over 14,000 young athletes in the Detroit area. Police officers assist in administrative tasks as well as coach teams.

“We can go to the groups from a recruiting standpoint rather than holding a recruiting seminar somewhere where we say, come to us if you have an interest,” Gasper said.

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