The sound of silence in Lenawee County

Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016

In recent years, the Thin Blue Line of police camaraderie, which is wider now than ever due to increased public scrutiny, has silenced the good officers from outing the bad ones. Videos of questionable and disturbing police behaviors have increased focus on police and how they conduct themselves while on duty. And as protesters march in city streets demanding justice and accountability, police unions and fellow officers often wholly defend the accused of negligence or remain silent in the face of disparaging evidence. There are rare occurrences when the good do call out the bad. However, those warnings often fall on deaf ears like they recently did right here in Lenawee County.

In June 2014, Eaton County Sheriff Deputy Greg Brown resigned before a disciplinary hearing could be conducted, which would have likely led to his firing, according to Sheriff Tom Reich who spoke with Lansing City Pulse (Print View), after video (full video here) of a traffic stop showed he assaulted a motorist and then falsified the police report. The driver was able to capture video even though Brown had been ordered to wear an issued body-worn camera after a previous incident with another motorist. But in this case, Brown’s camera was not on. While Brown resigned from the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department just weeks after the stop, he did not leave law enforcement.

Six months later, he was hired by the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Department with Lenawee County Sheriff Jack Welsh fully aware of Brown’s previous behavior. In April 2016, news broke about the 2014 traffic stop and Brown’s hiring in Lenawee County. There were complaints to the local daily newspaper about Brown being hired, but Welsh remained silent on the matter even when the public took to his Facebook page to question his hiring decision. A few months later in June 2016, Welsh again remained silent, ignoring media requests for comment, as it was reported the motorist from 2014 was within weeks of reaching a settlement with Eaton County for Brown’s misconduct.

But before news of Brown became locally known, another incident has since come to light that has led to another lawsuit filed against Brown, Welsh, the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Department and the Lenawee County government. Brown is now accused of battery during a February 2016 incident where Brown allegedly assaulted a Mr. Robert VanSickle at his home. VanSickle sustained injuries that required medical attention at a local hospital. VanSickle and his wife Shelly were each charged with single felony counts of resisting and obstructing police, but Shelly’s charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. VanSickle pleaded guilty to one civil infraction of being a disorderly person. And after all this, Welsh has still declined to comment.

Add in the fact the Blue Lives Matter movement has swept into police departments across the country as a form of solidarity and you have a recipe for further isolation of officers from public opinion and scrutiny—a us-versus-them mentality. Yes, police lives do matter; however, that does not put their actions above public accountability or the law. Such thinking is counteractive to the very idea of democracy and a constitutional republic.

When an altercation between an officer and civilian with a criminal background occurs, police and the media are often quick to denounce the criminal for his or her past behavior. If such thinking is applied to officers, and specifically to Brown, should we not frame his actions as the repeat offender he may be?

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Often criminals are discredited for previous minor infractions such as no proof of insurance, a broken taillight or an improper muffler, and their past missteps with the law can justify their disparaging treatment by officers in the future. The fact Brown can still enforce the law after breaking the law is incomprehensible to be allowed in a country that prides truth and justice. If cases in Cincinnati and Chicago have video evidence proving officers lied on their reports, like in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald and Samuel DuBose, the fact an officer in Michigan can go unchecked from department to department speaks to a significant problem within the police community.

Relations between police and the people they serve and protect are deteriorating, crumbling under the strain of from-the-hip opinions and armchair politicking hammered out in the comment sections of social media and news sites. But when a department hires a law enforcement officer with a history of questionable behavior, the last thing that will mend those strained relations is remaining silent. When officers feel the public is against them, it is because of things like this.

If police hope to restore trust between themselves and citizens, it starts with holding themselves and their departments accountable. The public wouldn’t have to record traffic stops if officers were not falsifying police reports and assaulting motorists. Instead of corroborating with a fellow officer, police must be willing to call out their own when they do wrong. These incidents may not have the same weight in national media, but without accurate tracking of police misconduct and their hiring, firing and resigning, we do not know how often deputies like Brown continue to serve, jumping from department to department.

However, not all hope is lost. Brown’s actions in Eaton County and his hiring in Lenawee County has led Michigan Republican Senator Rick Jones to craft a bill that would hold law enforcement more accountable when being fired, or leaving from, an agency. Jones told Lansing Life he couldn’t believe Brown could simply resign and then be hired by a different agency following a viewing of the video. “The deputy should have been fired by the Sheriff,” Jones also said.

Jones’ bill would require law enforcement agencies to maintain all reasons for resigning from a department so the next department can review before hiring. As ambitious as the law is, even in Brown’s case it would not have made a difference. Welsh was informed of the video and did nothing. He did not answer when questioned by the community he was led to serve and protect. And this November, he is running unopposed for reelection.

If you live in a tiny suburb or rural city and believe things like this don’t happen—they do. As it has in Lenawee County.