Editorial Roundup: Michigan

Detroit News. Sept. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Grand Rapids fingerprinting policy violates privacy

The Constitution explicitly protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure, yet it seems the Grand Rapids Police Department infringed on residents’ rights when it took the fingerprints of Black teenagers who were never accused of a crime.

Michigan residents shouldn’t have to fear police demanding such private information without cause — and without a warrant. The Michigan Supreme Court has rightly taken up the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

There’s broad consensus that the city’s fingerprinting and photographing policy violated the Fourth Amendment. The Mackinac Center and the libertarian Cato Institute, for instance, have filed an amicus brief in the ACLU’s case.

Police took the fingerprints of two teens, Denishio Johnson and Keyon Harrison, they suspected of wrongdoing, without probable cause.

Johnson was walking through an athletic club parking lot in 2011 when police arrived and interrogated him, suspecting him of prior thefts in the area. Johnson had no ID and said he was 15; he said he lived nearby and used the parking lot as a shortcut.

Yet based on an officer’s suspicion, police initiated the photographing and fingerprinting procedure practiced by the department for those without ID.

In the other case, Harrison was followed by police in 2012 for giving a boy a model train engine. Suspicious of the “hand-off” between the boys, police photographed and fingerprinted him. Harrison was 16 at the time and was carrying school supplies in his backpack.

Both boys were stopped by police for acting like normal teenagers. Neither boy was charged with a crime, but their fingerprints are still in the police database.

The Grand Rapids Police Department has followed this procedure for more than 30 years. In 2015, the department was on track to fingerprint 2,000 residents without ID before the department changed the policy to only take prints from people police consider suspicious.

That means that even under the city’s new policy, both boys could have been subject to fingerprinting. The department estimated that around 100 people a year are subject to fingerprinting under the updated policy.

Grand Rapids’ policy lands harder on minorities. Plaintiffs point out in court documents that that out of 439 incident reports from 2011 to 2012, 75% of the officer-initiated encounters involved Black citizens.

They also say Grand Rapids’ population in 2010 was 21% Black and 65% White. That means the city’s Black residents seem to face these unwarranted searches at a disproportionate rate.

The ACLU argues that police fingerprinting violated the Fourth Amendment because “it involved a physical intrusion on Johnson and Harrison’s bodies, and it invaded Johnson’s and Harrison’s reasonable expectations of privacy.”

The architects of the Constitution would not have accepted this kind of police conduct, says Patrick Wright, the Mackinac Center’s vice president of legal affairs.

“The Framers intended that individuals be secure in their liberties unless the government had particularized justification for stopping them,” says Wright. “Random, across-the-board searches don’t meet that criteria.”

Indeed, forced fingerprinting based on police suspicion — or the lack of an ID — is a blank check for abuse and antithetical to American ideals of living free from government interference.

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Traverse City Record-Eagle. Sept. 11, 2021.

Editorial: Mich. UIA sails along without moral compass

It’s hard to imagine the leaders at the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency could find a way to create another self-inflicted wound, but somehow they did.

And, frankly, we probably shouldn’t expect better from a state agency that has a decades-long track record of missteps, a hall of fame of sorts that memorializes some of the worst bureaucratic bumbling imaginable.

The agency’s most recent fumble adds to a long line of what appear to be efforts to place blame for officials’ deficiencies and mistakes on the people the UIA was created to help.

It’s further confirmation that the Michigan UIA’s worst problems aren’t technological, they’re cultural — an apparent systemic inability to quickly disclose, take responsibility for and fix mistakes.

We’re talking about errors that often injure our neighbors who are doing their darndest to raise themselves from a low point in life — the loss of a job, of income, of stability. We’re also talking about the agency that was created to help folks bridge those valleys and find solid footing on the other side.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout from measures enacted to slow the virus’ spread sent millions of Michiganders into unemployment in a matter of weeks in mid-2020. The throngs of newly-unemployed who scrambled to register for benefits — money that would ensure they could continue paying bills during a near shutdown of our economy — ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. They found an agency utterly unprepared for and unable to address such a broad catastrophe.

Worse, the months that followed have been marked by misstep after misstep and career bureaucrats who seem fixated on blaming the unemployed for their mistakes.

Take for example the latest UIA debacle unfolding.

UIA officials disclosed during the past few months that they incorrectly interpreted federal guidelines for enhanced unemployment benefits and included four incorrect criteria in their registration system that may have incorrectly allowed about 500,000 Michiganders to receive benefits. Turns out that disclosure came several months after the feds notified agency leaders of the potential problem in January.

When they finally disclosed the problem, agency leaders said they would require those half million people, many who still are working through the financial fallout from being unemployed for a period, to re-register for those already paid benefits. Some could see those benefits rescinded even though in 2020 they followed all the rules and had registered for and received benefits the agency said they were entitled to.

Thankfully, under pressure from just about everyone in the state who lives with a conscience and common sense — including this editorial board — UIA leaders later shifted their plans and announced they would refrain from clawing back payments made as a result of their flub.

For at least a moment, it appeared the institutional culture at UIA may have begun to find its moral compass.

Then came the letters.

A short time later, we began receiving word from some of those 500,000 people who qualified for payments under the four categories the agency has since invalidated. Cabinet makers, day care workers, contractors — people whose livelihoods were halted temporarily in the shutdown.

Many received a flurry of letters in August notifying them that they had incorrectly received benefits, that the payments they already received now are “denied” and that they “owe restitution”.

For many, those letters — a mélange of bureaucratic jabbering — go on in precise detail to list the amount the agency overpaid and note that despite the recipient violating a state law in receiving the payments, the agency is gracefully not collecting.

Those screeds are unnecessarily frightening to nearly half a million of our neighbors. Worse, they cast as some sort of law breakers the people who correctly navigated the agency’s god-awful registration system, answered a list of qualification questions honestly and received unemployment aid.

The letters are simply the latest in a string of mishandled crises at the agency that span decades — don’t forget this is the same UIA that gutted innocent, vulnerable people’s finances after it installed an automated fraud detection system that ran amok while bureaucrats ignored clearly erroneous findings. That same system still is at work at UIA today.

In the best case, a well-working UIA would follow a strong moral compass that guides it to help those in need while vigorously pushing back against the hucksters and fraudsters who would take advantage of its altruism.

Unfortunately the Michigan UIA seems to have misplaced or broken its compass. Or maybe it simply never had one.

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The (Marquette) Mining Journal. Sept. 10, 2021.

Editorial: Grant will help in efforts to clean Lake Superior shore

It’s a shame that so much detritus mars the coastline of our beloved Lake Superior.

But through a recently secured grant, the Superior Watershed Partnership is working to clean up the mess.

SWP was been awarded a $122,000 grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program to assist coastal communities and tribes in cleaning up the shorelines, harbors and near-shore waters of Lake Superior.

That includes more than 600 miles of Lake Superior coastline throughout the Upper Peninsula.

What is being removed is marine debris — also known as marine litter. That is human-created waste that has been accidentally or deliberately released into the Great Lakes or ocean waters, the SWP said.

This marine debris includes a range of items, from plastic bags, bottles, cans to commercial fishing gear, tires, appliances, cars and abandoned boats, the SWP said.

Sources of marine debris include stormwater runoff, littering, industrial activities, unregulated construction sites and illegal dumping.

Aquatic habitat is damaged as this debris impacts, injures or kills fish and other wildlife, interferes with navigation safety, and can pose a threat to human health.

“Sadly, there is no place on earth that is immune to this problem. While the Upper Peninsula has approximately 312,000 year-round residents it has experienced a dramatic increase in nature tourism in recent years with millions of additional visitors annually,” according to the SWP. “Unfortunately, many Great Lakes coastal areas have seen a corresponding increase in beach litter, shoreline erosion, habitat degradation and water quality impacts.”

SWP Executive Director Carl Lindquist said, “Most monitoring confirms that Lake Superior is still the cleanest of the Great Lakes but it will take increased effort at the community level to keep it that way; especially with increased coastal development and increased nature tourism. The key to nature tourism is keeping it truly sustainable.

“Thanks to NOAA, the Great Lakes Climate Corps and proactive communities, the Upper Peninsula can be a model for sustainability and coastal resiliency.”

GLCC crews will work with Lake Superior tribes and coastal communities to remove marine debris from shorelines, harbors and near-shore waters.

To address the problem in the U.P., the SWP will mobilize its GLCC to implement a series of cleanup events with coastal communities, tribes and other project partners.

The Great Lakes Climate Corps is composed of young people who implement a wide range of environmental projects that benefit the Great Lakes and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We are most grateful the grant has been obtained and thank all those who will be involved in the cleanup over the course of the next two summers.

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