Facebook ‘Cowboys’ Debate Ends in Understanding at Sheriff’s Office

Like millions of people following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year and, more recently, the shootings in Kenosha, Wisc., Travis Porta and Jionni Ivy were getting caught up in conversations over racial injustice and police brutality on social media.

Livingston County Sheriff’s Department Uniform Services Commander Mike Nast (left) demonstrates the Milo Range revolver to Travis Porta (center) and Jionni Ivy.

After a period of time expressing often opposing views on Facebook, the two decided to stop arguing over right and wrong and go straight to the horse’s mouth for some answers.

That’s how Porta and Ivy, an account executive with United Shore who grew up in Novi and now lives in Ann Arbor, wound up in the office of Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy last week. Porta, who lives in Hartland and is familiar with the sheriff’s office, arranged a sit-down for he and Ivy with Murphy. Corp! Magazine was invited to be present at the meeting.

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The idea: Learn more about the issues law enforcement officers face, particularly in these times of heightened tension between the law enforcement world and communities of color.

“Obviously, we know what’s happening in our society today … it’s no secret what happened in Minneapolis and what just recently happened in Kenosha,” said Porta, the owner of Grace & Porta Benefits of Brighton. “(Ivy) posted some stuff, I posted some stuff, we’ve sent stuff to each other. We decided that instead of being what we started calling ‘keyboard cowboys,’ let’s get together.”

Meeting of the minds
And so they did. Porta, a veteran of the business and community scene around the county, reached out to Murphy, in his first term as the county’s sheriff but with more than three decades’ experience in the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, to see if he and Ivy could come in.

“I came in with the mission of trying to see how the training goes down and what officers are learning and how they’re trained,” Ivy said. “I got a little view of it, I got an idea of that.”

Murphy, who says he’s “huge” on transparency and openness, readily agreed. He not only sat down for nearly two hours with both men, but he arranged for a tour of the facility and some hands-on experience with the department’s Milo Range training software, which uses computer-generated scenarios that gives deputies training on handling a variety of “bad guy” scenarios.

But while Murphy was happy to sit down with the two men and discuss their concerns, he knows such meetings often have more of an effect than that.

“I know (Porta), but to be perfectly honest, if (a stranger) called up and said, ‘I’m having some issues right now and I’d like to come in and talk to you,’ I’d say, ‘Let me grab my schedule.’ That’s just how I am.

“I’m a firm believer in the ripple effect,” Murphy added. “That cop who goes out and has contact with somebody, and it’s positive, that pays huge dividends down the road. This (meeting) is going to pay dividends. There’s a little selfishness here, not for my office but for cops in general.

Social media attitudes
“I just responded to an email from a very good friend who is way opposite on the political side of things,” Murphy said. “Part of my response to her was people … will say things on social media that they will not say if they’re doing this (face-to-face talk).”

Murphy knows the damage attitudes on social media can do. Two months ago, he was part of a community forum on race and law enforcement, the idea of which was to answer the question, “What can we do?”

Travis Porta (foreground) and Jionni Ivy get a tour of the Livingston County Jail from Sheriff Mike Murphy.

“You can throw out any topic you wanted right now and (multiple people) aren’t going to agree,” the sheriff said. “That’s just the way it is. But we need to be able to respect the fact we’re not going to agree, and just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we’re going to hate each other or whatever.”

Murphy believes everyone is biased to some degree, biases created by individual life experiences. Whether it’s race, sex, religion or even cars, “you’re a product of your environment and your life experiences,” he said, and bias is a part of everything.

Why is that important? Murphy said implicit bias is one of those things being thrown around in the police world and, he believes, contributing to a negative view of law enforcement officers.

But LEOs are getting “a ton of training on that right now,” Murphy said.

The stories numbers can tell
Murphy doesn’t deny there’s enough evidence to believe Livingston County might have a racial bias problem. He estimated that of the county jail’s approximately 260 inmates, perhaps a third or more (maybe as many as 100) of them are black.

But he also pointed out that maybe 90 of the jail’s inmates are federal inmates, brought to Livingston County from Detroit. He also pointed out that Livingston County is also easily accessed from nearly every direction via US-23, I-96 and M-59.

“That, coupled with the population of transient folks … when you start to paint that picture, it starts to make sense,” Murphy said. “I’m not a huge statistical guy. I’m a firm believer that if you have an outcome, I can build the statistics to prove or disprove it. You want to show cops stop more black people? OK, I can get the numbers to prove that. You want to show me that’s not true, I’ll get the numbers to do that, as well.”

Murphy believes people – the media included – settles for the easy, paint-by-numbers approach.

“We live in a sound byte world,” he said. “Nobody digs deeper, nobody wants to understand what’s behind the numbers.”

The conversation drifted toward one of the springboards for the meeting: The protests that have erupted since Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in Floyd’s death, had a history of excessive force complaints. CBS News reported over the weekend that prosecutors want to introduce those incidents in his trial.

That prompted Ivy to ask Murphy whether Chauvin would have still been a cop had he been a Livingston County deputy.

“Would he have lost his job?” Ivy asked.

“Yes,” was Murphy’s simple answer.

Records review
However, the sheriff didn’t want to delve into personnel decisions in other departments, but was willing to point out that his department, in the wake of the Floyd incident, looked at past records to determine whether there was a problem here.

The review went back five years and looked at “all of our use-of-force issues,” both at the jail and on the road, Murphy said. Every use-of-force incident has to be documented, reports that run through various levels of supervision.

“We’re very big on accountability,” Murphy pointed out. “We’ve had pretty good numbers, especially considering the number of contacts we have.”

Ivy asked whether officers who are found to have aggressive tendencies, or who routinely have to deal with high-stress situations, would benefit from psychological evaluations.

“I know it would be expensive,” Ivy said, “but would it be worth it?”

Murphy explained the department is having that conversation about making such evaluations mandatory right now, and downplayed the cost.

“I think that’s one of those things you probably can’t put a price tag on, because you don’t know what it’s going to save you down the road,” he said. “We’ve had the conversation, and I think we’ll get there in the next couple of years. We’ll have a doctor come in and talk to everyone, make it mandatory so no one thinks they’re being singled out.”

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Undersheriff Jeff Warder pointed out that such evaluations are already mandatory for detectives dealing with child criminal sexual conduct cases or child pornography, traffic safety officers – “Because of the things they see,” he said – and undercover officers.

“We already make it mandatory (for them) because of the things they have to respond to,” Warder said.

The conversation shifted into the “defund the police” movement, which really is more of an effort to redistribute funds to include mental health issues. Murphy acknowledged mental health issues – on both sides of the law – play a big part in what’s going on in the law enforcement world these days.

The LCSD, the sheriff said, offers counseling, there’s a peer support group, and the county offers an employee assistance program (EAP). The problem, according to Murphy, is that it’s taken a long time to get cops to participate and, more importantly, believe in such help.

“When we got in the business, it was old-school that you don’t ask for help … When nobody knows what to do they call the cops and expect the problem to be solved,” Murphy said. “We were kind of the answer people, and we still are to a lot of degree, but we realized we’re human beings, too, and we need to take care of ourselves in the mental health side of things.”

Help end the stigma
Ivy, who graduated from Novi High School, wondered how the county was handling school resource officers, positions that were filled when he was in school but frequently are not used now. Ivy said such positions could help dispel some of the stigma that “all cops are bad.”

“I’m at a bit of a crossroads because I grew up with officers in my school … I had a great relationship with the officer in my school,” Ivy said. “I know not all cops are bad. But the stigma that’s going on today is that all cops are bad or no cops are bad, there’s no in-between (on social media).

“I came here so I could emotionally ease up the tensions,” Ivy added. “I have very great memories. Emotionally, I wanted to do this for me so that I don’t have to feel afraid, when I know in the back of my mind that this is really how it is.”

SROs have been an on-again, off-again proposition in a lot of schools. Currently, SROs are in use at Howell, Brighton and Fowlerville schools, while Livingston County has three deputies assigned to the county’s community outreach team.

Those deputies work in concert with SROs, but they also work in the schools that don’t have SROs, and they work in conjunction with other nonprofits and service providers.

Community policing works
“It’s really a true community policing effort to try to address any issues before they become police issues,” Murphy said. “That helps my guys be better, too, in understanding what’s available in the community. We need to get back into more community policing, that street cop relationship-building, because that is the key. You shouldn’t have to be scared to see a cop when they walk in. We’re not that big, bad evil person.”

The SRO was a hot idea years ago, when districts and departments had the money to pay for them. Warder said those programs have been slashed as budgets have gotten tighter, to the detriment of the community.

“Community policing became, in the eyes of many, a luxury. Budgets got cut,” Warder said. “(communities) said, ‘this community policing project worked out well when we had the money to pay for it, but now we don’t have the money to pay for it.

“Now we’re in the social environment we’re in, and there’s all this talk about funding police officers, about defunding police departments,” he added. “That’s not the answer, because that’s not going to work. It will become a lawless society, you can’t have that. We can’t build community relations if we don’t have officers to build them with. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

Both Porta and Ivy felt like the meeting accomplished their goal: More of an understanding about what it’s like from the law enforcement perspective.

“I just felt like social media has really hurt our society from a communications standpoint,” Porta said. “You watch the news media, you’re either left or you’re right. I disagree with that because there’s middle ground. How do we get rid of that stigmatism, how do we get rid of the ‘all cops are bad’ mentality? I feel like I could learn some stuff from Jionni, and hopefully he learned I’m not a bad guy just because I have a different point of view on something, and vice versa. We can agree to disagree and still be friends.”

The meeting included about an hour of time on the department’s Milo Range training computer, which puts up computer-generated “bad guy” scenarios and forces officers – in this case Porta and Ivy – to make snap decisions about the scenes. Armed with a replica handgun with laser technology, the men were forced to decide whether the people on the screen were threats.

Ivy said he found the meeting, which lasted more than three hours including the training time on the computer, helpful to building his understanding of the law enforcement point of view.

While he doesn’t believe Michigan has the kind of problems found in the Minneapolis case, he still found the meeting helpful.

“It’s not that we really have that much of an issue here in Michigan,” Ivy said. “I came in with the mission of trying to see how the training goes down and what officers are learning and how they’re trained. I got a little view of it, I got an idea of that.

“I thought it was very helpful,” he added. “Two guys of opposing political views who are ultimately friends in the end … It brought us together, and that was a good thing. There is common ground, we can still hold our views, but now we can see each other’s, too.”