Consent and dissent
Day of Inquiry highlights hopes, limitations for community-police relations
Published: March 16, 2011
Green talked of the administration's "clear commitment to make sure we come into compliance."
Regarding the question of the "blue wall of secrecy" — the propensity of cops to protect each other when wrongdoing has occurred — Logan said, "We have solid policies in place to deal with the blue curtain issue. It is iron-clad that officers must report instances of misconduct."
Certainly, even those in the coalition aren't talking about masses of people being shot or dying in their jail cells the way they were 15 years ago. By the same token, they also say they haven't seen the cultural change within the department that is an ultimate goal of the consent decrees.
The coalition's Scott, for example, talked at the meeting about the police officers who were coming to the coalition with concerns, saying that they "don't think they can do what needs to be done within the system."
And then there was Detroiter Malcolm Woods, who described sleeping in his van outside his home in October 2009 when cops, responding to a call about a suspected burglary, yanked him from the vehicle, handcuffed him and knocked him unconscious. A complaint was filed with the police commission, but nothing happened.
"I got more help from the coalition," he said.
Among those present was the president of the police commission, the Rev. Jerome Warfield. He talked about the need for the new City Charter, which is currently being rewritten, to strengthen citizen oversight.
Scott and the coalition have advocated that the commission be composed of publicly elected members rather than appointees of the mayor, as is now the case.
There is little doubt that things are better now than they were. Even Tijuana Morris, a former police officer who works with the coalition investigating complaints, said, "things are going forward. I think things are better than they were five years ago."
And Cockrel, who said she has been keeping a close watch on the Police Department since the 1960s, pointedly praised the current chief, Ralph Godbee.
Following the event, John Royal, president of the local National Lawyers Guild chapter, sent us an e-mail describing the difficulty of bringing all these people together, and what he thought the event accomplished. He talked about the public officials who insisted that the event be moderated, and that audience members be prevented from asking questions directly, instead submitting queries that were read by Proctor.
Members of the National Lawyers Guild and the coalition must now decide whether they will attempt again to be a formal part of the consent decree process. That was going to be a topic of discussion when they met Tuesday night, after we went to press.
But we think there needs to also be a focused discussion on the role of citizen oversight for the Police Department in general from this point onward. Certainly the idea of an elected police commission should be fully explored. We'd also like to hear an in-depth debate about what other powers might be given that board to ensure that we aren't counting on police to police themselves.
It's not a question of whether the current mayor or current chief are up to the task. It is a question of whether an adequate system is in place to ensure citizens are protected from abuse no matter who the mayor is, or who the chief is.
What we've seen in Detroit is a systemic failure. There was a failure to properly train officers, and a failure to hold them accountable when they were involved in bad shootings and arrests. And there was a failure of the federal court and Justice Department to make sure that needed changes were made quickly.
The people of Detroit should be outraged at how long reform has taken, and how much money has been spent.
"The NLG takes the position that this Day of Inquiry should not be looked at as an isolated event, but as a part of a process of 'speaking truth to power,'" Royal wrote us. "We intend to continue, in coordination with other concerned organizations, to take actions and implement programs designed to publicize this outrageous situation, to mobilize public opinion; and to make it clear to the powers that be that further delay in the complete implementation of the consent decrees cannot be tolerated."
We applaud them for that. And we agree with Royal's assessment that the inquiry made it clear that delays in implementing the reforms demanded by the consent decrees have been "intolerable," and that the community is not going to lose interest in this issue.
But we think it is not enough. What's needed now is not to just make sure that good people are in charge and full compliance is quickly obtained, but that a system of oversight is established that protects the city and its residents from ever going through something like this again.
A wide-ranging debate exploring the specifics of how that can be changed is something we think needs to take place. Soon.
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