As federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department approaches its eighth year, citizen watchdogs are looking to become more involved
Published: March 9, 2011
Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee and Deputy Mayor Saul Green are sitting in a conference room on the 11th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, patiently answering questions from a reporter about the consent decrees that have been the guiding force at the Detroit Police Department for nearly eight years.
Godbee, with a youthful face so smooth and impassive it could be carved from marble, is exceedingly soft-spoken and polite, often asking permission to make a comment.
Green, tall and distinguished-looking, is courteous as well, but looks as if he'd much rather be somewhere else. There is, afterall, a full plate of problems the city has to deal with.
But the administration has made this issue a priority. Besides, they have what they say is a positive story to tell.
When their boss, Mayor Dave Bing, first took office nearly two years ago, the consent decrees had been in place for almost six years, but the police department had complied with only about 30 percent of the goals.
In less than two years, the Bing administration has doubled that figure, bringing compliance above 60 percent and promising to be completely in accord with the requirements by year's end.
That is welcome news.
So far, the city has shelled out nearly $12 million to the independent monitors tasked by the U.S. Justice Department and a federal judge to make sure that the department diligently followed a detailed roadmap leading to reform. To make sure that policies were put in place to help keep people from being shot or beaten by the men and women in blue who are sworn to protect them.
To make sure illegal roundups weren't being conducted.
And to make sure prisoners weren't being found dead in the city's lockups.
Despite the progress made in the past two years, the current independent monitor overseeing the department noted in a quarterly report released in January that the pace of change remains a concern. Looking at the previous three months, monitor Robert S. Warshaw wrote:
"We recognize that the DPD has continued to make progress when we consider the overall level of compliance that has been achieved. At the same time, we note that the advances reported in this report are the fewest in number since our monitorship began [in October 2009]. While perhaps the most comprehensive changes will be the most difficult to accomplish and, therefore, it is reasonable to expect some slowing of the pace of improvement, we find such explanations offering little solace here. We are concerned with the pace of change. The DPD has achieved compliance with less than two-thirds of the requirements. We are troubled by the reversals that are reported for the quarter considered in this report. We are ever mindful that this reform process now enters its eighth year."
With that in mind, a group of concerned citizens that includes members of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and attorneys from the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild will be holding what they're calling a "Day of Inquiry" this week.
At issue are the effectiveness of the consent decrees, and the broader question of Police Department oversight.
Even the Bing administration admits the Police Department is not yet where it needs to be.
In terms of police shootings, the most recent numbers continue to warrant concern. According to the Police Department, there were 38 shootings by police in 2009, none of which was fatal. Twenty-nine of the shootings were deemed justified. The rest are still under review.
In 2010, there were 33 shootings overall, seven of which were fatal. Of the total number of shootings, nine were determined to be justified. The remaining incidents are still being reviewed.
The problems that led to the consent decrees were roiling long before the oversight began in 2003. But the mayor's office and police officials were slow to admit publicly that the city was facing a crisis.
Not that people in the community weren't trying to sound the alarm. In the forefront of that effort was the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality — made up primarily of the victims of police brutality and the families of those killed — which was founded in 1996 with the intent of documenting abuses and drawing attention to the issue.�
The following year, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, "held a series of congressional hearings which focused on the Police Department's use of excessive force, abuse of power" and other issues, according to court documents filed by the coalition in 2003.
Those congressional hearings prompted the Detroit City Council to hold its own legislative hearings in 1998 and 2000. Around the same time, reporters from the Michigan Citizen and this paper began writing about questionable shootings.
Most notorious of all was Officer Eugene Brown who, in a six-year period, killed three people and wounded a fourth.
And then there was the case of a deaf and mute man shot and killed by police when he "menaced" them with a rake.
Victims' attorneys such as David Robinson — himself a former police officer — routinely accused the department of covering for cops who were involved in bad shootings.
In May 2000, the Detroit Free Press jumped on the story, publishing the results of a four-month investigation it had conducted. After analyzing FBI data, it found that — over an eight-year period beginning in 1990 — Detroit led the nation in the rate of fatal shootings by police officers. Averaging 10 fatal shootings per year during that period, Detroit had a rate of .92 fatal shootings by officers per 100,000 residents, compared to .39 for New York and .56 for Los Angeles. Houston ranked second with .68.
It was also revealed that, in 1997, the administration of then-Mayor Dennis Archer had commissioned a report by Los Angeles attorney Merrick Bobb, and expert on police procedures who had consulted with the Justice Department on investigations in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.
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