As federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department approaches its eighth year, citizen watchdogs are looking to become more involved
Published: March 9, 2011
Bobb had concluded that the DPD lagged "behind other large urban police agencies in its management of risk and potential liability. It thus remains vulnerable to expensive lawsuits, untoward incidents and the consequential erosion of public trust and confidence."
Despite having that information, the Archer administration's initial response was to blame what it described as the avaricious attorneys hired by shooting victims or their survivors. As one spokesman told this paper at the time, those attorneys would say anything "to make the Police Department look as bad as possible to get as much money as possible, and that is what this is all about."
The problem was inadequate policies and training, a failure to thoroughly and fairly investigate shootings involving police officers, and a reluctance to punish officers involved in unjustified shootings.
There was also no system in place that allowed Police Department brass to track problem officers and take early corrective action.
As a result, millions of dollars in settlements and court judgments were being paid out.
Under the weight of mounting criticism, both Archer and the City Council formally request a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Detroit Police Department (DPD). Following a 30-month inquiry into the department's use of force and conditions in DPD holding cells, the department subsequently expanded its investigation to include arrest and detention issues.
During the first half of 2003, the DOJ issued three "technical assistance" letters outlining issues and concerns covering a long list of problems.
According to a report issued in January 2004, those shortcomings included:
"Use of force and use of force reporting, intake tracking and external complaints, external complaint investigations and dispositions, criminal and internal investigations, risk assessment and management, early warning system; policy planning, discipline and in-service and field training."
The letters also raised concerns "regarding arrest policies and practices ... and detention policies and practices."
The department promised to get its house in order.
However, as that first monitor's report noted: "Despite the DPD's efforts and cooperative process that took place, adequate reform did not take place to the DOJ's expectations." In June 2003, the DOJ filed a complaint against the city and the DPD.
And on July 18, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Julian A. Cook Jr. entered two consent judgments against the city and its Police Department, outlining the steps it had to take before federal oversight would be removed.
It would be a massive undertaking. As noted in one court document, the consent judgments required "a complete overhaul of the DPD's policies and practices regarding processing of citizen complaints, use of force, arrest, detention, etc."
At the time, both the City Council and the Coalition Against Police Brutality attempted to have the court formally recognize them as "interveners" in the case.
Attorneys for the council argued that both the legislative and executive branches of city government should be part of the process.
Representing the coalition, lawyers from the Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild argued that the path being pursued by the court and Justice Department was inherently flawed because the public at large was being excluded from direct involvement in the process.
"Despite being the leading advocacy group in Detroit for approximately the past decade, at no time was the coalition contacted by the parties for the coalition's input concerning the proposed judgments, no community hearings were held and no avenues were open for victims, citizens or citizens groups to express their concerns regarding the proposed consent judgments."
In essence, the coalition contended that public participation was needed to provide important checks and balances that would otherwise be absent.
"Meaningful police reform can only occur with the input of the effected communities," the coalition's lawyers argued.
The court turned down both requests. The council's attempt to be included — which the DOJ opposed — was rejected, in part, because the court viewed city government as one entity.
As for the coalition — whose involvement was opposed by both the Justice Department and the city Law Department, which at that time was under the control of Kilpatrick — the court ruled that it had no legal justification for a place at the table.
As it turned out, both the Justice Department and the court allowed the reform process to drag on for years without significant headway being made.
"Had the community been at the table, there would have been a different sense of urgency," says Ron Scott, a longtime Detroit activist and spokesperson for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.
What is now apparent is that someone should have been keeping a closer eye on the monitor overseeing a DPD that, under the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, apparently saw little urgency in the need to pursue reforms.
The sordid saga of Kwame Kilpatrick and his dramatic fall is by now well known. Already serving time because he perjured himself on the witness stand, the former mayor — along with his father and three former top aides — was indicted in December on racketeering charges. A federal grand jury accused them using the mayor's office as a base for a criminal enterprise.
In regard to the perjury, Kilpatrick's undoing proved to be text messages — obtained by an attorney representing cops who claimed there were retaliated against when they looked into allegations of wrongdoing by the mayor.
Among other things, those messages revealed Kilpatrick to be a world-class philanderer.
> Email Curt Guyette