No issue covered by the Metro Times these past 52 weeks has received more ink than the ongoing story of how the Detroit Police Department handles cases when officers shoot citizens.
Our coverage began in April. The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality had been trying to focus attention on the situation for more than two years, but no one in the media seemed willing to pay attention.
That changed with Ann Mullen’s cover story, (“Under the gun,” MT, April 5-11). In exploring what happened the night an off-duty officer shot an unarmed man at an automated teller machine on Detroit’s west side, and during the subsequent investigation, Mullen exposed long-simmering allegations that the department was less than thorough when it came to investigating its officers who use deadly force. At the same time that article appeared, the Michigan Citizen produced its own well-documented story about Officer Eugene Brown, who shot nine people, killing three, during his six years on the force.
Most city officials didn’t see much cause for concern. A spokesman for Mayor Dennis Archer, in responding to Mullen’s story, blamed the problem on greedy attorneys he said were only out to make a fast buck.
Then the big guns began firing away, and the mayor changed his tune. In May, the Detroit News and Free Press both came out with a series of stories adding more allegations. The Freep reported that Detroit police were shooting civilians at a rate higher than the country’s largest cities.
The thread that ran through all these pieces was that apparently lax investigations by the department fostered an atmosphere where officers had little reason to fear punishment should they wrongly use lethal force.
When the City Council looked at the issue, it was mostly content to shoot the messengers, finding much fault with the way the media were covering the issue and showing much sympathy for the plight of officers forced to make split-second life-and-death decisions. However, with criticism mounting, Archer finally took action. He announced that responsibility for investigating shootings by officers would be taken away from the much-criticized homicide unit and placed in the hands of Internal Affairs.
Then an officer shot and killed a deaf man wielding a rake. Archer sought an outside investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Although it was later reported that Archer attempted to get Justice to conduct less than a full-blown investigation, the feds announced in December that they would conduct a thorough review of Detroit’s cop shop. Among the issues Justice will look into is the number of deaths occurring among people locked up in the department’s holding cells, a subject Mullen first wrote about in 1999.
Better late than never.
Finally, in early December, the Metro Times news editor wrote a cover story about the fatal shooting of Billy Gissendanner, a Detroit man killed by police in 1999. The article uncovered allegations that the police planted a knife and altered evidence in an attempt to conceal that Gissendanner was unarmed when shot.
Neither the mayor’s office nor the Police Department has responded to any of the allegations of wrongdoing raised in the article.
Maybe next year.
One life lost
Gun violence of a different sort captured national attention in late February when 6-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot by a fellow first-grader at Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, near Flint.
In a moving essay by Flint native Michael Moore, the rabble-rousing filmmaker described with heart-rending honesty the impact of this tragedy. In making a plea for sane gun-control policies, Moore wrote: “What are we waiting for? Another Kayla Rolland? God help you if you ever have to live in a township that no town will claim and is forgotten by everyone else as soon as the next gun nut enters a McDonald’s and a Burger King on the same day. Fried or flame-broiled, it’s all our own unique American hell.”
Moore was right. The satellite trucks quickly packed up and moved on. The tragedy took its place on a dusty back shelf with countless others, out of sight and out of mind.
In December, during a lame-duck session, Michigan lawmakers passed sweeping “reforms” making it easier for people to obtain concealed weapon permits. According to news reports, Gov. John Engler plans to sign the legislation into law.
Free speech wins
The protests against globalization that began in 1999 with a massive demonstration against the World Trade Organization in Seattle continued on into this year. A raucous International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington, D.C., was followed up by demonstrations on both sides of the Detroit River when the Organization of American States met in Windsor during early June. About 2,500 people showed up for peaceful protest across the creek, while a few hundred people on this side gathered in Hart Plaza. The police presence was overwhelming, with Mayor Dennis Archer determined not to see the rioting that occurred in Seattle repeated here.
But the aging labor unionists and young anarchists were all on their best behavior, with the only real excitement happening when about 13 bicyclists wearing Lone Ranger masks raced through downtown during rush hour. They were arrested by police for violating an antiquated state law that prohibits people from concealing their faces during public assemblies and marches.
In stepped the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild. In November, “in the interest of justice,” the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office dropped charges against the masked riders. Don’t be surprised if you see lawyers from the two groups fight to have the law itself thrown out as unconstitutional.
Racetrack promoter loses
Many neighbors of the Michigan State Fair raised an uproar when they learned in April that the Nederlander Theatrical Organization was planning to put an auto racetrack out at the fairgrounds.
Mayor Dennis Archer voiced his opposition. So did the mayor of Ferndale, along with numerous neighborhood groups.
The issue continued to make headlines through the summer. In June, the cities of Detroit, Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge, along with a number of neighborhood groups, filed a lawsuit claiming the project should be blocked because it violated zoning ordinances.
Then, in August, the Metro Times produced an investigative piece revealing that one of the key players in the fairgrounds project, a Bloomfield Hills businessman named Bernie Schrott, had quite the questionable past. According to court documents uncovered by Metro Times, Schrott was a former FBI informant who had close business ties with a couple of guys accused of smuggling tons of cocaine into Michigan. There were also allegations that Schrott defrauded investors in a Bahamian casino scheme that never materialized.
A month later, the Nederlanders struck back with a lawsuit of their own, seeking $40 million in damages from the three cities and various community groups that sought to block the racetrack project.
And Schrott? The Metro Times hasn’t heard from him since our article was published. We have noticed, however, that his name no longer appears in the dailies as a spokesman for the Nederlanders.
In previous years a movement known as Janitors for Justice has won strong union contracts for custodians nationwide. Downtown Detroit workers have been among the beneficiaries of the efforts directed by the Service Employees International Union, but until this year the suburbs were a different story. As Metro Times contributor Jane Slaughter reported in November, after a series of raucous demonstrations, “the suburban custodians won pensions and family health insurance for all members and raises of $1.15 to $1.65 an hour over the course of 2 1/2 years.”
Also, the contract’s expiration date coincides with those held by janitors in other parts of the country, increasing bargaining leverage the next time around.
Casinos stand pat
Back in September, when a key member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa tribe’s Greektown Casino team questioned the viability of the city obtaining property for permanent gambling halls on the riverfront, we checked with Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer to obtain his informed opinion. The mayor said he wouldn’t even consider another location for the permanent casinos. As for the December deadline to acquire the property, the mayor said not to worry, promising that the city would close the deal and gain control of the land before year’s end.
Archer still maintains the casinos will be located on prime riverfront property, but it doesn’t look like his prediction about controlling the land before 2001 rolls around is going to come true.
In December, the City Council, repeating a similar action taken last year, was forced to extend the deadline a second time.
Meanwhile, members of the Riverfront East Alliance turned in more than 7,000 signatures calling for a referendum on the riverfront sites. Whether the issue will actually go before voters remains a question. So far, the city has been able to block REAL’s efforts in court, arguing that what is essentially a zoning issue can’t be decided at the polls.
Five years lost
Well, at least it’s over. Finally. In late December, the last of six unions that went out on strike in 1995 against the Detroit News and Free Press ratified contracts, bringing to an end one of the longest and most bitter labor disputes in Detroit history. The contracts signed by the unions were essentially the same offered by the papers a half-decade ago. And they agreed to an open shop policy, meaning employees at the two dailies will not have to join a union or pay dues if they don’t want to. But they didn’t have much choice. With a key ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals going against them earlier in the year, there was little hope they would eventually nail the papers with unfair labor practices charges.
But it hardly seems like a victory for the papers. Sure, they achieved their goal of busting the unions, but the cost has been tremendous. An advertising and reader boycott caused circulation to plummet by about 30 percent. Years of good will and credibility were squandered, resulting in papers that have become shadows of their former, formidable selves.
Now the boycott has been called off — Teamsters leader James Hoffa came to town to personally announce a new era of goodwill.
But the papers still refuse to rehire workers fired as a result of actions taken during the strike, and the stingy contract the unions were finally forced to accept almost guarantees the deep wounds inflicted by the strike won’t heal quickly.
Winners and losers statewide
The big news across Michigan this year was the elections. We’re talking about much more than the presidential contest — which, despite the best efforts of Bush boy enthusiast Gov. John Engler, was carried decisively by veep Al Gore.
For progressives there was not a lot to cheer about. The Green Party achieved a victory of sorts when it managed to collect enough petition signatures to guarantee a spot for its presidential candidate on the statewide ballot. Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader made several trips to the state, including joining the local Labor Day parade.
Democrats achieved a big win when Rep. Debbie Stabenow pulled out a dramatic come-from-behind victory over incumbent Sen. Spence Abraham. Despite a bloated campaign budget and millions in special-interest money securing massive amounts of TV time, the lackluster Abraham was unable to maintain the 10-point lead he held in the polls during the closing weeks of the campaign.
Proponents of a school voucher ballot measure — backed in large part by the right-wing DeVos family — met resounding defeat when voters rejected the notion of using public money to fund private and parochial schools. The loss was seen as a setback for the voucher movement nationwide.
Otherwise, Republicans ruled. The GOP retained its majority in both houses of the state Legislature. And, in the nastiest and most expensive judicial campaign the state has seen, the Republicans also held their 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court. However, the high court campaign reached such lows even Chief Justice Elizabeth Weaver had to admit it’s time to consider exploring alternatives to our judicial selection system.
For the time being, however, the court will remain firmly in the grasp of arch-conservatives with a clear record of supporting the state’s business interests. So, if you are an insurance company executive or a manufacturer or even a small-business owner, chances are real good your side will continue to win cases going before the high court. For everyone else, from workers injured on the job to victims of medical malpractice to people who feel like they’re getting screwed by their insurance company, get used to it.
You lose.Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. E-mail to [email protected]