Code breaker

David Robinson folds his arms and peers at this reporter as if deciding whether or not to trust her. He says that his suspicious nature comes from being a Detroit police officer for 13 years. But Robinson no longer dons a blue uniform or silver badge. Nor does he abide by the “blue code of silence” as he once did. The former cop is now an attorney and has spent more than a decade building his law practice suing police officers — mostly Detroit officers.

At his Southfield office, Robinson sits at a large oblong conference table strewn with police reports, witness statements, crime-scene drawings, depositions and yellow notepads scrawled with his musings. He pulls from the pile a white binder containing details of six cases in which citizens were killed or wounded by Detroit officers. The white binder also distills his indignation into a succinct legal argument that damns the department for allowing these shootings — as well as many others — to occur, and for not thoroughly investigating them.

In each case, the person shot was either unarmed or shot in the back or both, according to the documents. Despite this, the homicide section’s investigation deemed all the shootings justified.

Robinson says that officers are often given the benefit of the doubt in police shootings because those investigating them live by the blue code and “see through blue spectacles.”

But in the past several months there has been massive public outcry — and a major shake-up in the Detroit Police Department — over the blue code and how it hid from view the number of citizens gunned down by officers.

And Robinson is the reason.

Local media attention — which Robinson helped engineer — has focused largely on several lawsuits he filed against the police department, as well as dozens of other police shooting cases he subpoenaed from the city in an attempt to prove what he has long suspected: When it comes to police shootings the Detroit Police Department is bound by the blue code.

But now that so many people are looking closely at the department, a number of reforms are under way. Chief Benny Napoleon is appointing a citizens board to review the use of deadly force, and Mayor Dennis Archer has called in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate police shootings. There is also talk of finding ways to break the blue code of silence.

Robinson says he would like to see more reforms throughout the department. But having lived and worked on both sides of the blue line, Robinson has his doubts that it will ever be erased.

The nobody somebodies

Robinson recalls watching courtroom dramas acted out in his childhood home. Short, plump, Estella Marie Robinson would stand and shout during episodes of “Perry Mason,” one of America’s first TV attorneys. Robinson’s mother, who had once dreamed of being an attorney herself, had a “real sense of justice and fair play,” he says.

“She would argue with Perry Mason’s opponent. She would get mad at Perry if Perry was sleeping at the switch, which was infrequent. But she loved ‘Perry Mason,’ and I think that is what inspired me to want to become an attorney.”

She also passed on her love of language to her children, particularly to Robinson, the youngest of four.

“I used to take the dictionary to bed every night to learn words,” he says. “I loved words. I loved words.”

Robinson, who describes himself as a nerd through junior high and high school, was the kid regularly chosen to recite poems in church. His stay-at-home mom sharpened his strong oratory skills by regularly debating current events and other topics with her children.

“We would have these intellectual discussions, an hour exercise, at home, and that was our entertainment,” he says.

The last debate between Robinson and his mother before she died three years ago at age 77, concerned the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“She was a proponent, I was an opponent and still am,” says Robinson. “I think she changed her mind.”

Robinson’s father, Frederick, who passed away 10 months after his wife, was not as verbally sophisticated. But this did not prevent the couple, who grew up in Danville, Ill., and later moved to Detroit, from being happily married 47 years, says Robinson.

“My dad was a good man,” he says, and hardworking.

Robinson’s father was once a laborer. But in the late 1960s, he got a job as a security officer at Detroit’s Civic Center; he retired more than 20 years later.

“He was very proud of his position,” says Robinson, who was close to his father. “So while he may not have been as articulate as my mother, he had a skill and it was one of ingenuity and was born out of survival.”

Sitting in his office, the 45-year-old father of two talks about his dad and is engulfed in sadness. Head bowed, Robinson chokes back tears and describes how his father’s story is like that of many black men from his generation.

“The ‘nobody somebodies,’ that’s what I call them because in the scheme of things they are just hardworking black men,” he says. “They are not presidents, they’re not doctors or lawyers, but it was a generation of men that while they were nobody at the same time they were really somebody because they had the capacity to do anything.”

His father’s vision for Robinson and his other son was to make sure they did not become ‘nobody somebodies,’ he says. His brother, Fred Jr. — the oldest of the four siblings — is a captain for United Airlines in Colorado. His sister Janet works for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a clerk. Another sister, Deborah, has a journalism degree; both sisters live in Detroit.

Robinson is married to his high school sweetheart, Leerae. They live in Southfield with their two children, Dave Jr., 19, and Divinia, 17, who wants to be an attorney like her father. To relax, Robinson said, he likes to spend time with his family on his 40-foot motorboat, which he keeps docked on the Detroit River. But most of his time, he says, is devoted to his practice.

“Everyone should be a cop”

Water trickles from a miniature fountain in Robinson’s office. Drawings of Minnie Mouse, which Divinia did when she was about 13, are taped to his office wall behind his small wooden desk. On another wall hangs a framed drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. He calls the civil rights leader “my inspiration.” Robinson talks about King and other heroes such as John Brown, the militant white abolitionist who was hanged for trying to lead an anti-slavery uprising, and Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit woman who headed south in 1965 to join the civil rights movement and was killed by the Klan. “Doesn’t that just get your blood going, that she saw something wrong and wanted to do what’s right at the sacrifice of her own life?”

This question reminds him of a statement King made and which Robinson says he tries to model his life after: “Life is not worth living unless there is something in life for which you are willing to die.”

In 1963, Robinson says, his family marched about five miles from their home to Cobo Hall to hear King speak; he was 9 at the time.

“That was something to remember,” he says.

But the assassination of King five years later had a deeper impact on him. After hearing the news, he and his classmates — in unison — quietly stood up from their desks, carried their chairs to the third-floor windows of Hutchins Junior High School and threw them to the ground.

“No one said a word. It was a profound moment,” says Robinson.

After graduating from Chadsey High School in 1972, the eager student entered college at Wayne State University.

“I jumped into college right away. I didn’t even take a summer vacation,” he says.

Robinson never wanted to be an officer, but joined the force in 1975 at the age of 20 because the department paid for his college education. At the end of the police academy’s 16-week course, his tactical sergeant called on the eloquent speaker, whom he nicknamed the “silver-tongued devil,” to recite the Police Code of Ethics to the graduating class, which Robinson has memorized to this day.

But his time as an officer derailed his plans for completing his undergraduate degree and going on to law school. The young rookie was working swing shifts and was unable to finish his fourth year at Wayne.

“Every time I registered for school, I had to drop out. I couldn’t handle the fatigue,” he says.

Eventually, Robinson got a day shift and completed his final year. But several years would pass before he entered Wayne State University Law School.

During that time, Robinson says that he was enjoying being a cop.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I think everyone should be a cop.”

And according to officers who worked with him, Robinson was a good one.

“You could tell he was very dedicated to what he did, and thorough,” says police officer Marty Bandemer, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, who worked with the young officer at the 5th Precinct.

“In my opinion, he was a model cop,” says Amos Williams, a retired lieutenant who supervised Robinson three years at the 14th Precinct. “I relied on him a lot.”

Williams says the young officer was good at diffusing disputes involving neighbors or family members.

Robinson recalls one of his first runs. He was called to quell a fight between a drunk couple in their 60s.

“I looked at all the different variables,” recalls the stocky man who stands about 5-foot-9. “I’m a cop, they’re not. I’m 20 years old, they’re 60 years old. What am I going to do? So I thought, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to embarrass them. I said, ‘Look, I’m 20 years old; you’ve been married longer than I’ve been alive and you’re calling me to come in and tell you how to get along. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You ought to be giving me advice.’”

It worked.

“I don’t know if it worked forever,” says Robinson smiling, “but it worked that night. They were hugging and kissing before I left.”

There were also times when those Robinson arrested thanked him.

“If I call you sir and am extremely polite to you, that may be something you don’t expect,” he explains. “So the guy I arrest for drugs or guns, he turns around and says, ‘thanks.’”

Like most officers, Robinson says he never fired his gun.

“Except at the firing range,” he says.

What made Robinson an effective officer, he says, is that he understood the psychological edge cops have over citizens and he used it to his advantage.

“As an officer you have a badge and uniform and gun … so it’s not necessary to abuse that position because you already have the upper hand,” he says.

But Robinson knows better than most that some cops abuse their authority. He saw it firsthand.

The blue code

“As a cop, I saw bad things happen,” he says. “I saw abuses, people getting beat up just because the cop wanted to beat them up.”

Asked if he ever reported this, Robinson says, “No, because no one got beat up so badly they had to go to the hospital.”

As unsettling as his answer may be, it is also enlightening. Even this good cop turned a blind eye to abuse because he, like all police officers, was subject to the blue code of silence. To snitch on a fellow cop is to risk ostracism, threats and physical abuse, he says.

“I’m no longer a cop and I would elect differently than I did as a police officer,” he says. “I’m not part of any code any more. There are certain pressures that are not on me at this point.”

“It’s definitely indelible,” he says of the cops’ code. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

It is even stronger than the racism that existed within the police department when Robinson was on the force, he says. During roll call white and black officers sat on separate sides of the room, says Robinson.

“And it was rare for officers to interact on and off duty,” he says, referring to the department’s racial divide. “But when a cop gets shot, everyone turns blue. The same officer that perhaps was reluctant to speak to you at roll call is at your beck and call during that situation. But when that situation is over, you go back to your separate corners.”

The code overcomes racial barriers, he says, because cops risk their lives every day and need each other to stay alive.

“So the threat or the perceived threat affects us all, not just the black officer or white officer, it affects us all,” says Robinson.

“When I was an officer,” says former Detroit Police Lt. O’Neal Wright, “I would tell my officers when I conducted roll call in the morning that I want to see them at roll call at night. So what does that mean? Try to stay alive. Try to stay alive.”

Wright was on the force more than 17 years and has been defending and suing police officers as an attorney 22 years.

He maintains that variations of the blue code exist in most professions, comparing the police to those who run large corporations like Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. that are under severe attack for allegedly keeping quiet about the faulty tires that cost more than 100 motorists their lives.

“It’s human nature,” says Wright.

Defending cops

After completing law school at Wayne State and passing the bar examination in 1986, Robinson spent three years at the police department’s legal advisory section and handled a few cases involving alleged police misconduct. He lost his first trial; the officer he defended was found liable for beating his stepfather. He recalls another case that settled for $20,000 because the police raided the wrong house for drugs. But defending police officers was not what Robinson wanted to do. In 1988, when his wife started working, the young lawyer set out on his own.

His first case was against the Detroit Police. And he knew it would be when he became a lawyer.

“Because I know that stuff,” he says. “I know how police are supposed to act and how they do act.”

Attorneys who represent the city and police department say that Robinson’s 13 years of service on the force serves him well as a lawyer.

“He has intimate knowledge of the police department and how it works, more than other attorneys that specialize in suing the city and police,” says Krystal Crittendon, a City of Detroit attorney who is currently defending an officer accused of falsely arresting and beating one of Robinson’s clients.

“He has information that other plaintiff attorneys don’t have,” says Crittendon. “But he can be beaten.”

Not often, according to Robinson, who says he has tried between 50 and 60 cases in the last 14 years and lost only about five; about 90 percent settle before trial.

“I guess one of the reasons he has such fervor for police cases is that he is a former officer,” says City of Detroit attorney Diane Hutcherson. “Of course another reason he does it is he gets money.”

About 80 percent of Robinson’s caseload (which hovers around 25 cases at one time) involves police misconduct, and about 80 percent of those cases involve the Detroit Police Department, he says.

Robinson says that he has remained friends with some officers on the force and some thank him for his work.

But for someone who spends so much time suing the police department — and raising the issue of citizens being killed by cops in the press — Robinson has not developed a reputation among officers like, for instance, attorney Cornelius Pitts, who has been a lawyer more than 30 years and has sued the department many times. This reporter once heard a group of 300 police officers at a training session moan at the mention of Pitts’ name. But when the Metro Times contacted all 13 Detroit police precincts, asking the officer who answered whether he or she had heard of Robinson, every single one said no.

The recent media attention on police shootings “tears up morale,” says Bandemer.

“We are fourth among the nation with officers killed in the line of duty. The officers, they go out there and do the job. Obviously we would like citzen support and do have it for the most part, but it is frustrating to see articles in the paper.”

Pitts, who has known Robinson over 20 years and considers him an excellent attorney, says that his friend’s reputation “is in the process of developing at a rapid clip.”

Chain reaction

In 1994, a Detroit officer fatally shot Lamont Hemphill, and Robinson sued the officer and department. The shooting officer said he shot Hemphill because he saw a “shiny object,” which is a code word for a gun. But no gun was found, and the department deemed the shooting justified. Though the initial report the homicide section submitted to the prosecutor’s office said that Hemphill was shot in the chest, the Wayne County Medical Examiners’ Office found that the bullet entered his back. That case settled for over six figures.

The Hemphill case was the first of several that eventually led to a media blitz over the high rate at which citizens are killed by Detroit cops. (Per capita, Detroit police fatally shot citizens at a higher rate than any other of the 10 most populous U.S. cities, two-and-a-half times more often than New York and one-and-a-half times more often than Los Angeles. Detroit Police officials say that’s a reflection not of a trigger-happy department but of the violence that the officers face on the city streets.)

In 1994, Robinson filed another lawsuit against the department when Christopher Welch, who was unarmed, was shot in the face. A jury awarded Welch about $1.4 million.

“The cop was able to pull the wool over the department’s eyes,” says Robinson, “but he couldn’t pull the wool over the jury’s eyes.”

With this case, Robinson started suspecting that something was wrong in the police department. He says that the cop shot Welch because he was frightened and the department ignored this during the investigation.

“And that’s not a reason to use deadly force,” says Robinson.

Asked why the shooting cases are not thoroughly investigated Robinson says it’s a combination of things: laziness, lack of training and the blue code.

“It’s like they see through blue spectacles,” he says. “You can put a cops’ definition to a certain set of facts and … you see things in that light. There are people who got shot by a cop and there should not be any second-guessing. But there are those situations that deserve strict scrutiny and calling the situation wrong if it’s wrong.”

He cites the shooting of 16-year-old Liquory Hines as another example. In 1998, two officers shot at Hines and struck him once in the neck. Both officers alleged that Hines pointed a gun at them; however, after an exhaustive search by a tracking dog, no gun was found.

“It’s easy to say ‘I saw a gun,’” says Robinson. “But there is no evidence to support that. So the department takes the police officer’s word over the guy who got shot when there’s no evidence to support what the cops are saying. It just doesn’t make sense.”

This case confirmed for Robinson that something was wrong. And he set out to prove it by subpoenaing police shooting cases. The department eventually turned over 60-odd cases.

“They confirmed what I suspected,” he says. “ Things that were unfavorable to the cop doing the shooting were ignored.”

The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality had been clamoring about police misconduct for more than a year before this. They went to the Detroit City Council and Napoleon with complaints and demands for reform, but nothing was done.

When Robinson decided to go to the press, he set off a chain reaction. Initially, Robinson agreed to provide the Metro Times with the files, but opted to go with the Free Press to ensure that what he found could not be ignored. When other publications found out that Robinson had the police files, he says there was a virtual tug-of-war over the information.

“There was competition and it was fierce,” says Robinson.

But the bottom line for Robinson was that “the message needed to be out there and in the biggest way possible,” he says.

It paid off.

Mayor Archer was slow to act, but the media has been relentless since the first articles were published last spring. Initially, Archer reassigned police shooting investigations to internal affairs instead of the homicide section.

But as more police shootings occurred at the end of the summer — particularly the fatal shooting of Errol Shaw Jr., a deaf man who was waving a rake at several officers — public outrage grew louder.

Chief Napoleon appointed a 10-member citizens board to review the use of deadly force. Archer called on the U.S. Justice Department to review police shooting cases since 1995. The Detroit City Council held daylong hearings focusing on the police department and called in Napoleon, the Board of Police Commissioners and Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair to answer questions. More hearings are to be held.

Other reforms also are being considered such as raising the age of admittance into the police academy from 18 to 21; granting the Board of Police Commissioners, which is made up by citizens, more power to oversee the department; and implementing a long-awaited database system to better track police shootings and officers.

Robinson applauds these changes and lists some suggestions of his own. He thinks that officers should be given more training, pairing rookies with experienced street cops, and possibly loosening the blue wall of silence by not only punishing officers who abuse their authority, but those who protect them.

“If one cop covers up for a bad cop, that cop should be disciplined and that would discourage the blue code,” he says.

But is there any chance of doing away with the blue code all together? At least one City Council member has asked that question in the recent furor.

When the question is posed to Robinson, he shakes his head.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s possible.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]
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