Consent and dissent

Day of Inquiry highlights hopes, limitations for community-police relations

An impressive group of people gathered at the Wayne State University School of Law last week to talk about the two federal consent decrees the Detroit Police Department has been under since 2003.

In the room were one current and two former U.S. attorneys, ranking members of the city administration and Police Department, current and former City Council members, members of the Board of Police Commissioners, and victims of police abuse along with their advocates and lawyers.

Getting them all to sit down was in itself quite an achievement.

But News Hits left the event wondering, "What, exactly, did they accomplish?"

The questions asked were certainly valid. We wrote a cover story about many of the same issues last week, looking at reasons why the oversight has dragged on for nearly eight years. And why, after eight years, much work still remains for the department to be in compliance.

The decrees — sought by the U.S. Department of Justice following a 30-month investigation into the Police Department's excessive use of force, dangerous lockups and illegal roundups of potential witnesses — were necessary. Few would dispute that.

The main question behind the so-called "Day of Inquiry" — sponsored by the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Detroit/Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Damon J. Keith Center for Human Rights — was this: Can the courts protect us from police abuse?

But we already know the answer to that.

For the first six years of oversight, little was accomplished in the way of protecting the citizens of Detroit from police abuse. That's an undeniable fact.

Some, like attorney Ron Glotta, noted from the outset that the effort was flawed because it involved privatization. Instead of having government officials directly involved, the task was assigned to a "monitor" who was handsomely paid to perform the task. Pay someone $1 million to $2 million a year — especially a private corporation whose mission is to maximize profits — and the tendency is to want to keep the gravy train rolling.

And then there's the fact that the people most responsible for implementation of the consent decrees were never allowed to be part of the formal process.

With the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality leading the way, members of the community spent years, beginning in 1996, trying to raise awareness about the issue of police shootings and other problems that were rampant in the department.

But they were excluded from participating in the DOJ investigation. And, with attorneys for the National Lawyers Guild representing them, they were kept out of the process when they formally petitioned U.S. Judge Julian Cook to be part of the consent decree process.

"At every juncture we welcomed and wanted citizen participation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Levy, who has been the Justice Department's lead person in the reform effort since its onset.

But it was the Justice Department that opposed including the Coalition Against Police Brutality in the consent decree process. So, at that critical juncture, citizen participation was not only unwelcome but actively thwarted.

It is a critical issue. As Ron Scott, a longtime activist and spokesman for the coalition, told us for last week's story, "Had the community been at the table, there would have been a different sense of urgency."

And so, after nearly six years and the expenditure of more than $10 million to pay for the monitor, only 31 percent of the requirements that needed to be met to achieve compliance were fulfilled.

Which brings us to the next big question: Why has this all taken so long?

Former Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel laid the blame directly at the feet of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who she described as a "crook" who was having what the court tactfully describes as "improper contact" with then monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood.

Levy and councilmember Gary Brown, a former deputy police chief, both talked about the tremendous resistance to change that initially existed within the police department.

Resistance that continued for years.

So what good is oversight if it has no teeth?

Actually, there are teeth. It's just that the Justice Department decided not to take as deep a bite as it could have. The feds could have asked Judge Cook to throw officials in jail for failing to comply with the consent decrees, and the judge could have sent them to the clink to make sure people were taking this issue seriously.

But they didn't do that.

Levy explained that the Justice Department didn't think it would be a "valuable endeavor to lock up city officials."

Not valuable? Seems to us that would have surely gotten some people's attention, and sent the message that the feds weren't fooling around.

At one point, there was a $1,000-a-day fine imposed. But it was the city's money — which, like the millions going to a monitor who was doing little to earn a fortune — wasting it didn't seem to be a problem.

But, like we said, this is all stuff people already knew. What bothered us, despite the good intentions of organizers and the participation of many — including that of Channel 7's Bill Proctor, himself a former police officer, as moderator — was an inability to get much below the surface.

Representing the administration of Mayor Dave Bing were Deputy Mayor Saul Green and Assistant Police Chief Chester Logan.

Their primary position was this: Despite the problems that existed previously, things are on the right track now. In his State of the City speech earlier this year, Bing touted the progress that has been made since he took office and promised that the department would be in compliance with both consent decrees by the end of this year.

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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