Cop talk

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In November 2003, the Detroit Police Department, under Chief Ella Bully-Cummings, issued a Teletype informing its officers that they were prohibited from talking to the news media without first receiving approval from the brass. Almost a year after that directive was issued, David Malhalab, then a sergeant on the force, was disciplined for making “an unauthorized statement to the news media which was intended to bring discredit to both the City and a City of Detroit Executive,” according to a department records.

Malhalab was taken to the woodshed for talking to a TV reporter about an incident involving Christine Beatty, Mayor Kilpatrick’s chief of staff. Beatty, after being pulled over for speeding by a pair of Detroit’s finest, allegedly responded by asking the cops, “Do you know who the fuck I am?” Malhalab, the longtime go-to guy for reporters wanting a quote from the rank and file on issues involving the department, told WDIV-TV’s Mike Lewis something to the effect that the attempted intimidation was outrageous. For providing that bit of insight, Malhalab was eventually suspended for six days without pay.

Last May, after 23 years on the force, Malhalab retired because of a job-related disability. But the suspension stuck in his craw. And kept sticking. So he contacted Michael J. Steinberg, legal director for the Michigan ACLU. Steinberg, in turn, wrote a letter to Bully-Cummings, informing her that the no-talk policy violated the U.S. Constitution’s free speech provisions.

In late October, the department responded by saying the order involving media contacts had officially been rescinded. City legal staff reviewed the issue and agreed with the ACLU’s position, says department spokesman James Tate.

But Malhalab isn’t celebrating yet. First off, he wants the six days pay he says is owed to him. He’s going through union channels in an attempt to get it; if that fails, he will explore filing a civil suit.

Malhalab also wants to be certain that every officer knows they’re now free to discuss departmental issues with the media. Tate says notice of the policy change has been sent throughout the department; Malhalab says that pals of his still on the force are telling him they haven’t yet seen the new policy. But even more important than words on paper is how the department’s brass actually deal with outspoken malcontents like Malhalab.

“There’s an aura of intimidation that has existed since the days of the Coleman Young administration,” Malhalab says. “But it’s even worse now under Kwame. I served under three mayors, but his is the first administration that disciplined me for trying to inform the public about the mismanagement of the Detroit Police Department.”

So, if you’re one of Detroit’s finest, this is the message Malhalab has for you: First, if you haven’t seen the rescinded order, know that the prohibition against talking to the media has been abolished. Then use that First Amendment protection.

“I just hope” Malhalab says, “that police officers will stand up and speak to the media, speak to the public, speak the truth, because Detroit residents need to know the truth about their police department.”

Here’s our message: News Hits is waiting to hear from you.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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