Kudos and condemnation

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

News Hits doesn’t usually spill much ink complimenting the competition, but the Detroit Free Press last week produced a story that deserves recognition. Reporters Joe Swickard and David Ashenfelter wrote a front-page piece revealing a secret 1997 report that shows Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and top police officials have long known that “Detroit cops were shooting and killing people at a higher rate than police in other cities.”

The 148-page report was produced by Los Angeles attorney Merrick Bobb, a Justice Department consultant on investigations of police departments in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

One paragraph in the report is particularly chilling:

“The DPD currently lags 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.”

The report also states: “Implementation of our recommendations elsewhere has led to a rapid drop over a four-year period in police misconduct litigation and exposure, and there is every reason to believe that the same will happen in Detroit. The key is steadfast resolve.”

City officials told the Freep that although some of the report recommendations were implemented, many were not because of financial constraints.

It can be argued, however, that not implementing the recommendations has resulted in a much higher cost. As the Freep reported, in the four years since the report was completed, the city has paid out $46 million in lawsuits filed against the Police Department and the rate of fatal shootings by police has increased 50 percent from the rate cited in the report.

We at News Hits read the story with a mixture of furor and disgust. In April, Metro Times reporter Ann Mullen first drew attention to the number of questionable shootings involving police and the way the department conducted investigations of its officers. In response to our questions, mayoral spokesman Greg Bowens defended Chief Benny Napoleon and his department, saying the real blame belonged to avaricious attorneys.

Such attorneys, Bowens told us, will say anything “to make the Police Department look as bad as possible to get as much money as possible, and that is what it is all about.”

It is now clear how wrong Bowens was. The problem isn’t with lawyers who represent the families of people gunned down by cops. The problem is with a department and a mayor’s office that publicly denies there is a problem when they know it exists.

Asked why portions of the report weren’t implemented, Archer told the Free Press: “We didn’t have the money. It’s in the process of being done now. Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I could have done it yesterday.”

Key recommendations made in the report were not followed through on. For example, the report recommended that a special Internal Affairs unit be created to handle shootings and similar high-profile incidents. Instead of following the advice, the department’s homicide unit continued to investigate these cases. It was only last year, following a steady stream of media exposure and mounting pressure from City Council, that Archer shifted responsibility for shooting investigations to Internal Affairs. But to our knowledge, the type of unit outlined in the report still has not been created within Internal Affairs.

Likewise, a tracking system to identify problem officers has been in the works for years but is still not up and running.

One of the attorneys Bowens referred to in our April story is David Robinson, himself a former Detroit police officer, who is largely responsible for helping bring public attention to the problem. Asked about the Free Press story, Robinson told us, “The statement that they couldn’t afford this flies in the face of what is practical and logical. I had made a lot of these suggestions (that are in the report). That’s how obvious this shit is.”

“They had this report and shrouded it in secrecy,” fumes Robinson.

According to the report’s executive summary (available at www.freep.com) Bobb expected it to be shared with the City Council and the Board of Police Commissioners.

That, apparently, was never done.

Sadly, the problems exposed by the media last year might have been avoided had Archer chosen honesty over deception. Instead of keeping the report a secret and denying that problems existed, he could have taken this report to the City Council and said that, despite the costs, implementing its recommendations will save tens of millions of dollars — and also save lives. He didn’t do that.

As far as News Hits is concerned, this administration has blood on its hands.

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]