Public eye

As federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department approaches its eighth year, citizen watchdogs are looking to become more involved

Mar 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee and Deputy Mayor Saul Green are sitting in a conference room on the 11th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, patiently answering questions from a reporter about the consent decrees that have been the guiding force at the Detroit Police Department for nearly eight years.

Godbee, with a youthful face so smooth and impassive it could be carved from marble, is exceedingly soft-spoken and polite, often asking permission to make a comment.

Green, tall and distinguished-looking, is courteous as well, but looks as if he'd much rather be somewhere else. There is, afterall, a full plate of problems the city has to deal with.

But the administration has made this issue a priority. Besides, they have what they say is a positive story to tell.

When their boss, Mayor Dave Bing, first took office nearly two years ago, the consent decrees had been in place for almost six years, but the police department had complied with only about 30 percent of the goals.

In less than two years, the Bing administration has doubled that figure, bringing compliance above 60 percent and promising to be completely in accord with the requirements by year's end.

That is welcome news.

So far, the city has shelled out nearly $12 million to the independent monitors tasked by the U.S. Justice Department and a federal judge to make sure that the department diligently followed a detailed roadmap leading to reform. To make sure that policies were put in place to help keep people from being shot or beaten by the men and women in blue who are sworn to protect them.

To make sure illegal roundups weren't being conducted.

And to make sure prisoners weren't being found dead in the city's lockups.

Despite the progress made in the past two years, the current independent monitor overseeing the department noted in a quarterly report released in January that the pace of change remains a concern. Looking at the previous three months, monitor Robert S. Warshaw wrote:

"We recognize that the DPD has continued to make progress when we consider the overall level of compliance that has been achieved. At the same time, we note that the advances reported in this report are the fewest in number since our monitorship began [in October 2009]. While perhaps the most comprehensive changes will be the most difficult to accomplish and, therefore, it is reasonable to expect some slowing of the pace of improvement, we find such explanations offering little solace here. We are concerned with the pace of change. The DPD has achieved compliance with less than two-thirds of the requirements. We are troubled by the reversals that are reported for the quarter considered in this report. We are ever mindful that this reform process now enters its eighth year."

With that in mind, a group of concerned citizens that includes members of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and attorneys from the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild will be holding what they're calling a "Day of Inquiry" this week.

At issue are the effectiveness of the consent decrees, and the broader question of Police Department oversight.

Even the Bing administration admits the Police Department is not yet where it needs to be.

In terms of police shootings, the most recent numbers continue to warrant concern. According to the Police Department, there were 38 shootings by police in 2009, none of which was fatal. Twenty-nine of the shootings were deemed justified. The rest are still under review.

In 2010, there were 33 shootings overall, seven of which were fatal. Of the total number of shootings, nine were determined to be justified. The remaining incidents are still being reviewed.

Swallowing consent

The problems that led to the consent decrees were roiling long before the oversight began in 2003. But the mayor's office and police officials were slow to admit publicly that the city was facing a crisis.

Not that people in the community weren't trying to sound the alarm. In the forefront of that effort was the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality — made up primarily of the victims of police brutality and the families of those killed — which was founded in 1996 with the intent of documenting abuses and drawing attention to the issue.

The following year, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, "held a series of congressional hearings which focused on the Police Department's use of excessive force, abuse of power" and other issues, according to court documents filed by the coalition in 2003.

Those congressional hearings prompted the Detroit City Council to hold its own legislative hearings in 1998 and 2000. Around the same time, reporters from the Michigan Citizen and this paper began writing about questionable shootings.

Most notorious of all was Officer Eugene Brown who, in a six-year period, killed three people and wounded a fourth.

And then there was the case of a deaf and mute man shot and killed by police when he "menaced" them with a rake.

Victims' attorneys such as David Robinson — himself a former police officer — routinely accused the department of covering for cops who were involved in bad shootings.

In May 2000, the Detroit Free Press jumped on the story, publishing the results of a four-month investigation it had conducted. After analyzing FBI data, it found that — over an eight-year period beginning in 1990 — Detroit led the nation in the rate of fatal shootings by police officers. Averaging 10 fatal shootings per year during that period, Detroit had a rate of .92 fatal shootings by officers per 100,000 residents, compared to .39 for New York and .56 for Los Angeles. Houston ranked second with .68.

It was also revealed that, in 1997, the administration of then-Mayor Dennis Archer had commissioned a report by Los Angeles attorney Merrick Bobb, and expert on police procedures who had consulted with the Justice Department on investigations in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Bobb had concluded that the DPD lagged "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."

Despite having that information, the Archer administration's initial response was to blame what it described as the avaricious attorneys hired by shooting victims or their survivors. As one spokesman told this paper at the time, those attorneys would say anything "to make the Police Department look as bad as possible to get as much money as possible, and that is what this is all about."

It wasn't.

The problem was inadequate policies and training, a failure to thoroughly and fairly investigate shootings involving police officers, and a reluctance to punish officers involved in unjustified shootings.

There was also no system in place that allowed Police Department brass to track problem officers and take early corrective action.

As a result, millions of dollars in settlements and court judgments were being paid out.

Under the weight of mounting criticism, both Archer and the City Council formally request a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Detroit Police Department (DPD). Following a 30-month inquiry into the department's use of force and conditions in DPD holding cells, the department subsequently expanded its investigation to include arrest and detention issues.

During the first half of 2003, the DOJ issued three "technical assistance" letters outlining issues and concerns covering a long list of problems.

According to a report issued in January 2004, those shortcomings included:

"Use of force and use of force reporting, intake tracking and external complaints, external complaint investigations and dispositions, criminal and internal investigations, risk assessment and management, early warning system; policy planning, discipline and in-service and field training."

The letters also raised concerns "regarding arrest policies and practices ... and detention policies and practices."

The department promised to get its house in order.

However, as that first monitor's report noted: "Despite the DPD's efforts and cooperative process that took place, adequate reform did not take place to the DOJ's expectations." In June 2003, the DOJ filed a complaint against the city and the DPD.

And on July 18, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Julian A. Cook Jr. entered two consent judgments against the city and its Police Department, outlining the steps it had to take before federal oversight would be removed.

It would be a massive undertaking. As noted in one court document, the consent judgments required "a complete overhaul of the DPD's policies and practices regarding processing of citizen complaints, use of force, arrest, detention, etc."

At the time, both the City Council and the Coalition Against Police Brutality attempted to have the court formally recognize them as "interveners" in the case.

Attorneys for the council argued that both the legislative and executive branches of city government should be part of the process.

Representing the coalition, lawyers from the Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild argued that the path being pursued by the court and Justice Department was inherently flawed because the public at large was being excluded from direct involvement in the process.

"Despite being the leading advocacy group in Detroit for approximately the past decade, at no time was the coalition contacted by the parties for the coalition's input concerning the proposed judgments, no community hearings were held and no avenues were open for victims, citizens or citizens groups to express their concerns regarding the proposed consent judgments."

In essence, the coalition contended that public participation was needed to provide important checks and balances that would otherwise be absent.

"Meaningful police reform can only occur with the input of the effected communities," the coalition's lawyers argued.

The court turned down both requests. The council's attempt to be included — which the DOJ opposed — was rejected, in part, because the court viewed city government as one entity.

As for the coalition — whose involvement was opposed by both the Justice Department and the city Law Department, which at that time was under the control of Kilpatrick — the court ruled that it had no legal justification for a place at the table.

As it turned out, both the Justice Department and the court allowed the reform process to drag on for years without significant headway being made.

"Had the community been at the table, there would have been a different sense of urgency," says Ron Scott, a longtime Detroit activist and spokesperson for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.

What is now apparent is that someone should have been keeping a closer eye on the monitor overseeing a DPD that, under the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, apparently saw little urgency in the need to pursue reforms.

Kilpatrick's mess

The sordid saga of Kwame Kilpatrick and his dramatic fall is by now well known. Already serving time because he perjured himself on the witness stand, the former mayor — along with his father and three former top aides — was indicted in December on racketeering charges. A federal grand jury accused them using the mayor's office as a base for a criminal enterprise.

In regard to the perjury, Kilpatrick's undoing proved to be text messages — obtained by an attorney representing cops who claimed there were retaliated against when they looked into allegations of wrongdoing by the mayor.

Among other things, those messages revealed Kilpatrick to be a world-class philanderer.

And one of the people the text messages showed he was having "improper contact" with was Baltimore attorney Sheryl Robinson Wood, head of the monitoring team from the time federal intervention began in the summer of 2003 until June 2009. During that time, Wood and the two firms she was associated with collected in excess of $10 million from the city of Detroit.

According to court records, Judge Cook concluded that Wood "had engaged in conduct which was totally inconsistent with the terms and conditions of the two consent judgments ..." That conduct, the judge wrote, included "undisclosed communications, as well as meetings of a personal nature, with the former city of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick during the term of the consent judgments" and "inappropriate discussions with [Kilpatrick] about the lawsuit." In other words, the independent monitor was anything but independent.

The clear implication is that progress was stymied as a result.

The city attempted to have Judge Cook order the entire $10 million be repaid. The judge declined, saying that the city needed to file a separate breach of contract lawsuit if it wanted to recoup the funds. Whether such a suit will be filed hasn't yet been determined.

Critics, however, contend that the system itself is flawed. They argue that, with more than $1 million a year coming in, the motivation for those collecting that cash is to have the process drag on as long as possible.

In 2003, after the deal was struck, Detroit attorney Ronald Glotta, who provides office space to the coalition and does commentary for the group's weekly radio show, wrote a piece lambasting the use of private contractors to oversee reform of the DPD.

The monitor, Glotta wrote, will "be paid huge sums of money" by the city, yet "assumes no responsibility for the effectiveness of its activity. As with all privatizing projects, the company appropriates all the profit, privilege and perks but imposes on the citizens all the risks, losses, hazards and liabilities."

"The question being presented is why the city of Detroit is spending so much money to accomplish so little."

It proved to be prescient criticism. Certainly, during the first six years of the consent decrees, much was paid out and little accomplished. No one can dispute that.

Asked if he thought having a for-profit monitor created an incentive to delay the reform process in order to keep generating income, Deputy Mayor Green replied, "Not with this monitor."

Green is a former U.S. Attorney who, after entering private practice, was a monitor himself, hired to oversee implementation of a consent decree involving the Cincinnati Police Department in 2002.

In 2008, he was appointed deputy mayor when then-Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. assumed the role of interim mayor Kilpatrick was forced to resign. Bing retained Green as his deputy mayor after being elected in May 2009.

As a result, Green, whose duties in the Bing administration include oversight of the Police Department, has seen the monitoring process from both sides.

Departmental angst

Changing the way a police department operates — especially when it comes to attitudes ingrained over decades — is an enormous task, even under the best of circumstances.

When those changes are being imposed from the outside, it is all the more difficult.

From the writing of a consent decree to its implementation, nobody fully appreciates all the difficulties involved, Green says.

"Police departments don't anticipate the amount of work it will take," he says. "There can be resistance to having the federal government dictate changes, and internal angst over losing control."

Part of that can be attributed to the mountains of paperwork required by the monitors.

Because of the consent decrees, activities as routine as the frisking of suspects or foot chases all require that the officers involved fill out reports.

Some changes were certainly necessary, says Officer John Bennett, who offers frequent commentaries about the department and city politics in his blog, DetroitUncovered. But, he says, "In other ways we are being hamstrung because we are so overcome by paperwork. You get so bogged down in the mounds and mounds of paperwork that officers end up being taken off the street, keeping you from answering a call that might involve someone being in harm's way."

"Generally," he says, "we'll be happy when they [the monitors] are gone, when that cloud hanging over us is gone, and those millions of dollars that are going to the monitors can be poured back into manpower."

"The day we can finally say we are out from under these consent decrees will be a good day," he says.

How much paperwork might be eliminated once the consent decrees are finally lifted isn't clear. And it's not just a matter of paperwork. Along with reviewing procedures followed when cops are investigating other cops, one of the things members of the monitoring team routinely do now is listen to tapes of suspect interviews to determine if leading questions are being asked, and if the interrogations are thorough.

However, even if the mayor keeps the promise made during his recent State of the City address and the Police Department meets all the objectives laid out in the consent decrees by the end of this year, the monitor will continue to provide oversight to ensure compliance for an additional year before the monitor and DOJ are removed from the picture.

For that day to come, though, the department has to truly embrace the need for change, and to understand that the feds are here to help make the department better, Green and Chief Godbee explain.

"What is necessary," Green says, "is to finally get to the point where you say, 'enough pushback,' and the department realizes it just has to get the job done."

The Detroit Police Department is, he says, now getting the job done.

Certainly there was much difficulty dealing with the previous monitor, says former Detroit Police Chief James Barren.

Appointed by Cockrel, Barren served as chief until shortly after Bing took office. He describes the situation while Wood was monitor as tense. "There was a lot of animosity in those meetings," he recalls. "My feeling is, that really slowed things down."

And what does he think of the criticism that the former monitor could have been motivated to keep the pace of change slow?

"Who knows?" he says. "But it makes you wonder. I thought about that myself a few times."

A bigger problem, though, was funding.

"We just didn't have the money to get done a lot of things we were being told to do," he says.

There have been long, costly and often futile attempts to get a computerized tracking system in place. And then there are problems with aging holding cells, which the city says it just doesn't have the money to bring into compliance.

Which brings into focus the monitor's fees. By the time Wood resigned as monitor, she and her team were being paid more than $193,000 a month, which amounts to more than $2.3 million a year. (Warshaw's team is a relative bargain at slightly more than $91,000 a month, or about $1 million a year.)

Another factor that has to be considered when looking for reasons why the process has dragged on so long has to do with turnover at the top.

In the nearly eight years since the consent decrees were issued, Detroit has had three mayors and five different chiefs of police.

Every change in administration results in a shuffling of the department's top brass, creating an impediment to progress.

"Every time you get a new chief, there is always an adjustment period, and a shake-up of the bureaucracy, which is destabilizing. In an atmosphere like that, work just can't get done," says Mohammed Okdie, a former chair of the appointed Board of Police Commissioners.

The board, under the City Charter that has been in place since 1974, provides oversight of the Police Department.

With work under way on a new City Charter, there has been discussion regarding changes that could be made that would provide that body with more independence.

Okdie, for one, says it's a change that is much needed.

Final authority

A former social worker for Detroit Public Schools, Okdie was appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners by Kwame Kilpatrick in 2005.

The commission reviews and approves the Police Department's budget before it is sent to the mayor and City Council. It is also tasked with overseeing the investigation of citizen complaints, and acts "as final authority in imposing or reviewing discipline of employees of the department," as noted in an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

The problem with the setup Okdie says he saw from his vantage point as the board's president is a lack of checks and balances: The chief of police and all members of the board are appointed by the mayor.

"If the mayor appoints the commissioners, then those commissioners will be subservient to the mayor's will," Okdie says.

Looking at the history of the board, Okdie says it was created following voter approval of the City Charter in 1973. At that time, as the percentage of African-Americans in the city was growing, the police force remained largely white. The city's black population was outraged by the actions of the STRESS unit, an acronym for Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets. Members of the unit shot and killed 17 civilians in a four-year period, according to a Detroit News report.

Coleman A. Young, the city's first African-American mayor, disbanded STRESS soon after he was elected. Young also moved quickly to increase the number of black officers on the police force.

A lot of people blamed the problem on the issue of race, says Councilmember Gary Brown, a former deputy chief in the department. "It turned out to be not a black or white issue, but a blue issue."

Okdie expresses some amazement that Detroit voters were quick to rise up and make a fundamental change in oversight of the department in the early '70s, when an average of four people a year where dying at the hands of the STRESS unit, yet remained relatively quiet during the 1990s, when an annual average of 10 people were being killed by police.

"I'm appalled that the citizenry isn't more outraged over the handling of the consent decrees and what the DPD did in the years leading up to it," Okdie says.

The bottom line, he says, is this: If the Board of Police Commissioners had been truly independent and doing its job effectively in the '90s, then problems would have been illuminated and addressed before they got out of hand, and the federal government would not have found it necessary to step in.

The difficulty of remaining truly independent, he asserts, was highlighted by an especially tragic incident that's still making headlines and causing questions to be raised.

In 2010, Okdie's last year on the commission, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones died from a police gunshot during a controversial raid at her family's home on the city's east side.

Part of the controversy involved the use of a flash grenade, and questions of whether it was set off to increase the drama for a television crew that was filming the action.

(Last week, after a nine-month investigation, the Michigan State Police issued a warrant request in the case. The name of person they say should be charged, and the exact charges they are seeking, have yet to be released.)

Following the killing, Okdie says, he pushed the board to conduct an investigation to determine if department policies had been followed.

Shortly afterward, he says, he received a visit from Deputy Mayor Green. Disturbed by what he considered an inappropriate encounter, Okdie sent a letter to Mayor Bing.

Green, Okdie claimed in the letter, "attempted to direct the activity of the board by advising me as to what he 'preferred' that we do. He also did not want us to hold a press conference and asked that we say nothing at all regarding the case."

He went on to complain of Green's "frequent" involvement in board issues. Okdie called the contacts "improper."

"The board has the potential to create a fair and trusted environment for the police and for the community but it cannot do so if this interference continues," Okdie concluded.

Bing responded with a letter of his own, telling Okdie that his "characterization of Mr. Green's actions as an inappropriate attempt to influence ... are completely wrong and I reject them."

Bing concluded his letter with a terse statement: "Finally, with your tenure on the Board coming to an end July 1, 2010, I want to thank you for your service to the citizens of Detroit."

Okdie says the Charter Commission should change how members of the Police Board of Commissioners are selected; he advocates that they be directly elected. It is unclear whether any other cities use such a model. There are a number of oversight commissions, however, whose members are appointed by city councils rather than mayors; others have systems where appointment authority is shared.

Although he didn't specify a particular approach, Council member Brown tells the Metro Times that with a City Charter revision under way, "now is the time to give the Board of Police Commissioners teeth."

In a recent interview with the Metro Times, Scott of the Coalition Against Police Brutality also complained about the way the Police Department handled the Stanley-Jones case.

"We went for months without being able to get information about what's going on," complains Scott.

On the other hand, he gives Green and Godbee high marks for accessibility and engagement.

And even Scott admits that, in some ways, the situation is certainly better than it was a decade ago.

"We're not seeing high-profile shootings every week," he says. On the other hand, the coalition receives a "continuous stream of complaints about adverse behavior" that he claims is "making people more hostile and disrespectful."

He offers up a pile of cases containing complaints the coalition has received. There are stories alleging unlawful detention, groping body searches, beatings, and generally hostile and abusive treatment at the hands of cops.

"It's like walking up a slippery hill," he says. "You make progress, and then you slip back down.

Scott says the coalition is talking with attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild about the possibility of again attempting to formally intervene in the consent decree process.

Told of Scott's concerns during an interview with a reporter, Green suggested talking with other community activists, mentioning several names.

Among them was Raphael B. Johnson.

Convicted of second-degree murder as a teenager, Johnson turned his life around after serving his time. A motivational speaker and author who made an unsuccessful bid for City Council in 2009, Johnson was appointed by Bing to a seat on the Board of Police Commissioners last year, but withdrew his name after it became apparent the council wouldn't confirm him.

Last year, he founded the group Detroit 300, which helps residents organize to fight crime in their neighborhoods.

Johnson freely offers praise for Godbee, saying the chief can often be found in those same neighborhoods, building rapport with the community.

"He represents the idea of where we need to go," observes Johnson. "Godbee is very hands-on and community-friendly. But it is going to take a while for that attitude to trickle down."

Especially in a city like Detroit, where the situation on both sides of the blue line can be extremely dangerous, he says. Residents have a deeply held fear of the police, but the cops have justified fears of their own.

A much publicized incident in January, involving a gunmen who walked into a police precinct and began blasting away, wounding four officers before he was shot and killed, provided a graphic look at the dangers officers face.

In Johnson's view, for Detroit to become safer, politicians, the police department and residents have to work together.

"If any one of those three don't stay true to that spirit of cooperation," says Johnson, "we all are going to fall."

Strides and concerns

Asked what he thought of a group like the coalition becoming involved in the consent decree now, Deputy Mayor Green says that "at this point, seven years into the process, bringing another party in would not be helpful."

However, he says that, once compliance is attained, the administration will be open to "considering another structure that would provide citizen involvement."

As the interview progresses, he expresses some concern that the questions are focusing on what remains to be accomplished, and not the great strides that have been made since Bing took office.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment claimed by the department involves the implementation of a computer tracking system.

As far back as at least 1997, when L.A. attorney Merrick Bobb provided his report to then-Mayor Dennis Archer, the Police Department was being urged to create a comprehensive computer system that thoroughly tracks the actions of officers — including instances that result in the department being sued, and any payouts that are made as a result.

And, as recently as 2009, says Chief Godbee, it looked as if that effort might have to be scrapped and the process started anew. But the system was able to be salvaged, he says. Although it has not yet been certified as adequate by the monitor, it is up and running and doing every thing it is expected to.

Another significant hurdle involves the conditions in the city's lockups. In 1999, this paper found that, between 1992 and 1998, at least 18 prisoners had died or committed suicide while being held by Detroit police.

Godbee says that negotiations are under way with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department to have it take over the task of holding prisoners.

That, too, is an issue that is expected to be resolved soon.

But it's not just a matter of "checking off boxes," says the chief. He and this administration share the goal of not just being in compliance, but of making this a "best practices" department that is seen as a model that other departments around the country look to.

"As a police department, we are responsible for the public's safety," adds Green. With more than 3,000 officers, he says, "there are going to be some bad occurrences. Our goal is to keep them to a minimum, and then respond appropriately when the do occur."

Scott would agree with the need to do more than, as Godbee says, "just check off boxes."

At the heart of the issue is the culture of the department itself, and whether police officers see themselves as an occupying force or as partners in a communitywide effort to create a city that is safer for everyone — police and residents alike.

Beginning this week, with the Coalition Against Police Brutality leading the way, a public discussion will begin exploring ways to help ensure that happens.

They don't want assurances and promises. They want data and transparency. And they want to explore ways that can help make certain that the changes — not just in policy and procedure, but also in the culture of an entire police force — that began with a court action nearly eight years ago finally come to fruition.

This is the first in an occasional series of stories covering implementation of the federal consent decrees and oversight of the Detroit Police Department.

Day of inquiry
Meeting to mull effectiveness of federal consent decrees

An public event titled: "Day of Inquiry: Can the Courts Protect Us From Police Abuse?" will be held 4-6 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the Wayne State University Law School, 471 W. Palmer St., Detroit.

The event will look at the effectiveness of the federal consent decrees that have been in place against the Detroit Police Department since 2003.

It is sponsored by the Keith Center for Civil Rights, the Coalition Against Police Brutality and the Detroit/Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Contact or 313-963-0843 for more information.