Council to vote on restoring police commission powers

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday is expected to take up a resolution to restore the full powers of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, whose citizen watchdog powers were stripped by the city’s ex-emergency manager.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield wrote the resolution, which is slated to be introduced during the panel’s formal session. If approved, the commission’s powers would be reinstated Dec. 11.

“I believe in full restoration of powers and civilian oversight of the police department,” Sheffield said. “I just think it’s important to have accountability and oversight over any police department.”

Sheffield is expected to be joined by representatives from the Detroit Pastoral Alliance for Change and the police commission outside City Hall in advance of Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the measure.

Detroit’s former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, issued an emergency order in September 2014 that transitioned power over the police department from Orr’s office to Mayor Mike Duggan.

The move essentially stripped the police oversight board of its powers and, opponents have argued, took control away from citizens.

The board was established in 1974 to give citizens oversight of a police department troubled by allegations of brutality.

Willie Bell, the police commission’s vice chairman, noted Monday that Detroit has been at the forefront of oversight nationally. The restoration of the panel’s oversight, he says, will be crucial.

“All the powers that the charter mandates will be reinstated to us,” Bell said. “We do not take that lightly. We take it very seriously.”

Key issues, he added, include policy and procedure, including manpower and the department’s new body cameras.

The commission previously appealed to the council to win support for restoring its strong and accountable oversight. But the council had been prohibited for at least a year from discontinuing Orr’s order.

Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Duggan, said late Monday that the administration supports the police commission and looks forward to working with them.

A resolution approved last fall along with Orr’s executive orders returned much of the power to Detroit’s legislative and executive branches after 18 months under emergency management. The police board, however, remained unable to perform all of its charter-mandated duties.

The original board was a five-member body of mayoral appointees, but under the City Charter that passed on the 2012 ballot, the board grew to 11 members, seven of whom were elected from newly designated city districts, with the remaining four as mayoral appointments.

An approval on Tuesday will allow the board to assume its oversight role under Detroit’s 2012 city charter.

It is empowered by the charter to rule on proposed changes to the department’s command structure and executive hirings or firings, officer discipline and helping citizens get action from the police.

But when Orr took over in March 2013, under a state financial emergency law, he issued an order that allowed Police Chief James Craig to bypass the board.

Under Orr, the board has acted as a liaison between the police department and citizens to field complaints and concerns at board meetings.

Bell said the commission, police department and city administration are now working together to provide quality public safety for Detroit.