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Detroit — With police abuse scandals swirling locally and nationally, one of Detroit's top police officials has a message to the city's officers: You have a tough job, but you must hold yourselves to a higher standard.

"Just because you wear a badge, that doesn't mean you have immunity," Assistant Detroit Police Chief Steve Dolunt said. "I told our officers at (a departmentwide meeting of police officials Thursday): We need to watch what we're doing out there. It was just a reminder, in light of all the things that are going on."

Following last year's police controversies involving the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, more scandals have recently surfaced, including the January videotaped beating of motorist Floyd Dent by Inkster officer William Melendez, who was fired last week; and, in Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray, which has sparked widespread protests.

Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police President Robert Stevenson, formerly Livonia's police chief, said police officers everywhere have difficult jobs, made even tougher by the recent controversies.

"It's an extremely difficult time to be a police officer," he said. "It seems all the good things we do don't get covered, and the few bad things we do, out of the millions and millions of contacts with citizens, get huge coverage.

"But ... keep our heads high, keep doing our jobs, and get the public's trust back."

During a meeting of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday, Dolunt pointed to the police shooting of a 61-year-old mentally ill man last week as an example of the difficult job officers have, and how they're sometimes called upon to make split-second life-or-death decisions.

Police were called to the man's home in the 4100 block of Euclid at about 1:35 p.m. Wednesday to check on his well-being. After they were unable to enter the home, they called Detroit firefighters to break in, which is protocol, Dolunt said.

"When they got in, the man went after the firefighter with a meat cleaver and a knife," Dolunt said. "It was a tragic scene, but the officers reacted the way they were taught, which is to stop the threat."

The man was shot twice, and remains in critical condition, Dolunt said.

"The firefighter was in tears talking to (Detroit Police Chief James Craig), thanking him for the police response," Dolunt said. "And the man's daughter told us, 'You had no choice.' We don't hear that very often from the family member of someone we had to shoot."

Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, asked what protocols are in place when officers encounter citizens with mental health issues.

"There needs to be a discussion of how police deal with the mentally ill," Scott said.

Dolunt pointed out there are increasing numbers of mentally ill people who need care, since the state has slashed aid to mental health programs over the past two decades.

"It's a shame," he said. "I'd rather have (mental health facilities) than more prisons, but the state cut a lot of that out."

Police Commission Chairman Willie Bell, a longtime Detroit police officer, added: "We need to understand: A man with a gun or a knife, regardless of his mental state, is still a man with a gun or a knife. Officers only have a few seconds to make a decision."

The discussion at the Board of Commissioners meeting also centered on Melendez, who faces felony charges of mistreatment of a prisoner and assault with intent to do great bodily harm stemming from the videotaped beating of Dent.

Melendez, a former Detroit police officer, had also worked part time as a Highland Park officer, but he was fired from that post last week. Inkster Police Chief Vicki Yost, also a former Detroit officer, resigned last week amid the scandal.

When Melendez was on the Detroit force, he was indicted in 2003 with 18 other Detroit officers in a federal case that involved multiple allegations of planting evidence, assault, stealing money, and conducting searches without warrants.

Eight of the officers, including Melendez, were acquitted by a jury in May 2004.

Police Commissioner Reggie Crawford, who worked with Melendez in the 4th Precinct, said the charges stemmed from him and other officers blowing the whistle.

"There were those of us in the 4th Precinct who suspected things about him, and who knew of things that were going on," said Crawford, who worked more than 20 years as a Detroit officer and is now a Wayne County sheriff's deputy. "Some of us spoke up, and he was indicted. He was acquitted, and here we are years later with this situation in Inkster. You don't have to snitch; just tell."

Dolunt insisted officers are not above the law. "We just arrested a Warren lieutenant (who allegedly was involved Wednesday in a downtown Detroit bar brawl)," he said.

"Police officers should be held to a higher standard," Dolunt said. "That's why I told our officers we need to watch ourselves. Hopefully, they got the message."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

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