Powers restored to Detroit police civilian review board

George Hunter
The Detroit News

For the first time since Detroit went into bankruptcy in 2013, the city’s police department is again under citizen oversight.

One of the issues the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners will likely tackle in the coming months: Whether to equip officers with Tasers. Detroit Police Chief James Craig has openly advocated for their use, and city officials have been studying their cost and feasibility for months.

The board had its power usurped by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s Executive Order 11 during the city’s bankruptcy and it was restored this month.

“We’ve been obviously wanting the board to get its powers back for some time,” board vice chairman Willie Bell said. “Moving forward, the main thing we want is to work with the chief.”

“We’ve been obviously wanting the board to get its powers back for some time,” Detroit Board of Police Commissioners Vice Chairman Willie Bell said. “Moving forward, the main thing we want is to work with the chief.”

Since Craig was hired in July 2013, he’s made several changes to the department’s command structure, such as creating the ranks of captain and corporal, which would have required board sign-off had Orr’s order not been in place.

Craig said the return of the board’s powers won’t change the way he goes about his job.

“We’ve had a good working relationship all along, and I look forward to that continuing,” he said. “I’ve grown up in police departments that have had oversight: Cincinnati and Los Angeles. So this doesn’t change the way I feel about things: I know the community elected the board to provide oversight, and I welcome that.”

Voters approved a civilian Board of Police Commissioners in 1974, while the city was still reeling from the 1967 riot, with citizens upset with police units such as S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), amid complaints of rampant brutality. Coleman Young disbanded the unit immediately after being elected mayor in 1974.

The original board’s five members were appointed by the mayor, but under the new City Charter that passed on the 2012 ballot, the board was expanded to 11 members, seven of whom are elected, with the remaining four mayoral appointments.

After the city emerged from bankruptcy, Orr issued Emergency Order 42 in September 2014 which transitioned power over the police department from Orr’s office to Mayor Mike Duggan. The City Council later voted to restore the board’s powers, effective this month.

Now that the board again has veto power over personnel and policy matters, former Detroit police officer and commissioner Ricardo Moore said his main focus will be “making sure people honor the City Charter.”

Moore added that when the Taser issue is brought before the board, he’ll seek citizen input before voting. “I’ll discuss it with them, and bring their concerns back to the board,” he said.

Commissioner Reggie Crawford, also a longtime Detroit police officer and Wayne County sheriff’s deputy, attended several meetings wearing leg irons to protest the board’s power being usurped. He agreed with Moore that more research needed to be done before determining whether Tasers should be used by Detroit officers.

“I’m open to looking at the research,” he said. “I know there have been several deaths associated with them. They tried to bring in Tasers under (former police chief) Jerry Oliver. A few of the board members got Tased, and then the board voted against them.”

Crawford said his focus will be on allegations of police brutality. “I’ve noticed the same two officers working the same car have had three similar complaints in three months,” he said. “That could be a red flag. We need to watch these things very closely.”

Commissioner Bishop Edgar Vann agreed the board should keep an eye on possible police misconduct.

“It’s going to be very important for us to monitor if there are individuals with recurring problems, since we’re in a position to take intervention measures,” he said. “If you look at the travesty in Chicago (where there are allegations of rampant police misconduct), you see a long history of problems, and nobody flagged them.”

East side resident Bill Welbourne, who attends most commission meetings, said the return of the board’s powers was a long time coming.

“They should’ve never lost it in the first place,” he said. “But I’m optimistic. This is the strongest board we’ve had in a long time.”


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