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In an effort to quell longstanding racial tensions in the police department, Chief James Craig has instituted a program headed by two well-known officers who are no strangers to racially charged controversy.

The Committee on Race and Equality will be co-chaired by Joseph Weekley and John Bennett, who will listen to concerns and complaints from lower-rank officers and suggest solutions to department leadership.

“I’ve been hearing there were some concerns with race relations within the department,” Craig said. “It’s not widespread, but it does still exist. So I decided to pull together a cross section of people at the rank of lieutenant and below.”

“I didn’t want it to be led by the chief or anyone in the command staff ... . We don’t want people to have supervisors possibly preventing them from saying what’s on their minds.”

The Detroit Police Department has a history of internal racial strife. After Coleman Young was elected mayor in 1973, he appointed William Hart as the city’s first African-American police chief, and implemented an affirmative action program that fueled racial tensions and led to lawsuits.

Craig said he witnessed the racial animosity his first day on the job in 1977, when a 25-year veteran white officer told him, “I don’t want you here, so just sit there, shut up and be black.”

The chief said things have improved since then, but added there are still tensions. There have been a number of lawsuits filed in recent years by white and black officers claiming racial discrimination.

“Hopefully, this program will cut down on the number of racial EEOC complaints,” he said, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “I’m not aware of any other police department that’s making an effort to get ahead of this issue the way we are. Maybe this can serve as a model for other departments across the country.”

Capt. Aric Tosqui, head of the Command Officers Association union, said the program is a good way for officers to confront their biases.

“I think in any profession you’re going to have some level of prejudice; some level of implicit bias,” said Tosqui, who is Hispanic. “I don’t know of any law enforcement agencies that are trying to get ahead of that issue like we are.”

Craig said he gathered a group of about 25 officers before announcing the launch of the program Feb.23.

About the committee’s chairmen, he said: “Bennett is courageous, and not afraid to talk about issues. And I figured Weekley had gone through a lot and could share his insight.”

Bennett, who is black, unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2009 and 2013. He was charged in 2004 with six counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and one count of neglect of duty, charges that stemmed from his now-defunct website, firejerryo.com.

Former Police Chief Jerry Oliver, who inspired the website, said it “contained racial slurs that were detrimental to the department,” according to a 2006 ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to restore Bennett to full duty.

Weekley became embroiled in a racially charged controversy after leading a May 2010 raid into a home on Lillibridge on Detroit’s east side in search of a killer. During the raid, the white officer accidentally fired a shot that killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was black. Weekley said the girl’s grandmother, Mertilla Jones, struggled with him, causing his rifle to discharge.

The raid sparked protests nationwide by civil rights advocates that included the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Weekley was exonerated of criminal wrongdoing in October 2014 when Wayne Circuit Judge Cynthia Gray-Hathaway granted a directed verdict, dropping the charges of involuntary manslaughter after two hung juries failed to convict him. A misdemeanor firearm charge also resulted in two hung juries. A federal civil lawsuit against Weekley, brought by Aiyana’s family, is ongoing.

Bennett and Weekley, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, are in charge of how the new program will be run, Craig said.

“The goal is for Bennett and Weekley to come up with recommendations that I and the executive team could implement,” Craig said. “This is empowering to the police officers.”

Tosqui called the initiative “refreshing.”

“In nearly 20 years on the police force, we haven’t had any kind of open dialog like this.

“We’re not going to solve bias and racism in the department, but we’re at least addressing it.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

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