2 Detroit cops go on trial in drug conspiracy case

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Defense attorneys for two Detroit police officers on trial for extortion told a federal jury Wednesday the four-year long case — which uses dozens of drug dealers-turned-informants as witnesses — will come down to one question: whom do they believe?

“Every single witness you’ll see has asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” attorney Steve Fishman told jurors seated in the case of narcotics officers David Hansberry and Bryan Watson.

“We already know they are bad. They carry guns and are dope dealers. The key for this case is are they liars?” Fishman said.

Hansberry and Watson were indicted in April 2015 by a federal grand jury in Detroit on charges of carrying out traffic stops and fake arrests to steal drugs, money and property. Also indicted in the case is Kevlin “Omar” Brown, a longtime friend of Hansberry.

If convicted, they face up to 20 years in federal prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheldon N. Light told jurors in his opening statement that the case before them was about the power society gives the police to combat crime.

Hansberry, who led a narcotics crew at the department, and Watson, his assistant, used that power plus authority and fear to take money from drug dealers, steal drugs during investigations and create fake search warrants and fake drug busts, Light said.

“Money that should have been given to the state went into their pockets. Drugs that should have been taken off the streets went back into the neighborhoods, and criminals that should have been locked up were free” because of both men’s actions, Light said.

Prosecutors are using nine incidents in the case to show how the extortion and conspiracy worked. On Wednesday morning, jurors saw a timeline with nine examples across the city from 2010-13 in which Hansberry and Watson allegedly used a scheme, called a “rip,” to take money and drugs. Brown was involved in one of the cases.

Light said there were two kinds of schemes: one was a simple approach where both officers skimmed money off the top of a legitimate drug raid or took drugs from the crime scene, later to be resold by drug dealers, with some of the proceeds returned to them.

Then there were more complex schemes where fake transactions were set up by Hansberry and Watson. After a victim was scared away by police cars and lights, the officers would take the drugs and the cash brought to the transaction.

In one case, Detroit police found $3.3 million in a drug raid on July 26, 2010, Light said, but only $2.2 million was logged into seizure records at the station.

“It was not enforcing the law and punishing offenders. It was using their power to get what they wanted,” Light said.

Jurors heard a tape recording made by a witness in the case, Gary Jackson. It was Hansberry speaking to Jackson about the scheme being used.

“No doubt in my mind you can be a millionaire doing this,” Hansberry is heard saying to Jackson.

On another recording, Hansberry appears to be reluctant to set up a new “rip” with a Detroit police officer who was then working with federal authorities to take down the operation.

“Is is a sting or not? That’s really the only question,” Hansberry is heard saying. “Is it worth the risk ... Is someone gonna speak? That’s the real question. That’s the only question.”

Hansberry, a 16-year veteran, and Watson, who spent 22 years on the police force, were suspended without pay after the indictments were filed last year.

Federal prosecutors said in November they were concerned about the safety of witnesses in the case, and had to relocate them to protect them, according to court transcripts obtained by The News. One witness was shot while driving in Metro Detroit, prosecutors said.

The allegations against the two cops came as Detroit Police were conducting an internal investigation into widespread wrongdoing in the Narcotics Section, which prompted Police Chief James Craig to disband the unit.

Craig also instituted a policy that bars officers from automatically staying more than five years in specialized units like narcotics, because he said it opens the door for complacency and corruption. If an officer wants to remain in such a unit, he or she must request it.

The federal case also prompted policy changes in the way police use informants. Among the changes is a stricter policy on whom officers can use as an informant. Officers also must now get permission to use someone as an informant.

The case is before U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III.