Cop misconduct suits drop after reforms

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Recent Detroit Police reforms governing use of force policies, training and tracking problem officers have saved the city millions of dollars, Detroit’s city attorney said.

Corporation Counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell told the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners Thursday that lawsuits claiming police misconduct fell from 105 in 2012 to 40 in 2016. The city paid out $4.9 million in lawsuits last year, down from $7.3 million in 2015, a 31.9 percent drop.

“It’s better constitutional policing, and better community policing,” Hollowell said. “Those numbers are very significant ... that’s $3 million that’s available for other core city services.”

The drop in misconduct lawsuits in Detroit comes as police departments across the U.S. are under scrutiny for the way cops are trained, and how allegations of excessive force are handled.

While incidents of cops shooting citizens have sparked large protests in other cities, recent officer-involved shootings in Detroit, including two in the past two weeks, have not garnered similar reactions.

Detroit’s police reforms were required to comply with federal guidelines. The city agreed to a federal consent judgment in 2003 to avoid massive lawsuits alleging excessive force by officers, mistreatment of witnesses, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn last year ended the decree when he ruled the police department had overhauled its practices and training.

Lawsuits against the city dwindled for two years after Detroit entered Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July 2013, putting existing suits on hold.

Detroit exited the bankruptcy in December 2014. In the 19 months afterward, there were 57 police misconduct lawsuits filed, compared with 190 filed in the 19 months before the city entered bankruptcy, Hollowell said.

Hollowell said fewer people are suing Detroit cops largely because the department now employs an “Early Intervention System Management Awareness Database,” which flags any officer involved in three areas of concern during a six-month period.

The software alerts supervisors whenever an officer logs three of any combination of traffic crashes, uses of force, citizen complaints, meritorious write-ups, civil litigation or five sick calls or court no-shows.

Other recent changes Hollowell said have helped avoid lawsuits:

■The police department also has employed a Compliance Accountability Unit, staffed by civilian auditors who monitor whether officers follow their training on how to de-escalate situations.

■Officers must undergo 40 hours of training each year on standards for traffic stops and new developments in criminal justice law.

Hollowell said the money saved in lawsuit payouts will be used for other city services.

“We’re unlike other cities in Michigan ... we don’t have liability insurance,” he said. “So every dollar that’s paid out (from a settlement) comes right out of the general fund. Every dollar paid out is a dollar less for a police officer, or to fix a sidewalk.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig attributed the change to holding supervisors accountable.

“This is a testament to our leadership team understanding the importance of accountability. It’s twofold: You have to hold people accountable, but you also have to back up the officers who do their jobs.”

While the changes Hollowell credited with helping curb lawsuits came in recent years, the department spent 13 years under federal oversight, which cost taxpayers $86,000 a month.

Under former police chiefs and mayors, the consent decree was riddled with scandals and mismanagement. In July 2009, federal monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood was removed after text messages obtained by the Justice Department revealed a “personal relationship” with Kwame Kilpatrick while he was mayor.

The following year, Detroit’s Office of the Chief Investigator, which looks into claims of police abuse, was criticized by U.S. Circuit Judge Julian Cook, who imposed a $1,000-per-day fine against the city because the office had a huge backlog of cases it hadn’t investigated.

Hollowell also told the police board Thursday that Detroit will end the longstanding practice of quickly settling lawsuits. He said the law department has added staff to fight more cases. The city’s policy of settling suits for expediency has long rankled officers eager to have their day in court after being accused of wrongdoing.

“We have a new attitude,” Hollowell said. “We’re trying these cases, whereas sometimes before they were just settled quickly. So people need to understand, if you’re going to file a claim, it’s our charter responsibility to defend (officers) vigorously.”

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