Police: Commissioner omitted key detail of traffic stop
Detroit police officials say police commissioner and minister Edgar Vann omitted a crucial detail when he complained about how a rookie cop handled a traffic stop two weeks ago: his car had illegal tinted windows.
However, because the squad car’s dash-cam wasn’t working, it’s difficult for investigators to determine exactly what happened.
Vann said he felt the officer was too aggressive by drawing his pistol and ordering him to unroll all of his windows during the June 15 traffic stop on Larned outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.
Vann said the officer didn’t point the gun at him, but clutched it against his own chest, which is not how cops are trained to hold their weapons.
Vann, pastor at Second Ebenezer Church on Dequindre, first publicly discussed the incident a week later at Thursday’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting.
But he didn’t mention his 2017 Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan is equipped with tinted windows, which are outlawed in Michigan. Police say the darkened glass poses a threat to officers because they can’t see who is inside a vehicle and what they’re doing.
Vann insisted Monday his tinted windows should not have caused the officer to draw his pistol.
“Pulling out a gun is what you do with a felon, something at a much higher level than a simple traffic stop,” Vann told The Detroit News. “And tinted windows do not rise to that level, in my opinion.”
Police Chief James Craig disagreed. He said Detroit cops are trained to order motorists with tinted glass to roll down all of their windows so they can see inside their vehicles, and that it’s not uncommon for officers to draw their weapons as they approach if they feel unsafe.
“I don’t know why Vann wouldn’t mention that at the board meeting, because that’s an important detail,” Craig said. “Tinted windows certainly are considered an officer safety issue, and if an officer feels there’s a safety concern, they will sometimes draw their weapon.
“That’s not to exonerate this officer or say he did something wrong, because all the information isn’t in yet,” Craig said. “But as a general rule, tinted windows are a cause for concern during a traffic stop.”
Carrie Butorac, attorney for the Detroit Police Officers Association union, said she spoke with the officer who wrote the ticket and that he felt in danger during the stop.
“He said Commissioner Vann initially refused to open all his windows, meaning the officer couldn’t see into the car,” Butorac said. “So that presented a safety concern. If not for the professionalism of this officer, this could have been worse than just a traffic ticket.
“In this day and age, when there are so many racial accusations against police officers, and an anti-police climate, it almost feels as if Commissioner Vann is trying to further drive a wedge between the police and the public,” Butorac said. “This officer was doing nothing but his job.”
Vann said it’s not true that he didn’t immediately comply with the officer’s command to unroll his windows.
“That is a lie,” he said. “I pulled over where he asked me to pull over, and rolled my windows down immediately. Had he had his dash-cam on, you would be able to prove it.”
Craig said police have studied surveillance video of the incident captured by a camera mounted on a nearby building, “but it’s too far away to get a good idea of what happened.”
“I have a real problem with the camera not working,” the chief said. “That’s the part I can’t defend.”
Police are checking to see if other downtown cameras may have gotten a better angle, Craig said.
Vann told the board he had been ticketed for running the red light, but didn’t mention also being cited for the tinted windows and not having proof of insurance. Vann said Monday he had proof of insurance when he was pulled over.
“I gave him my license, then reached into the glove box for my registration and proof of insurance,” Vann said. “He took the registration, gave it back to me and then cited me for not having proof of insurance. I had it right there, but I wasn’t going to argue with him because he’d just pulled a gun on me for no reason.”
After Vann discussed the traffic stop during the weekly meeting at police headquarters, the Office of the Chief Investigator, an arm of the police board that looks into allegations of officer misconduct, launched an inquiry.
The office also began an investigation into an allegation made at the same meeting by Commissioner Derrick Sanders that an officer was overly aggressive with him during a traffic stop months earlier, although Sanders provided no further details about the incident.
Commission chairman Willie Bell suggested at the meeting the two traffic stops may have been part of a larger pattern of black men being profiled by cops.
Bell told The News on Monday he didn’t think Vann was obligated to tell the board he was driving with tinted windows.
“I don’t think that’s very significant,” Bell said. “The point Bishop Vann was making was that the officer approached with his gun out on a traffic stop (that) doesn’t merit that type of scrutiny.”
However, Bell added the tinted windows may negate the allegation of racial profiling. “If the officer couldn’t see inside the vehicle, I guess it was just a traffic stop. But I still don’t think the officer needed to draw his weapon.”
Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said troopers often will order motorists to roll down their tinted windows. “I did it myself when I was on patrol, because I don’t know what’s inside the car, and I don’t want there to be any surprises,” he said.
Shaw added there’s no protocol dictating when it’s appropriate for officers to draw their weapons. “It’s all situational-based,” he said. “It’s not a common practice to pull a weapon out on every traffic stop, but sometimes it happens. We give our troopers a lot of discretion when it comes to that.”
Patrolmen’s union president Mark Diaz said he was “offended” by how Vann portrayed the incident, and questioned why a police commissioner is driving illegally.
“Either Vann doesn’t know tinted windows are illegal, or he doesn’t care,” Diaz said. “Our officers work hard to maintain a good relationship with the community, and I’m offended one of our police commissioners is trying to paint this as something it’s not.”
Vann said Monday he was advised “by a legal person that the tinted window law is unenforceable. But I’m fully willing to bear responsibility for the tinted windows. They can try to demonize me if they want, but the issue is the gun being pulled out.”
Craig questioned why Vann never mentioned the incident when they were together less than 24 hours later during the Detroit Police graduation ceremony June 16 at Vann’s church.
“He was sitting a few feet away from me on the stage, and we talked after the ceremony,” Craig said. “It begs the question: If this bothered him so much, and as serious as these allegations are, why wouldn’t he have told me then?
“I would have initiated an investigation immediately,” Craig said. “Instead, he waited a week to talk about it at the board meeting.”
Craig said he’s chiefly concerned where the officer held his gun, and whether he explained to Vann after the ticket was written why he’d taken such precautions.
“There’s a big difference in discreet removal (of a gun) along the leg and holding it up against your chest, but we don’t know how it really happened because the video wasn’t working,” Craig said. “I’m not happy about that, and I’m going to find out why it wasn’t working, because that’s unacceptable.”
Mayor Mike Duggan in November 2014 appointed Vann to fill the District 2 seat left vacant when commissioner Wendell Byrd resigned to run for state representative. Vann had previously been appointed to the police commission in 1998 by former Mayor Dennis Archer.
Vann questioned whether the officer did his due diligence before approaching his car.
“Is tinted windows an automatic reason for an officer to escalate to that point of aggression? Did he run the plates to see if the car was stolen, so he’d know who he was encountering? That’s what the investigation will show,” Vann said.
Michigan’s tint law
All 50 states and Washington D.C. have laws prohibiting tinted windows, although the degree of tint, and which windows are allowed to be tinted, varies from state to state.
According to the Michigan State Police website: “The use of tinting is limited to the rear side windows, the rear window if the vehicle has outside mirrors on both sides, and the top 4 inches of the front side windows. There is a limited exception for medical necessity with a doctor's prescription, which allows for tinting to be applied to the front side windows as well. Michigan does not have a specification for the darkness of the window application, but does prohibit applications with a solar reflectivity greater than 35 percent.”
Source: Michigan State Police