Police revise policies after gun pulled at traffic stop

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A Detroit police internal investigation into a controversial downtown traffic stop involving a police commissioner has prompted some policy and training changes, Chief James Craig said Thursday.

Craig also criticized those who claimed the June 15 traffic stop was the result of racial profiling, insisting in a city that’s 83 percent black, it’s more likely black motorists will be stopped.

Police commissioner and minister Edgar Vann complained at last week’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting about being stopped by an officer downtown a week earlier. During the stop, the officer reportedly drew his pistol and ordered Vann to roll down all of his windows.

Commission Chairman Willie Bell said at Thursday’s board meeting that the results of a probe by the board’s Office of the Chief Investigator will likely be presented to the board next week. Craig said an internal affairs investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Craig said Thursday he was concerned because the dash-cam in the police car involved in the stop wasn’t working. Craig said an audit he ordered after the incident determined supervisors in the Downtown Services Section weren’t properly ensuring all equipment was operational before each shift, as required.

“There was an oversight because the vehicles downtown weren’t going through the same procedures as the vehicles in the precincts,” Craig said. “That will change.”

Craig said internal affairs officers pored through surveillance video from nearby buildings showing the stop on Larned outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

“The thing I took note of is, there were a lot of pedestrians in the area, and no one seemed to be alarmed,” Craig said. “If a police officer makes a high-risk stop with a gun at his chest (as Vann claimed), people are going to respond to that.

“That’s not to say it didn’t happen,” Craig said. “These are still preliminary findings.”

Craig added officers are trained to hold weapons against their chests during active shooter situations, but not during traffic stops.

Vann, minister of Second Ebenezer Church on Dequindre, was not at Thursday’s meeting. He asked last week why the officer ordered him to roll down all of his windows, but he did not mention the windows were tinted, which is illegal in Michigan.

Craig told the board Thursday that officers are trained to tell motorists to roll down their tinted windows so they can see who is inside and what they’re doing.

“Part of the Detroit culture is that Detroiters have tinted windows, and that includes this police chief,” Craig said. “I’m a public figure, and in other cities, police chiefs, mayors and other elected officials have tinted windows. That’s not unique to Detroit.

“The issue is personal protection,” Craig said. “But if I’m stopped, I will instinctively lower my windows. Preliminarily, I can tell you (the officer ordering Vann to roll down his windows) was very appropriate.”

Craig said he talked with Vann recently. “He assured me the only reason for bringing it up was because he wanted to understand the policy,” he said.

In the wake of the stop, Craig said he will order all future officers to be trained to “dust off” motorists after high-risk stops, which means officers will be trained to explain to motorists why they pulled their weapons, or took other actions.

“This is especially for felony stops,” Craig said. He gave an example: if someone is pulled over who matches the description of an armed robbery, but is later determined not to be the suspect.

“The officer should take a moment to explain why he did what he did,” Craig said, adding officers in some instances should show the motorist the bulletin he received that shows the motorist or vehicle matched the description of that involved in a violent crime.

“That will be part of our protocol from now on, and we’ll teach that in the academy,” Craig said.

Bell, who began his police career in the 1970s, said he wasn’t aware that officers now usually order motorists to roll down all their tinted windows.

“I’m glad we had this discussion,” he said. “I’m from the old school.”

Bell added: “A traffic stop is a very sensitive area, in terms of most of the country. It’s always an issue we are concerned about, particularly among African-Americans. It’s always an issue we are worried about.”

In a statement issued after the meeting, Bell said Detroit officers “are well trained professionals,” and that looking into the complaints will help guarantee the department is sensitive to the concerns of African-American residents.

“We hope these recent complaints are anomalies for traffic stops, but they still offer the opportunity for us to make sure the very best practices and procedures are followed in all encounters with the public,” he said.

Craig said he takes exception to some who tried to paint the Vann stop as racial profiling.

“The city is 83 percent African-American, so African-Americans are more likely to be stopped,” Craig said. “The officer in this instance happened to be white; does that mean he profiled Bishop Vann?

“I always wonder why we put race into it when race isn’t necessarily an issue,” Craig said. “Does it make a difference if the officer is white or black?”

Craig pointed out Sgt. Kenneth Steil was killed in September by a black suspect.

“I understand what’s going on in the rest of the country, and if a city like Beverly Hills (California) is stopping mostly African-Americans, in a city that’s 99 percent white, that’s a problem,” he said. “But it doesn’t apply in Detroit.”

Police Commissioner Conrad Mallett said there should be more education about what police expect from people with tinted windows.

“I was unaware I was supposed to roll all my windows down,” he said. “It’s a reasonable expectation, but I think it’s important that people know.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN