Board nixes unpaid cop suspensions in Detroit bar clash
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners rejected a request Thursday from police chief James Craig to suspend two Detroit police officers without pay for their alleged roles in a Corktown tavern skirmish that left a customer hospitalized.
One board member cited video footage of the incident, saying it showed the customer, not Lt. Timothy Leach, was the aggressor.
It was the second time the police board turned down Craig's request to withhold pay from Leach, 48, and Officer Frederick Person, 53.
"I can't believe it. I'm blown away," Craig said upon hearing about the board's decision. Craig was out of town Thursday for a conference, and the request to withhold pay was made through deputy chief Todd Bettison.
"Now we'll move forward with our internal investigation," Craig said.
Both officers were charged last month by Wayne County prosecutors in connection with the alleged March 11 assault of Michael Karpovich, 42, of Washington Township during St. Patrick's Day festivities at the Ottava Via tavern on Michigan Avenue.
Leach allegedly was removing a drunken Karpovich from the tavern when the former commander reportedly pushed the customer, who fell to the floor and sustained significant head injuries, losing consciousness. Medics transported him to a hospital for treatment.
Leach was charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, a 10-year felony; aggravated assault, a one-year misdemeanor; neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor; possessing no license as a security guard, a four-year felony; and tampering with evidence, also a four-year felony.
After Thursday's police board meeting, the panel went into a closed session to discuss whether to uphold Craig's request to suspend the two officers without pay. When the board returned to the meeting room, Commissioner Conrad Mallett moved to uphold Craig's request, but nobody seconded the motion.
Leach and Person attended Thursday's board meeting, but declined to comment after the decision was announced, other than Leach saying, "It'll all play out."
Police Commissioner Willie Burton said that during the closed session, he reviewed video of the incident and decided Leach was not the aggressor.
"Lt. Leach was the one who was assaulted," Burton said. "From what I saw on the video, (Leach) was just doing his job, trying to get the man out of the bar. The man had his fists balled up, and he hit (Leach), and (Leach) just pushed him to get him out.
"Both of these officers are entitled to due process," Burton said. "Being charged doesn't mean they're guilty."
Commissioner Willie Bell and board chairwoman Lisa Carter also said the evidence didn't support suspending the two officers, although they declined to go into detail about what was discussed or viewed during the closed session.
"We're going to allow the criminal justice system to move forward," Bell said.
Carter added: "The evidence didn't support (withholding the officers' pay)."
Burton pointed out that the board in the past has approved withholding officers' pay during suspensions, only to have them exonerated after a trial.
"I don't want this board to take away someone's livelihood without good cause," Burton said. "And I didn't think there was a good enough reason to do that in this case. This was a good decision."
Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, called the board’s decision “cowardly.”
“It’s not the board’s job to be litigators,” Reed said. “They’re supposed to make decisions based on whether there were policy violations.”
Person also was working as a security officer at the restaurant and while he wasn't directly involved in the skirmish, he allegedly gave false information when he was questioned by Detroit police officers, and tampered with evidence, authorities allege.
Craig said Person also failed to report the use of force, and did not get departmental approval to work at the tavern.
Person has been charged with obstruction of justice, a five-year felony; neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor; and tampering with evidence, a four-year felony.
Days after learning about the incident, Craig suspended both men with pay, per the City Charter, which mandates the police board must approve requests from the chief's office to withhold pay during suspensions.
Craig in March asked the board to withhold Leach's pay, although the board did not approve the request.
At 3:38 p.m. on March 11, Detroit officers and emergency medical technicians were dispatched to the restaurant in the 1400 block of Michigan near Trumbull, where they rendered first aid to Karpovich, who lay on the floor unconscious.
Karpovich was released from the hospital and is recovering, Craig said last month.
Leach allegedly failed to file a report regarding the alleged use of force. Leach and Person also did not notify the department they were working in the bar, which Craig said is a violation of department policy.
After learning of the alleged incident, Craig demoted Leach from commander to lieutenant.