Police commissioner slams 'Gestapo tactics' at meeting

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Detroit police commissioner who was handcuffed and removed from Thursday's board meeting said he's alarmed at the "Gestapo tactics" of officers who arrested him and took him to jail.

Commissioner Willie Burton added Friday the experience taught him a lesson: "Jail is not pretty," he said.

Detroit's police chief on Friday supported his officers' actions, insisting it's vital that order be kept during meetings — and that violators will be continue to be held accountable.

Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed

Burton called Thursday's events "an inhumane experience; something I wouldn't wish on anyone."

"I was handcuffed and taken to jail for trying to speak during a meeting," Burton said. "They're shutting down democracy. It's a dangerous time in Detroit right now."

Board chair Lisa Carter sees it differently. She said Burton was warned several times Thursday to stop disrupting the meeting at the Durfee Information Center on Collingwood Street on the city’s west side. 

"Everyone has a right to speak, but you can't just be disorderly," she said after Thursday's meeting. "You need to have order, and I'm not going to put up with that."

Burton said officers were out of line by cuffing him and taking him to jail, but police chief James Craig said the commissioner left his officers no other choice.

"I don’t agree with the characterization that the police department is using Gestapo tactics," Craig said. "There are very clear rules of conduct in public meetings.

"We vehemently support the constitutional right of free speech — but there comes a point during a meeting where it exceeds what’s defined as free speech, and it becomes disruptive," he said.

Craig pointed out that police also arrested a man earlier this week for repeatedly interrupting a Detroit Charter Revision Commission meeting.

"We don't want to arrest anyone," the chief said. "However, we will arrest when it's lawful to do so, when it's necessary. Our primary objective is that these meetings are conducted in an orderly fashion. It's OK to have a differing opinion, but you can't become disruptive."

The past few police board meetings have been packed with citizens expressing concern about the police department's use of facial recognition software, which has been employed for about a year.

After tabling the issue at its June 27 meeting, the board was set to vote Thursday on whether to approve a formal policy governing use of the facial recognition software.

But Craig said he wanted to make a few tweaks to the proposed policy before the board votes on it, so prior to Thursday's meeting the vote was removed from the agenda.

"It's an emotional issue," he said. "And I don't have a problem if people disagree with facial recognition technology. That's how a free society works, and I welcome opposing views — but you can't just interrupt meetings like that." 

Burton has complained for months that former board chairman Willie Bell wasn't allowing him to speak during meetings. Bell has adjourned previous meetings during disputes with Burton, who represents the city's 5th District.

The tension came to a head Thursday after Carter was sworn in as the new board chair — her second term as chair — and Burton asked her what she would do differently than her first term. Carter repeatedly told Burton he was out of order. 

"Out of order? No, I wasn’t out of order," Burton said Friday. "I was acknowledged by the chair, and I asked her what she would do differently that she didn't do before (in her first term as chair). The next thing I know, I'm being arrested."

Burton said fellow commissioner Darryl Brown followed him to the Detroit Detention Center and paid his $100 bond after Burton had spent about a half-hour behind bars.

Burton said he's due in court July 25 on disorderly conduct charges. If found guilty of the misdemeanor, he faces up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $500, or both.

"There's nothing nice when you’re in handcuffs," Burton said. "I was carried out of a police board of commissioners meeting and thrown down onto the floor in the district I represent. Those were District 5 residents in that meeting; when they saw their commissioner being carried out, they were concerned."

As officers handcuffed Burton, several audience members rushed to the front of the room, and other cops blocked them from getting too close.

"It's scary when a police commissioner is shut down for trying to voice concerns about facial recognition technology," Burton said, calling the software "techno racism."

"What happens when this technology misidentifies a person of color that doesn't have the resources for a good legal defense? These are serious issues," Burton said.

One of the criticisms of the technology is that darker-skinned people are more often misidentified. Craig said the policy, if approved, requires police to have more evidence than a facial recognition software match in order to seek charges against someone.

He also said the proposed policy bars officers from scanning people's faces. Instead, he said the software would be used after-the-fact to identify people captured on video committing violent crimes.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about this issue," Craig said.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN