Police commissioner arrested at meeting won't be charged

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed

Detroit — The city's police chief said Tuesday he won't pursue disorderly conduct charges against a police commissioner who was arrested last week during a contentious Board of Police Commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Willie Burton was handcuffed during the meeting at the Durfee Information Center and taken to jail, after new board chair Lisa Carter warned him he was out of order when he repeatedly asked her what she planned to do differently than she did during her first term as chairwoman.

Police chief James Craig said Tuesday he decided to drop the matter "after consulting several people, including board members."

"The arrest was legal, and I'm not criticizing my officers," Craig said. "But after weighing the totality of the circumstances, I thought it best to drop the charges, in order to maintain a harmonious relationship with the board and the people who elected (Burton)."

Carter said Tuesday she didn't know Burton was going to be arrested when she asked officers to remove him from the meeting.

"The board did not want him arrested in the first place," she said. "Hopefully in the future, we can all understand there's a time when people can talk during meetings, and that we need decorum, so that we can have orderly meetings. That's my only goal."

Tensions have been high during recent meetings as the police board considers whether to approve a proposed policy governing police use of controversial facial recognition software. Although Burton has been critical of the technology, that wasn't being discussed when he was arrested.

Burton referred questions Tuesday to his attorney, former Wayne County executive and sheriff Robert Ficano; and his spokesman, activist and radio host Sam Riddle, who said the incident is "a teachable moment for all of us in Detroit."

"We can move forward as a city, with the tenets of democracy, or we can behave in almost a childlike manner, moving to squash opposing voices, rather than listen to one another," Riddle said. "When we listen to one another, we can work together as a city.

"Grassroots Detroit was outraged at what happened to Commissioner Burton, and I think Chief Craig understands that," Riddle said.

Ficano said police never formally sought charges against his client. 

"I went down to the court to make an appearance (as Burton's attorney), and nothing was ever filed," he said. "I’m just glad they’re not going to pursue this, but it should’ve never happened in the first place.

"He’s a public official who was simply representing his constituents," Ficano said. "There are other things the board could've done, including cutting off his microphone, or asking for a recess. Having him arrested was an overreach."

When asked if he was considering a lawsuit, Ficano said: "It's a little premature to say that. There were some physical issues (Burton) is looking at at this point."

He did not elaborate.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit weighed in on the issue Tuesday when she called in to Riddle's radio show on 910 AM, "Riddle at Random."

"To watch one of our police commissioners be put in handcuffs because he opposes (facial recognition technology) ... this is a country where he has a right to speak out. There should've been a better way ... (than) for an elected person to be put in handcuffs."

The board originally was set to vote on the proposed facial recognition policy at the June 27 meeting, but the issue was tabled until the following meeting.

A few days before the July 11 meeting, police officials decided to make adjustments to the proposed policy, and the vote was removed from the board agenda, Carter said.

The dozens of citizens who packed the meeting were not aware of that, and many of them voiced their concern about police using the technology.

During the meeting, Burton, who has had several public spats with fellow board members in recent months, asked Carter what she'd do differently than she did in her first term chairing the police board.

Carter ordered him to be quiet multiple times, insisting he was violating the board's rules of decorum. Burton continued questioning Carter, who asked police to remove him from the room. Burton was arrested and taken to the Detroit Detention Center.

Detroit police have been using facial recognition technology for more than a year, under guidelines that include barring officers from randomly scanning people's faces. Instead, the software is used only after-the-fact, to identify someone captured on video committing a violent crime, Craig said.



Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN