Report blasts police board for improper hiring, open meetings violations

Detroit — The city's police oversight board "abused its authority" by delegating hiring power to its secretary, a move that resulted in manipulated job postings for hand-picked candidates, an independent investigation found.

The findings, involving Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners and Gregory Hicks, who serves as secretary, are outlined in a Monday report released after a nearly year-long probe by Detroit's Office of Inspector General. 

Board members Eva Garza Dewaelsche, chairwoman Lisa Carter, Willie Bell and Evette Griffie were among the commissioners who voted to approve a facial recognition policy for the police department .

The investigation launched last November after the allegations surfaced and concluded that Hicks abused his authority by hiring certain "key staff members." Additionally, the inspector general found, the board itself acted in violation of Detroit's City Charter and the Open Meetings Act. 

The board, it said, violated City Charter by “improperly" delegating its authority to Hicks for the hiring of executive management positions, and when it acted — through former Chairman Willie Bell — to unappoint one of them.

Inspector General Ellen Ha noted in a statement that as an oversight agency of the Detroit Police Department, the board has the authority to impose disciplinary actions to DPD officers.

"Therefore, members and staff of the BOPC should be held to equal, if not higher, professional standard which exemplifies honesty and integrity that the BOPC demands from the DPD officers," she said.

The charter mandates the board, which handles discipline and civilian complaints, hires and appoints its own staff members.

Yet Hicks drafted a memorandum in 2016 to the board seeking approval on a reorganization, which included turning over to Hicks its “day-to-day control over board affairs with all employees."

The change was approved by a majority of the board on June 30, 2016, empowering Hicks to make adjustments to the organizational chart and create three units within the board: Fiscal and Policy, Legal Advisor, and Community Engagement and Publication.

Then-commissioner Bell signed the memorandum that July. The move "redefines the chain of command" and violates Detroit's charter, the Inspector General's Office said. 

“When the board voluntarily gave away their charter mandated authority to Mr. Hicks, they also gave away the public’s right to access the board’s decision-making process through the Michigan Open Meetings Act," the inspector general report notes. 

“The board was not able to vet any applicants or appoint key staff in public because it delegated such authority to Mr. Hicks,” it adds. "It is important that the public is engaged in whom the BOPC hires to manage and to operate their offices, given BOPC is a police oversight agency.”

Ha noted Monday that the statute of limitations for violations of the state's Open Meetings Act is 180 days. Therefore, having received the complaint after that time, she was unable to refer the allegations to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. 

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

Board chairwoman Lisa Carter said she’s reviewing the allegations.

“If there are issues, we will address them,” she said. “We will be discussing this at the next board meeting.“

Commissioner Willie Burton has complained for months that the board violates the Open Meetings Act by holding what he called “secret” subcommittee meetings.

“It’s clear there’s a lack of transparency with the board, and this report proves what I’ve been saying all along,” Burton told The News. “We have the board holding these meetings without the public’s knowledge. Who serves on these committees? When do they meet? What’s discussed in these meetings? This is all information the public has a right to know.”

In an August response to the inspector general's findings, board attorney Jermaine Wyrick wrote that the board’s Charter-mandated responsibilities “necessitated an employee be designated to see duties fulfilled, considering the (board) is not full-time, but rather a volunteer board.”

Wyrick also pointed out that the board’s reorganization plan was approved at an open meeting.

He further called the inspector general's interpretation of Hicks' role "narrow and flawed." 

On Monday, he said: “We followed the best practices of civilian oversight boards.” 

hat delegated authority, he maintained, was afforded to the board. It doesn't afford the secretary with a scope that's "too broad" and defended the manager selections.

The inspector general's report said it was alleged that Hicks purposefully changed the minimum qualifications for the board's official posting for an executive manager. The description had required a four-year college degree but was amended to reflect only "knowledge and experience" to benefit Robert Brown, who had worked for the board for more than a decade, and enable him to qualify, it says.

When Brown was placed in the management role on July 3, 2017, the report adds, his $55,261 annual salary rose to $80,500. The increase of $25,239 per year came “without any substantial change in job duties.”

The investigation revealed that past attempts to raise Brown's pay in a prior job position failed, therefore Hicks created the executive manager position to increase Brown's salary, the inspector general contends. 

Ultimately, Brown was unappointed from the job in a November letter issued by Bell on behalf of the board. His job was changed and his salary knocked down to $61,041.

The action, the inspector general wrote, "further supports" a finding that Bell and other members of the board "recognized that Brown was improperly appointed by Mr. Hicks in 2017."

Reached Monday, Brown declined to comment, deferring to Wyrick.

In 2014, Brown, the board’s administrative assistant at the time, was named in a Detroit police Internal Affairs audit of the police board. The audit found gassed up a city-owned vehicle, "using the gas card of former BPC Secretary, Ms. Kellie Williams," Internal Affairs Sgt. James Merkison wrote in his report. "Further investigation found that Ms. Williams died on June 8, 2005; however, her gas card was retained and used by the office of the BPC."

Phone calls to the police board office seeking comment from Hicks were unsuccessful. 

There are no meeting minutes showing the board voted on the action, the report reads.

Bell on Monday said that there were growing pains as the board underwent a personnel expansion. 

“Perhaps we didn’t dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s like we should have, but this was our first major effort to add staff,” Bell said. “We relied on best practices. We thought we were doing the right thing to create a fair hiring process."

According to the report, Hicks abused his authority in a separate instance by crafting a job description to hire an acquaintance for another executive manager post.

Hicks appointed Gertrude Faye Johnson on Oct. 31, 2016, as the fiscal executive manager soon after his authority was delegated under the memo. 

The investigation found that Hicks exchanged more than 40 emails with Johnson between July 20, 2016, and Oct. 10 of that year, most before an official post was made in August 2016.

One email begins with Johnson asking “What am I applying for?”

Hicks then informs her of the fiscal oversight position, “a new position that I am creating" and he "coaches her on how to complete the online application," the report notes. 

Also, Hicks modified the job description, requiring a CPA certification, to fit Johnson's professional qualifications. She was the only applicant of five who met the requirement, it says. 

The inspector general was unable to locate any emails confirming an interview of any kind was conducted in Johnson's hiring. 

The report notes that Hicks was interviewed first by the inspector general's office on Jan. 18, 2019, about Brown’s hiring. Later, after receiving new details of alleged misconduct by Hicks, the office interviewed him again in the spring, asking about all of his hiring.

Hicks told the inspector general that he presented a reorganization plan memorandum to the board that included delegation of authority to him for hiring staff, which was approved. 

Hicks defended his hiring practices and the job descriptions crafted for the positions. He promoted Brown, he said, based on his qualifications and contacted Johnson when seeking the fiscal manager candidate to put "feelers" out, but did not provide any assistance to Johnson. 

Johnson in May told the inspector general's office that she's known Hicks for about 30 years and did not receive help from Hicks in applying for the job. 

The inspector general's office called the claims by Hicks and Johnson that there hadn't been any assistance or preference given to her hiring "blatantly false" and said it was "especially troublesome" because both "work for an oversight agency."

Johnson told The News on Monday: “I haven’t seen the report, so I don’t know anything about it at this time.”

Brown in January told the inspector general's office that he was initially hired as an investigator and later promoted to the executive manager position "because of his hard work."

The appointments of Brown, Johnson and a third manager, Melanie White, were improper. White declined to comment on Monday. 

The police board voted in August to reject the inspector general recommendations.

Optional administrative hearings for Hicks, Johnson and Bell were held in September. In each case, "no information was presented to refute the findings," the report reads.

The inspector general's office on Monday said it's forwarding its final report to the city's Corporation Counsel "to seek enforcement of the charter."

"Some concerns were raised, and we look forward to addressing those concerns, and having dialog with the corporation counsel and making sure that in the future, we’re in compliance with the process," Bell added. "We have responded via our attorney to the inspector general.”