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Federal oversight forced reforms on Detroit's often violent police department

Detroit — In the last five years of the 20th century, Detroit's police department had gained a reputation for the heavy use of force.

From 1995 to 2000, 40 people died at the hands of officers, a violent toll that led Mayor Dennis Archer to make a controversial move: He asked the federal government to investigate, leading the department to spend more than a decade under court-ordered oversight.

A police officer and protester shake hands during the second straight day of demonstrations against the alleged killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in Detroit on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Six years after U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn released the department from three consent decrees, there's broad, though not unanimous, agreement among Detroit stakeholders that the long, painful process has improved police conduct and interactions with residents.

Detroit police officials as well as some residents and observers say the city's police force has improved because of the changes mandated by the federal consent judgments, which were agreed to in 2003 after a Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of excessive force, civil rights abuses and a culture of covering up misconduct.

Perhaps the most striking measure of improvement: Since 2015, Detroit officers have killed nine people, according to city police data, less than a quarter of the death toll from two decades ago.

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer says the city's police department has improved since operating under federal oversight.

"The police department we have today is, I think, outstanding," Archer said Tuesday. "Are there problems? I’m sure there are. Nothing is perfect ... (but the department) had a lot of hard work to do to come back to where they are. They’ve done it, and they deserve our respect.”

Since the department reached federal compliance in 2014, there has been a 57% drop in Category 1 use-of-force incidents by officers, while the number of lawsuits alleging police misconduct has been cut in half, police and city statistics show.

The city entered into the consent judgments to avoid lawsuits alleging excessive force by officers, mistreatment of witnesses and unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Cohn ended the federal oversight in August 2014 when he ruled the police department had sufficiently overhauled its practices and training.

"I don't understand why some cities are just now figuring out changes need to be made, but some police agencies have done it right," Police Chief James Craig said. "Detroit's one of those agencies."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig talks with media members, explaining that due to marches being peaceful, he would not enforce the 8 p.m. curfew.

In the wake of George Floyd's death last month during a police incident in Minneapolis, calls have grown to "defund the police" during nationwide protests against police brutality, including at a Monday night demonstration in Detroit. To Craig, that's a short-sighted approach.

"There's a lot of talk about defunding the police, but instead of that, why not look at the police departments that are doing it right, and learn from those best practices? We're not perfect, but I believe we are now a model of policing excellence," Craig said.

Others insist Detroit's police department, which is 55% black, still falls short of properly protecting and serving the city's African-American community, which makes up 79% of the city's population.

Examples of recent racially charged controversies include last year's implementation of facial recognition software, which critics say falsely identifies an inordinate number of African Americans, and the firing of two white cops last year after they posted racially insensitive comments about a black citizen on Snapchat.

Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said some reforms were put in place after the city entered into the consent judgments, but he said when Craig was appointed to oversee the department in 2013, the year Detroit filed for bankruptcy, “things went sideways.”

Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is critical of the city force's performance under Chief James Craig.

“The approach was beginning to change,” he said, but stalled when the city entered bankruptcy.

“He knows how to play the media game," Reed said of Craig. "That’s not something that we need in Detroit now. We don’t need sideshows; we need substance.”

One thing Reed said he found “particularly troubling and offensive” was when the chief told citizens in 2014 that they should buy their own weapons and defend themselves. 

“That was particularly galling. We felt that’s not something that should be coming from a chief,” he said. “That’s not something that you tell citizens: ‘arm yourself.’ I don’t think that’s a good thing to do.”

“Not to mention morally,” he added. “I’m all for the Second Amendment and all, but that’s not something you tell citizens.”

Reed also was critical of Craig’s past handling of claims of racial bias by the department and noted a number of officers have been charged with crimes under his tenure.

 “The buck stops with him, doesn’t it?,” Reed said. “He just doesn’t manage well, in my estimation.”

Reed said the department's model of policing needs to be reformed and that he was dissatisfied with how the department has handled the protests. 

“It just shows that they are stuck in the 20th century in terms of law enforcement,” he said. “It takes you almost back to the 1967 rebellion and prior to that with the policing model. That’s not what is needed.”

In response, Craig said: "The results speak for themselves. Since I got here, we got out of the consent decree, we've improved relations with the community, morale of police officers has improved."

City officials say the dwindling number of use-of-force incidents and police misconduct lawsuits in Detroit shows the reforms have been successful. 

In 2013, the year before Detroit became compliant with the federal mandates, there were 72 use-of-force incidents falling into Category 1, which include officer-related shootings, firearm or chemical spray discharge, or any use of force resulting in broken bones, loss of consciousness or a hospital visit. Last year, there were 31 Category 1 incidents.

In 2012, two years before the city complied with the consent decrees, and before the city's 2013 bankruptcy effectively put lawsuits on hold, there were 105 suits filed claiming Detroit police misconduct, according to the city's Law Department. That dropped to 52 lawsuits in 2019, with 10 police misconduct lawsuits filed in 2020 as of Tuesday.

Lawsuit payouts in 2012 involved 21 alleged assaults by Detroit officers, a fatal shooting, a non-shooting wrongful death charge and a claim that an officer had forced a female to disrobe. Since 2018, there have been two payouts from lawsuits alleging assaults by officers and one non-shooting wrongful death claim, according to Law Department data.

In 2012, taxpayers paid $4.7 million in lawsuit settlements against cops. In 2018, payouts had dropped to $2.4 million. Last year, the city paid $12.4 million, most of which was from an $8.25 million settlement for the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed during a 2010 police raid.

Aiyana Jones, 7. The child died in an accidental shooting by Detroit Police who were executing a search warrant on the property for a murder suspect.

Aiyana's killing by former Detroit officer Joseph Weekley sparked a national controversy. Malik Shabazz of the New Black Panther Nation/New Marcus Garvey Movement was among the community activists who protested the girl's death.

Shabazz said “police terrorism” of black people is as “American as apple pie and baseball” — but he said Detroit's police force has improved over the years, thanks to an emphasis on strengthening relationships with community leaders and clergy members.

“In many ways, we are light years ahead of other municipalities as far as community policing and constitutional policing,” Shabazz said. “That’s not saying we don’t have some crooked cops. But DPD is not shooting us in the back eight times handcuffed. Now we have to stay vigilant so that we don’t go back to that.”

Detroit's strained relationship between its police and black residents sparked the 1967 uprising. A distrust among some residents has been fanned by incidents through the years, including the August 2000 death of Errol Shaw, a deaf man who was shot by former Detroit officer David Krupinski after Shaw approached the officer wielding a rake and couldn't hear his command to drop it.

Shaw's death contributed to Archer’s request for a federal investigation into police use of deadly force over the prior five years. 

A Detroit News investigation into that five-year period found fatal shootings by 40 Detroit cops, 35 of whom were exonerated. Four were charged with misdemeanors and the other was convicted and sent to prison.

In six of the deaths, unarmed suspects were shot in the back fleeing police. In eight instances, officers said they'd opened fire because people came at them with weapons, but autopsies found the victims had been shot in the back.

The city paid $8.6 million during those five years to settle six lawsuits in which the department cleared officers who shot citizens.

Coming under particular scrutiny was Eugene Brown, a black officer who killed three people and wounded a fourth in nine shootings during his career, all of which were found to be justified. He was fired in 2011 for overtime fraud.

The three-year U.S. Department of Justice investigation requested by Archer found a pattern of civil rights abuses, and the city agreed to federal oversight. 

Mayor Mike Duggan was Wayne County prosecutor from 2001-03. He said the police department was not in good shape, and there was a high level of distrust in the community. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

“There were some really bad relationships between police and the community," he said. "I would speak at high schools in the city of Detroit, and the depth of anger toward the police was extreme.”

Duggan said the federal consent judgments have helped improve the department. 

“There is far better training, far stronger policies over the use of force, far more intense review of each case of use of force and the whole culture of the department has changed,” he said. “It took 10 years.”

Duggan also credits Craig’s implementation of a program placing 57 Neighborhood Police Officers throughout the city. The chief, he said, has been “very decisive and aggressive” in his commitment that the department “be there to support the community.”

The recent discussion about police brutality was sparked by the death of Floyd after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the black man's throat for more than eight minutes. Chokeholds, which are allowed by some police departments, have been under renewed scrutiny since Floyd's death.

Some police forces, such as Denver's, have banned their use altogether. Denver police previously had allowed them in life-or-death scenarios, which is Detroit’s policy.

Duggan said he and Craig discussed chokeholds after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was held around the neck by a New York police officer. Assistant police chief James White said chokeholds have been prohibited in Detroit unless deadly force is deemed necessary since he came on the force in 1996.

"We don’t train for any upper body oxygen or blood restricting techniques," White said.

Craig said neck restraints are prohibited in Detroit, except that when lives are at stake, “all bets are off.” He called Denver’s policy “ridiculous.”

“What’s an officer supposed to do when he’s fighting for his life? Let someone kill him? Let’s say a suspect gets an officer’s gun; that policy says the officer isn’t allowed to try to save his own life if his only option is a chokehold? I will never tell one of my officers that. When it’s a life-or-death situation, you use whatever force is necessary to save lives.

“Detroit has adopted a model use-of-force policy. In Minneapolis, neck restraints were not prohibited; they were not considered a deadly force option. People need to understand that deadly force is a different dynamic than other uses of force, because the officer is fighting to survive. It’s cut and dry. What happened in Minneapolis is different. Floyd was murdered. They already had control of him; that wasn’t a life-or-death situation. It’s two entirely different scenarios.”

Protests over Floyd's death resulted in riots in several cities, although during nearly two weeks of demonstrations, Detroit has had no major incidents — the result, some say, of the reforms brought on by the consent judgments and Craig's emphasis on community relations.

Detroit Police Commander Franklin Hayes marches with protestors through downtown Detroit on May 31, 2020, to protest the use of police brutality in the death of George Floyd.

"Detroit obviously has a better relationship with the African-American community than a lot of other cities that were hit by riots," said retired Detroit police officer David Malhalab, who was a frequent critic of the department during his career from 1977-2005.

"I think the department is better now than when I was on," Malhalab said. "It seems there's been a commitment to better screening of hires, and training and monitoring officers. You still hear of problems, but it's not as bad as it was."

White, who was in charge of getting the police department into federal compliance, said several protocols have been put in place to ensure problem officers and supervisors are flagged and dealt with.

"The consent judgment led to a number of changes," he said. "One of the biggest changes was our Management Awareness System, which measures officers' conduct against other officers by tracking 52 different performance indicators.

"For instance, one performance indicator is citizen complaints. We can look at the data and do a peer review, alert management for the need for intervention or recognition, so it's not just negative," White said.

Spikes in any of the 52 performance indicators, which in addition to citizen complaints include tardiness and excessive sick time, automatically trigger peer reviews, and require management to intervene and come up with a plan for changing the behavior, White said.

White said the implementation of body-worn cameras in 2017 has also helped hold officers accountable, and has strengthened community trust.

"The chief is also requiring supervisors to do random video reviews, where they'll pull an officer's body camera at random, pick a random period of time, and look at the footage to see how officers are interacting with citizens," White said.

The consent decrees mandated establishment of a civil rights division, which reports to White. "They oversee the department's use of force, and the Management Awareness System, to ensure the appropriate performance indicators are being reviewed," he said.

The division also conducts "environmental audits," which are not required by the federal consent judgment, but were introduced by Craig.

"Those are meant to assess the general health of the department; the physical building, the health of the work force, staffing assessments and things like that to find out what's going on in the environment," White said. "If you've got a precinct that leads the department in citizen complaints, for instance, the chief would direct an environmental audit."

Under former police chiefs and mayors, the department's performance during the consent decrees was riddled with scandals and mismanagement. In July 2009, federal monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood was removed after text messages obtained by the Justice Department revealed a “personal relationship” with Kwame Kilpatrick while he was mayor.

The following year, Detroit’s Office of the Chief Investigator, which looks into claims of police abuse, was criticized by U.S. Circuit Judge Julian Cook, who imposed a $1,000-per-day fine against the city because the office had a huge backlog of cases it hadn’t investigated.

Lisa Carter, chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, says she receives positive feedback from citizens and others about the department's performance.

Lisa Carter, chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said Craig "brought a commitment to getting out of the federal oversight."

"There are a number of factors why were were in (the consent decrees) for so long, but I say one of those reasons had to do with consistent leadership," Carter said. "I think when Chief Craig came in, he wanted to end it, and he put the resources forward in order to get compliance.

"I think it's made a better police department," Carter said. "I've heard that from citizens, and out of the mouths of police officers as well."

Archer said when he became mayor, he’d inherited a challenged department. 

“It was not the best of times between the mayor and the federal agencies,” he said. 

Without efforts to integrate and change past discriminatory practices brought on by the federal decrees, he said, “we wouldn’t have the police department we have today.”