Detroit police chief orders officers to intervene against fellow cops

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit police officers now have a duty to intervene if they see wrongdoing by fellow cops, under an executive order announced Thursday by the city's police chief.

The directive from Chief James Craig, which lasts a year, allows the police department to immediately enact a policy change, rather than have it subject to approval by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Violations of the policy could lead to termination.

Craig said the previous policy required officers to merely report misconduct — "but this takes it one step further and requires them to actually stop the behavior," he said.

The order, which Craig said he signed "weeks ago," was announced during Thursday's "virtual" police board meeting, as part of several proposed modifications to the police department's use-of-force policy. The other proposed changes, which were not part of Craig's order, are subject to board approval.

Craig said he issued the order "because I thought it was important to enact that policy immediately."

It came hours before Detroit police fatally shot a man who was reportedly standing in the middle of a west side street wielding a sword before throwing a dagger at an officer. The man became the fourth person to be shot by Detroit police this month, and the third fatality.

The issue of police officers' duty to intervene when they see wrongdoing by fellow cops has been at the forefront since May 25, when four Minneapolis police officers were videotaped standing around and watching while fellow cop Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for several minutes after Floyd was handcuffed.

Floyd subsequently died, sparking protests in Detroit and other cities across the country and calls for changes in use-of-force procedures. Thursday's order from Craig was greeted with praise by Detroit residents and civil rights activists.

Rev. W.J. Rideout III

"I think it's great," said the Rev. W.J. Rideout III, pastor of All God's People Church in Detroit, who has led protests against police treatment of African Americans. 

"The days of 'go along to get along' by officers has to stop," he said. "The days were officers are afraid to speak out against wrongdoing by fellow cops has to stop. This is a step in the right direction."

Other proposed changes to Detroit's use-of-force policy include putting the burden on police officers who shoot at moving vehicles to prove the action was necessary to save lives; and a requirement that officers give careful consideration whether to use force on "special populations" that include children and people with disabilities.

Most of the changes involved "cleaning up the language, and putting the various rules into one policy, whereas before they were in different places," assistant chief James White said. "This makes it a lot easier for officers to understand the policy."

Other proposed changes:

  • Chokeholds are banned, except in life-or-death situations; under the proposed changes, that would still be the case, although the language was tweaked to impose a "general ban." If a chokehold is employed, the burden of proof that the tactic was necessary would fall on the officer. White said discipline decisions would be based "on the totality of the circumstances." 
  • Officers would be barred from participating in training that teaches chokeholds.
  • If a citizen is resisting arrest, "members should consider requesting a supervisor for assistance before escalating to force beyond officer presence and verbal direction," the proposal says. 

White said before submitting the proposed changes to the board, his team sought feedback.

"We took a look at the policies we currently have in place and talked to people who would be impacted on these policy changes to get their input," White said.

"It's not unusual to tweak our policies," White said. "It's a living document; it's always being looked at."

Police officials have worked on the policy tweaks since last month when board Commissioner Evette Griffie submitted a list of recommended changes to the department. 

After Craig signs off on the proposed policy changes, as he indicated he will do, they will be sent to the police board, which will post them on its website for 30 days to allow for public comment.

The board will then review the policy revisions and consider whether to approve them or send them back for more tweaks.

"Regarding the duty to intervene, I can't say enough about it," Griffie said. "To see what George Floyd went through, with all those officers standing there watching — this was more than necessary." 

During Thursday's meeting, commissioner William Davis asked White whether Craig's new order requires officers to intervene when working with other law enforcement agencies in task forces.

Assistant Police Chief James White

"Yes, it does," White said. "An officer has a duty as a member of this agency to intervene any time a member or non-member is engaged in misconduct or a deadly encounter that's unjustified."

Not all of Griffie's recommendations were adopted.

White said the department didn't adopt Griffie's recommendation to establish a use-of-force database because DPD already puts that information in its Direct Management Awareness System, and it submits data to the FBI annually.

Griffie said she would have liked a quarterly report so she could gauge whether the new policies, if adopted, are working.

White said "special populations" outlined in the proposal would require officers to think twice about whether to use force include "anything from obvious mental illness, any physical disability that would limit their ability to resist. It also involves juveniles."

After Thursday's meeting, White added the policy will allow officers dealing with mentally ill people to call in social workers, rather than arresting them, if possible.

"This puts it in policy that officers can call in other resources," White said.

Griffie said she thought the proposed policy change is important to adopt — "especially given the large number of people we serve in our community who have mental challenges," she said.

Detroit Police Officers Association president Craig Strong said Thursday he hadn't seen the proposed changes.

Floyd's death and the resulting protests against police brutality have led numerous cities to consider changes in public safety policies. The city council of Berkeley, California, approved a plan this month to have unarmed civilian workers conduct traffic stops instead of police.

Virginia Burroughs, who lives on Detroit's east side, said she's glad the duty to intervene rule change will make it more difficult for someone in Detroit to befall Floyd's fate.

"It was heart-wrenching to watch all those officers stand there and look while that man was being killed," Burroughs. "I wouldn't want that on my worst enemy. I didn't know him, but to hear him beg for his life, and beg for his mama, I shed a tear.

"I'm glad (Detroit police) have that rule," she said. "It's what they should do."

Rideout said other police departments should adopt Detroit's policies.

"This is a day where DPD showed Americans that all police departments are not as bad as some people are making them out to be," he said.