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Police commissioner sues over arrest at board meeting

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Detroit police commissioner filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday claiming he suffered "emotional and psychological harm, indignity, anxiety, mental anguish, emotional distress, humiliation ... and physical injuries" after being arrested during a police board meeting last year.

Commissioner Willie Burton was handcuffed and escorted by police from the July 11, 2019, Board of Police Commissioners meeting at the Durfee Information Center on Detroit's west side.

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

The arrest followed an argument between Burton and fellow commissioners about various topics, including the police department's use of facial recognition technology.

"I will never forget that moment," Burton said at a press conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit. "I was treated like a criminal for doing the job the citizens elected me to do."

The 25-page lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, seeks more than $75,000 in damages, claiming police violated Burton's First Amendment right to free speech, his Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure, and his Fifth Amendment right to due process.

The lawsuit names as defendants the city of Detroit, Carter, police chief James Craig, who was not at the meeting, and two police officials who helped escort Burton out of the meeting, assistant police chief David LeValley and Cmdr. Nick Kyriacou. An unknown Detroit cop is also named in the suit.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia declined to comment Thursday. The city generally does not comment on pending litigation.

Burton said he suffered a concussion from the brief skirmish during the meeting, which was packed with residents who voiced their opinions, mostly negative, about Detroit police using facial recognition software.

Police took Burton to the Detroit Detention Center, where he was briefly locked up. No charges were filed.

"I was just doing my job that day," Burton said. "What happened to me could happen to you. I just want to ensure this doesn't happen to anyone else."

Burton claims he was arrested because the board wanted to quash his criticism of facial recognition technology, although board officials insisted he was removed because he was disrupting the meeting.

Shortly after the meeting started, Wayne Circuit Judge Craig Strong swore in Lisa Carter as the new board chair. Afterward, Burton began asking what she would do differently than former chairman Willie Bell, with whom Burton had argued during previous meetings.

“You are out of order,” Carter told Burton multiple times. When Burton continued talking, as board members gave a community service award to a citizen, Carter asked officers to remove him from the room. Several officers surrounded Burton and placed him in handcuffs. 

Burton's attorney Nabih Ayad said at Thursday's press briefing the officers' behavior was "outrageous."

"They should know better," Ayad said. "He was arrested while speaking truth to power. We're seeking relief so this doesn't happen to anyone else down the road." 

Ayad added the COVID emergency delayed filing the lawsuit.

Burton has been a vocal critic of the police department's use of facial recognition technology, which critics say flags an inordinate number of darker-skinned people. Craig says the possibility of wrongful arrests is mitigated because multiple technicians and cops must okay a photo hit before the investigation can move forward.

Former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, an attorney who was retained by Burton after his arrest, also appeared at Thursday's press conference. He said the board had other options than to arrest Burton.

"They could have called for a recess to let things cool down," he said. "Instead, they used the ultimate force."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN