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Tlaib, 3 others want independent probe of police action at protests

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Four lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday to the city's mayor, police chief and Board of Police Commissioners, calling for an independent investigation into "use of excessive force against (protesters), legal observers and journalists during recent demonstrations."

Chief James Craig said other than one occasion involving an officer who was suspended and charged with three felonies, his officers have not used excessive force during more than 100 days of demonstrations that started in late May after the choking death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich

The two-page letter was written by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López.

The letter was cc'ed to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. 

“The right to free speech is one that is fundamental to our country’s democracy and critical to ensuring that our beloved city is one where everyone is heard,” the letter said. “(Protesters) and others exercising their constitutional right to speak up about police brutality and racial justice deserve the same protection others receive. No person should fear being beaten, tasered, tear gassed, shot, or killed by law enforcement officers.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said his officers, with one exception, have only used force when necessary during protests that began in Detroit after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Craig insisted his officers have only used force against protesters when necessary.

"There were times when we've had to use force, but each time it was when our officers were under direct attack, or a decision was made to make lawful arrests, and there was resistance to that arrest," Craig said. "I find it interesting that the narrative is never about the aggressive behavior demonstrated by the protesters, who have thrown things at our officers, including spikes and boulders.

Michigan state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit

"We've never shied away from independent investigations," Craig said. "However, it should be noted that throughout my tenure, I've always been transparent about these investigations, and we take proper action. We've never covered up misconduct.

"Maybe Rashida Tlaib needs to talk to her constituents and try to understand what they want," Craig said. "They don't want to defund police; they approve of the job we're doing. It's obvious she's not listening to Detroiters, but has been listening to the few protesters who have been twisting the narrative since day one."

Tuesday's call for an independent investigation comes after the protest group Detroit Will Breathe filed a lawsuit last week alleging Detroit police used "unnecessary, unreasonable and excessive force" and violated members' constitutional rights. 

Caylee Arnold, one of 15 plaintiffs in the suit, claimed she was assaulted by officers at an Aug. 22 protest near John R and Woodward.

"I was pepper-sprayed in the face while police officers held me down," Arnold said. "I was tackled. I asked, 'Why am I still being pepper-sprayed?' when I was already on the ground with my hands behind my back."

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield

Four days after the suit was filed, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order that accompanied the complaint, barring Detroit officers from using batons, pepper spray, tear gas and other tactics and equipment on peaceful protesters. Craig responded by saying the force his officers have used were on non-peaceful demonstrators.

Willie Bell, chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said Tuesday he doesn't feel an outside investigation is necessary, adding that Tlaib should spend more time with Craig and the police board.

"I have confidence that DPD will handle this the way they've handled other matters like this," Bell said. "We interact with the department on these issues, and Chief Craig has always been open about investigations into officers.

"I think (Tlaib) needs to do a little more interaction with DPD and the chief and the board, so she can understand our role and responsibility," Bell said. "If she did, she would see that Chief Craig has been open and transparent about these issues. We don't need an outside investigation."

Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Willie E. Bell

Craig said he's only seen one instance of an officer using unnecessary force during protests — "and we immediately dealt with that, and the officer was charged by Wayne County prosecutors."

In that incident, DPD Cpl. Daniel Debono was charged in July with assault after he allegedly shot rubber bullets at a photographer who'd identified herself as a journalist.

Craig suspended Debono, who quit and took a job in Texas.

Bell said his constituents support how Craig has handled the protests.

"I've received so many responses from citizens who say they have confidence in this police chief, and the board also has confidence in him," Bell said. "I think under the circumstances, he's doing a great job. This is a no-confidence vote by (Tlaib), but I think it's coming from a place of not understanding how this department does things."

In their letter, the lawmakers disagreed, saying the police department has not been transparent.

“The lack of accountability and urgency to investigate claims of excessive force and constitutional violations, coupled with a dismissive attitude of the movement for racial justice, has eroded public trust and community relationships," the letter said.

Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López

"Internal investigations by the Detroit Police Department cannot fix this. An independent investigation is an important step to restore public trust and show Detroiters that you are invested in the fight for racial justice, acknowledge improvements can be made and that the city is committed to transparency and accountability,” the letter said.