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Detroit police create outreach office to build community trust

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's Police Department on Wednesday announced the creation of an outreach office that aims to build trust and understanding between cops and citizens.

During an hour-long press conference at the department's 8th Precinct on Detroit's west side, police officials introduced the Office of Internal/External relations, which stems from a program that's been in place for two years in the 3rd, 5th, 6th 7th, 10th and 11th precincts, and is now implemented department-wide.

"As members of law enforcement, we don't always get it right, and we seek ways to improve our process to increase confidence in the community," Detroit police Chief James Craig said Wednesday in announcing the Office of Internal/External Relations.

The internal component of the office will incorporate three existing programs that help officers: the Committee on Race and Equity (CORE), which deals with racial complaints; Peer Support, which provides help for officers who've been traumatized or experienced stress on the job; and DPD Fit, which encourages physical fitness.

Externally, the department will host "Police Community Summits," which will allow those who feel they've been wronged by officers a chance to discuss their concerns.

"The external part (of the office) is what's new," Detroit police Chief James Craig said. "It will focus on repairing relationships that may have been damaged during police encounters. As members of law enforcement, we don't always get it right, and we seek ways to improve our process to increase confidence in the community."

There already have been more than a dozen police-community summits, although the first such meeting as part of the new office is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Crowell Recreational Center on Lahser in the 8th Precinct.

5th Precinct Cmdr. Eric Ewing, with Chief James Craig and Capt. Tonya Leonard-Gilbert, explain the new department office that lets officers and community members to air issues and frustrations.

The participants for Saturday's meeting — citizens who complained about officers' behavior to the Office of the Chief Investigator, which looks into demeanor complaints — have already been chosen, although people who haven't filed complaints but want to attend future summits can do so by contacting their neighborhood police precincts, said Capt. Tonya Leonard-Gilbert, who heads the new office..

Cmdr. Eric Ewing of the 5th Precinct said he attended a training session two years ago that prompted him to pitch an idea to the chief about establishing an office that would allow police and citizens to air their issues and frustrations.

Ewing, a 35-year police veteran, said his thinking has changed since he began attending the summit meetings.

"Every time we've had these meetings, we've had 'ah-ha' moments on both sides, whether it be both officers and citizens," Ewing said.

During meetings, police and citizens do role-reversals, Ewing said.

"We give the citizens a chance to be the police officers in the scenarios, and we give the officers the chance to be the citizens," Ewing said. "Each other gets to see what happens on both sides."

5th Precinct Cmdr. Eric Ewing said at one summit meeting, a woman was in the role of a police officer effecting a traffic stop where a gun might be present.  "The nervousness behind it, and the anxiety they feel is the same thing the officers feel on their side of it," Ewing said.

Ewing said at one meeting, a woman was in the role of a police officer effecting a traffic stop where a gun might be present. 

"The nervousness behind it, and the anxiety they feel is the same thing the officers feel on their side of it," Ewing said. "That's when the 'ah-ha' moment takes place. The citizen said, 'This is what you go through all the time?' Yes; now take the one traffic stop, you multiply it by how many traffic stops you do a day, and multiply that by how many years you have on the job."

In 2017, Craig ordered policy changes meant to bolster community relations, including requiring officers to perform a "dust-off," which entails explaining to a citizen why he or she was stopped and questioned.

"When I was in Portland, Maine, officers responded to a call of a man with a gun in a predominantly Muslim community," Craig said. "I knew going in there was a lot of division between police and this community. The young man had been stopped ... detained, searched and handcuffed.

"But here's where it went bad: Nobody took 60 seconds to explain, 'Sir, we stopped you because we got a call (about a man with a gun).' So now, this contact is going bad ... so the officer says, 'Let me take you to the scout car and show you the computer printout (that says) 'Muslim male wearing a white T-shirt with red writing. This is why we stopped you.'

"Is the person going to feel better about the stop? More than likely, yes. Maybe not totally satisfied, but it's about respect," Craig said.

Detroit resident Harry Joliffi said he was wary when he first participated in a summit meeting.

"The people in the community up to this point have been lied to," he said. "They don't have the faith in the Police Department, and they don't have faith in themselves. When Commander Ewing came to me, and we were talking about his vision, I didn't believe in it."

Joliffi said meeting with police helped change his mind — about police, and how the community also bears responsibility to work with police.

"We don't always get it right," he said. "We have to learn how to trust each other and be respectful to each other."