Civil rights leader, longtime cop named interim Detroit police chief

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's new interim police chief, a licensed mental health therapist with a civil rights background, vowed Monday to use those skills as he assumes command of the police department in one of the nation's most violent cities.

James White, who left the police department in August to become director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, is scheduled to begin his tenure in the $200,000-a-year job at the Detroit Police Department on June 1, when current Chief James Craig plans to retire.

Craig, whose nearly eight years as chief make him the second-longest serving top cop in Detroit's history, is planning a gubernatorial run as a Republican.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan made White's announcement Monday after consulting with the Board of Police Commissioners, who are responsible for giving him a list of candidates from which to choose a permanent chief.

White said his top priorities will be fighting crime, with a particular focus on speeding, "drifting" and other traffic violations.

"We've got to get this crime under control," he said during a Monday press conference at Public Safety Headquarters. "We've been talking about going heavy on traffic enforcement. ... The way we've been driving in this city has to stop."

Former Detroit assistant police chief James White was named Monday the interim Detroit police chief starting June 1. The current head of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights will be replacing Detroit Police Chief James Craig.

White also vowed to balance the need to uphold the law with citizens' rights.

"The crime plan we're working on will be sensitive to our community, but it'll also be aggressive to those who commit crimes," he said. "People have the right to walk down the street."

White in 2013 spearheaded a renewed push to get the police department in compliance with federal mandates after it had spent more than a decade mired in three federal consent decrees. Within a year of Craig's appointment of White to head the new compliance effort, the consent decrees were lifted.

"I'm humbled," the 53-year-old Detroit native said. "If this city can take a chance on me, I can take a chance on the city."

White said his mental health background "will absolutely inform everything I do," and said he will work to ensure officers are sensitive to the needs of mentally ill residents. 

"And I want to keep our good cops good," he said. "When you look at what cops deal with every day ... trauma makes you fear more trauma."

White added he would like to see counselors embedded in each police precinct.

How Duggan chose White

During his time as director of the state civil rights department, White said he was impressed with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's diversity efforts.

"I don't want to get political, but she did in fact start a statewide diversity and inclusion mandate, so each state agency has a director of diversity and inclusion," he said. "That's leadership. That's something I'll look at doing in DPD — to look at diversity and inclusion in literally every decision that we make."

During Monday's press briefing, White announced that Deputy Chief Todd Bettison will take over as first assistant chief, to replace the outgoing Lashinda Stair. White also said Assistant Chief David LeValley will continue directing the department's crime-fighting efforts.

Duggan said he interviewed several people since Craig announced his retirement.

"It was a question of who'd be the best fit," the mayor said. 

Duggan said White impressed him last year when Craig was out with COVID-19 and more than 600 members of the department were under quarantine. White assumed command in Craig's absence.

"We needed someone to step up," Duggan said. "AC White stepped in, took the lead and said, 'I'm going to handle this.' I was just so impressed.

"All I could think to myself is, 'James White could run any police department in America.' What he did under pressure was incredible."

Willie Bell, chairman of Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners, said Monday the board is unified in its support for White in the role, noting "it is very seldom that we all agree."

"But I think we all agree that James E. White should be the interim chief of police," Bell said. 

The City Charter requires the police board to "conduct a professional search with a reputable and qualified executive search firm or other equally qualified entity to identify candidates for Chief of Police."

Duggan said Monday the city is close to naming a search firm for a permanent chief. 

After the search, the charter requires the mayor to appoint one of the board's candidates, who will be subject to approval by the City Council. If the council does not disapprove of the appointment within 30 days, "it is deemed confirmed," according to the charter. Council members couldn't be reached Monday for comment on White's interim selection.

White said he plans to compete for the permanent chief's job.

"I might not get it," he added, "but nobody will outwork me."

Interim chief's background

White was born and raised in Detroit and joined the city's police force in 1996. During his career, he ran the Civil Rights Integrity Bureau and was a supervisor in the 6th Precinct before Craig appointed him assistant chief in 2013.

The incoming interim top cop said he was raised by his mother and grandmother, and as a young boy, his opinion of police was shaped when his uncle was killed.

"I remember when the police came to the house to tell my grandmother that her oldest son had been murdered," he said. "When he told my grandmother the horrible news, she collapsed to the floor; she's screaming and crying. I'm crying."

White said the officer picked him up and comforted him. "That put an imprint on my mind," he said.

Former Detroit Assistant Police Chief Steve Dolunt, who worked with White for years, said the appointment is "a great choice."

"I've said for years, James White is the sharpest person there," Dolunt said. "Whenever Craig had ideas, White was the one who made sure they got implemented. He was instrumental in body-worn cameras, (Project) Green Light and the Real-Time Crime Center. 

"I'm stunned that (White) left the Civil Rights Department because I thought he was doing a great job for Gov. Whitmer. But he'll be great as interim chief, too."

Police Commissioner Willie Burton said White's clinical background will help address a major need.

"I like the direction DPD is going with this appointment," Burton said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy also weighed in on White's selection, saying in a statement: “I have worked with James White through the years. He is extremely intelligent, competent and measured. He accepts responsibility and is not quick to blame.

"In his dealings with me, he has been even-tempered and is simply about getting the work done — he is not a glory seeker. I look forward to witnessing how he runs the department," Worthy said.

"My favorite trait about now Chief White — he can cut to the chase like no other and gets straight to the relevant point quickly and efficiently during meetings, discussions and phone calls."

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights congratulated and thanked White in a Monday statement but did not say when it would replace him. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted to appoint White to the position of director in August after a nearly year-long search for a leader. 

White was hired to replace Agustin Arbulu, who was removed from his position in August 2019 after he was alleged to have made remarks objectifying women. Arbulu, an attorney and health care consultant, had led the department since 2015.

Arbulu filled the position upon Matt Wesaw's resignation in October 2015. Wesaw served as director of the department for about two years.

The state commissioners “will determine their next steps” at next Monday’s meeting, Civil Rights Department spokeswoman Jeannette Johnson said Monday.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Staff Writer Elizabeth LeBlanc contributed.