Detroit IG probe: Police board chair wasn't wrong to silence member

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners didn't abuse his authority by muting the microphone of board member Willie Burton during an October livestreamed meeting, an investigation by the city's inspector general has determined.

The probe was launched in November, after Burton complained to the Detroit Office of the Inspector General that board chair Willie Bell had improperly silenced him during an Oct. 22 virtual meeting; and that Bell ignored Burton's motion at a July 16 meeting to vote against Detroit police using facial recognition technology.

Detroit Police Commissioner Willie Burton

Burton also alleged that Bell had repeatedly ignored members' requests to hire a parliamentarian to ensure the board followed proper procedures during meetings; that Bell violated the board's bylaws by changing a meeting agenda; and that board leaders abused their authority when they sought to create the positions of deputy board secretary and deputy chief investigator.

"The OIG investigated the allegations thoroughly and consulted with an expert parliamentarian on parliamentary procedures regarding Chair Bell’s rulings to determine if his actions violated Robert’s Rules of Order," Inspector General File Manager Jacqueline Hendricks-Moore wrote in a June 8 memo to Inspector General Ellen Ha that outlined the probe's findings.

Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Willie Bell

"The OIG found no evidence to substantiate the allegations that Chair Bell abused his authority for each (of the) allegations in the complaint," Hendricks-Moore wrote. She also recommended the board hire a parliamentarian to ensure future meetings will be conducted properly.

During the Oct. 22 meeting, as the board voted to approve the meeting agenda, "Commissioner Burton continuously made verbal outbursts interfering with the vote count," Hendricks-Moore wrote. "Chair Bell repeatedly gave warnings to Commissioner Burton to stop speaking.

"Commissioner Burton continued to interrupt the meeting with his verbal outbursts," Hendricks-Moore wrote. "Eventually, some Board members made requests that all members should exercise appropriate decorum by waiting to be recognized by the Chair before speaking.

"About this time, Chair Bell requested that the Board Secretary mute Commissioner Burton’s microphone," the memo said. "Commissioner Burton’s microphone was muted and the vote count was completed."

Bell said Wednesday he felt exonerated by the investigation's findings. He said the board hired a parliamentarian last week, but added: "This isn't a parliamentary procedure issue; it's an issue with a board member who doesn’t want to have order, and doesn’t want to follow the rules."

Bell said the board is negotiating a contract with the parliamentarian. "They cost about $100 an hour, and we can't afford to pay that much for every meeting," he said.

Burton said he was outraged at the investigation's findings.

"Are you kidding me? The inspector general apparently doesn't understand the Constitution," said Burton, who last year filed a federal lawsuit complaining his rights were violated when police arrested him during a July 11, 2019, public discussion about the police department's use of facial recognition technology.

During the meeting, Burton was handcuffed, escorted from the meeting table and taken to the Detroit Detention Center after he ignored former board chair Lisa Carter's repeated requests to stop interrupting the meeting.

"We got the police using Gestapo tactics in commission meetings," Burton said Wednesday. "Why can't elected officials speak up? They want to mute, silence and drag elected officials out of meetings. They’re stomping on our democracy and silencing the voice of majority Detroit, which is against techno racism, which is what facial recognition is."

The City Council last year approved a nearly $200,000 contract with South Carolina-based DataWorks Plus to fund software maintenance and support for the city's facial recognition equipment. The contract expires Sept. 30, 2022.

Burton often clashes with Bell and Carter during meetings. Hendricks-Moore wrote that some board members "expressed frustration over their beliefs that the Chair is ignoring their motions, when their opinions are different than the opinions of other Board members."

"In addition, since the Chairperson’s position appears to rotate between Commissioners Willie Bell and Lisa Carter, this situation continues to be an issue among some Board members," Hendricks-Moore wrote.

"Every Board member has expressed how frustrated they are that the Board’s business is constantly disrupted by Board members’ inappropriate behavior at the Board meetings," Hendricks-Moore wrote.

Bell said he's relieved that the investigation found no wrongdoing.

"I had people coming to my house demonstrating because of my supposed abuse of authority," he said. "I hope they now see that the allegations were false."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN