Judge: City can be held liable in lawsuit against former Detroit police drug unit

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Detroit police Sgt. Stephen Geelhood’s role within the department. A previous version was inaccurate because of incorrect information provided to the newspaper.

Detroit — A federal judge has ruled that the city can be held liable in a lawsuit involving a 2012 Detroit police drug raid because a "reasonable jury" could conclude that former city and police department officials knew about rampant corruption in the now-disbanded Narcotics Section, but did nothing to stop it.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow denied a motion by city attorneys to dismiss the case, but he dismissed from the lawsuit Detroit police Sgt. Stephen Geelhood, who was involved in the Sept. 13, 2012, raid on a Shelby Township house where medical marijuana was grown.

Tarnow said in his ruling that the city can be held liable for allegations made in the suit by Mukhlis Shamoon and Debra Metris-Shamoon, who claim Geelhood and other officers used unnecessary force while investigating a tip about illegal drug activity in their home.

No charges were filed against the Shamoons, who also allege in their suit that Geelhood, who is still on the police force, lied about the informant who'd allegedly given him the tip that prompted the raid.

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia declined to comment Monday.

Tarnow's ruling comes as Detroit police officials say they're close to wrapping up Operation Clean Sweep, an investigation into the former Narcotics Section which was launched in August 2019 when internal affairs officers raided the drug unit's offices.

Former Police Chief James Craig, who ordered the raid, told The Detroit News in February that the probe had uncovered "a pattern and practice of corruption," including cops filing dozens of false affidavits for search warrants of suspected drug houses, and overtime fraud.

Interim police chief James White said Monday that the investigation is nearing completion.

"The investigation has had a significant impact on rooting out corruption, which always has my full support," White said. "I've been briefed (on the probe), and there are some troubling findings."

Police officials will issue a report on the investigation after it wraps up, "which will be soon," White said.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said police have requested fraud or perjury charges against multiple officers in connection with the internal investigation.

"There are warrants that are under review and there are others that were returned (to police) for further (investigative) work," Miller said in an email.

Detroit police Professional Standards Section Director Christopher Graveline said Monday that 12 former narcotics officers have resigned after the internal probeuncovered alleged wrongdoing. An officer who had been fired after police officials said she provided a false statement to investigators early in the probe recently got her job back through arbitration, Graveline said.

The allegations made in the Shamoons' lawsuit, which seeks more than $75,000 in damages, predate the current city administration. Mike Duggan was elected mayor in November 2013, and former chief Craig took over the department in July 2013 before resigning last month and being replaced by White.

Craig said on multiple occasions that a lack of oversight by supervisors under previous regimes had allowed the drug unit corruption to flourish for years — statements which were cited by Tarnow in his ruling last week.

Tarnow wrote that a "reasonable jury" could conclude the alleged harm done to the Shamoons "could have been prevented if the City had opened an investigation into the Narcotics Unit sooner.

"In other words, there is also a reasonable dispute of material fact as to whether the City’s inaction was the moving force behind Plaintiffs’ injury," Tarnow wrote.

Craig ordered internal affairs officers to raid the drug unit's offices because he said he thought there was more corruption than the Federal Bureau of Investigation had uncovered when agents arrested former Detroit drug cop Michael Mosley, who pleaded guilty in February 2019 to taking a bribe from a drug dealer.

Mosley was indicted on Aug. 22, 2019, the same day Craig ordered the drug unit raid. 

Members of Mosley's former six-person crew allegedly committed most of the corruption uncovered during the internal investigation, Graveline told The News in February.

The Shamoons claim in their lawsuit that Geelhood lied when he said an informant named "Harry" had tipped him off about illegal drug activity in their home. In his ruling, Tarnow pointed out that Geelhood was unable to provide any documentation of having used the informant, who later died.

Tarnow also referenced in his ruling an investigation by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, in which prosecutors accused Geelhood of providing fraudulent information in a 2011 search warrant affidavit that resulted in in the wrongful conviction of Darell Chancellor, who spent eight years in prison before his release last year.

But a Detroit police internal investigation that followed the probe by prosecutors could not substantiate the claims against Geelhood, Graveline said Monday. 

"Given how old the case was, we could not determine the allegations one way or another," Graveline said.

In his ruling, Tarnow also cited a letter former Detroit police Lt. Kelly Fitzgerald wrote to the city's Office of the Inspector General "chronicling how, in late 2011, officials in the Narcotics Unit and Internal Affairs swept evidence of allegedly falsified surveillance and overtime "under the rug.

"This letter ... provides specific, detailed examples of fabricated surveillance and overtime by Sgt. (Joseph) Tucker, who was in charge of the raid on Plaintiffs’ home," Tarnow wrote.

According to Fitzgerald's letter, Tucker tagged himself on Facebook at J. Alexander's restaurant in Troy at 4:03 p.m., but he was paid overtime to be on narcotics surveillance from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"In addition, Lt. Fitzgerald explains that even though she alerted Internal Affairs to Sgt. Tucker’s conduct, the case was administratively closed without a full investigation after Lt. Kevin Robinson, the Commanding Officer of Narcotics, explained to investigators that what Sgt. Tucker did 'is done all the time at Narcotics,'" the judge wrote.

"In short, Lt. Fitzgerald’s letter not only documents a second pre-2012 example of misconduct in the Narcotics Unit, but also evidences a culture of indifference to such misconduct by the Unit’s highest-ranking officials," Tarnow wrote.

Royal Oak attorney Michael Dezsi, who represents the Shamoons and four other people in lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by former members of the Detroit police drug unit, said Tarnow's ruling was unusual.

"In many cases, the court will allow a case to proceed against individuals, but not against a city; they'll usually say there's not enough evidence that city officials knew what was going on," he said. "But the court found the opposite, and the judge cataloged a bevy of evidence that there was corruption and that the city ignored it."

The city settled one of Dezsi's cases in 2019. Terms were not disclosed.

Dezsi had named Geelhood as part of the Shamoon lawsuit, but Tarnow ruled that the individual claims against the sergeant were filed against him after the three-year statute of limitations had run out.

Craig disbanded the Narcotics Section in June 2014 — five years before launching Operation Clean Sweep — following allegations made by former Detroit police Lt. Charles Flanagan.

Flanagan went to Craig shortly after he took over the Narcotics Section to report widespread problems in the unit, including a sergeant who had failed to turn in 32 pieces of drug evidence confiscated from hospitalized suspects, and another sergeant who made up false evidence tags for television sets, an Xbox, and other items seized during drug raids.

After Flanagan made his allegations, Craig disbanded the unit and renamed it the Major Violators Section. An internal affairs probe was launched, although Flanagan later criticized Craig because he said the former chief didn't transfer supervisors who'd allowed the corruption out of the drug unit. 

The 2014 internal investigation was folded into Operation Clean Sweep, Craig said when the latter initiative was launched.

Allegations of corruption in Detroit Police drug operations go back decades. In 1973, 22 officers from the 10th Precinct were indicted on charges of involvement in heroin trafficking; nine of the officers were convicted of various crimes.

In 1991, five current and former Detroit cops and a relative of then-Mayor Coleman Young were among a group charged with providing protection for drug traffickers who turned out to be undercover FBI agents. Five defendants pleaded guilty in federal court, while other officers were acquitted.