Duggan names James White as Detroit's 43rd police chief

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — After heading the Detroit Police Department on an interim basis for more than two months, James White, a 24-year Detroit police veteran, was named Monday as the city's 43rd police chief.

White, served as assistant chief from 2012 until August 2020, when he left to head the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. White, who also is a licensed mental health counselor, started as interim chief on June 1.

"Today's announcement is probably the worst-kept secret in town," said Mayor Mike Duggan at a press conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. "Anybody in the city who has watched the way James White has handled himself in the last two months feels really good about the direction the Detroit Police Department is headed."

White said he was "humbled" by Duggan's announcement and vowed to work to drive down crime and work with community leaders.

"Two things can be true at the same time: You can hold officers accountable, and you can support policing," White said. "I want you to know I'm going to support these officers, but I'll continue to require that there's a drive toward excellent policing."

Duggan will next send his choice to the Detroit City Council, which has 30 days to approve White. Unless the City Council votes against his appointment, he automatically takes the role. The council currently is on recess until Sept. 7.

Councilman Roy McCallister, a former Detroit police officer, said White is the right choice. "Welcome back," he said to White. "It's important to have someone who's come up through the ranks that the people know, the people love, and the people understand."

James White is named Detroit Police Chief during a news conference at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit on Aug. 23, 2021. White, a 24-year Detroit police veteran, had been serving as interim chief for about two months while the Board of Police Commissioners conducted a national search after former chief James Craig retired.

Barring no objection from City Council, White becomes the top cop of one of the nation's most violent cities. Detroit has seen double-digit increases in shootings and homicides in the last two years, mirroring a national trend.

White already has had to field numerous tragedies and controversies during his brief term as interim chief, including a viral video of a police officer punching a man in Greektown, an officer accused of sexual assault, and multiple shootings, including an incident last month at a candlelight vigil that left six people wounded.

Days after he took over as interim chief, White and Duggan announced a plan to quell crime and rowdyism that included shutting down businesses that allowed illegal activity in or around their establishments.

Since then, White has ordered the shuttering of at least four businesses, including a southwest Detroit bar that was the site of a 4 a.m. Aug. 17 quadruple shooting.

At the start of June, when White stepped in, homicides in Detroit were up 21% over the same period last year and the number of nonfatal shootings at that time represented a 44% increase over the same period in 2020.

Detroit's murder and violent crime rates rose last year even as overall crime declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city recorded 327 criminal homicides in 2020, up 19% from 274 the previous year, according to January police statistics.

During his time as interim chief, White said officers have responded to nearly 70,000 911 calls, including 2,200 calls involving people with mental illness. He said officers recovered 1,900 firearms and made 1,500 gun-related arrests.

"We're not patting ourselves on the back, but we're on the right track," he said. 

The focus on mental health is important, said east side resident Phillip Sample, 45. "You need someone who understands community engagement and justice, and he's definitely got that, especially with his perspective on mental health, and the root causes of crime."

At-large Detroit City Councilwoman Janeé Ayers said she’s worked closely with White over the years and has found him to be “a stand-up individual.”

“He has intricate understanding and perspective when it comes to the department and him coming to the table with a background in mental health is phenomenal. It’s definitely what we need in this space of what policing should be in metropolitan areas,” she said. 

Ayers noted the appointment still has to go before the council sometime after they return next month, "but I’m very confident he’ll be a great chief."

She said Detroit has a major issue with crime “that we need to address.” “I don’t think we’re where we want to be yet, but I think with his (White’s) leadership, we can get there," she said. 

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield applauded the police board and Duggan for selecting White and said she looked forward to supporting his appointment. 

"My interactions with Interim Chief White during the legislation process has shown he is worthy of the appointment by virtue of commitment to public safety and the protection of the general public’s rights and liberties," she said. 

Councilman Scott Benson said White has placed an emphasis on data-driven and community policing and cadet programs. He's also vowed to address quality-of-life issues, including speeding and drag racing in neighborhoods.

Benson said he's not heard much feedback from the community about White. The topic didn't come up at a recent community meeting Benson said he took part in.

"I'm supportive of the new chief," said Benson, noting it's good that White spent time working for the state and then returned to Detroit. "It's good for the city. It's positive momentum, and it keeps things moving in the right direction when it comes to our police force."

Mark Young, president of the Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association union, said he appreciates White's "open-door policy."

"We haven't always agreed but there's always been respect. That'll continue," Young told White on Monday. "You understand people, you understand culture and you understand how policing is changing with technology and that's crucial."

After former Chief James Craig retired in June, the police board fielded 50 applicants, although 20 of them were disqualified because they didn't properly complete the application.

After board members interviewed the remaining applicants, they sent a list of three names to the mayor: White, Robert Dunlap, chief of jails for the Wayne County Sheriff's Office and Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox.

"All of the candidates were outstanding," said the Rev. Jim Holly, chairman of the police board. "All the police commissioners are very satisfied with (White)."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, left, commends newly appointed Detroit Police Chief James White, right, for the direction he has taken the city in during his short time as interim chief. White was one of three finalists for the job and his appointment was announced during a press conference at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit on Aug. 23, 2021.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, further praised White's selection.

"Chief White comes at a time when policing is under scrutiny," he said. "We can have safety and security at the same time ... that's one of the things I love about James White: he has a background in mental health; he's demonstrated himself to be transparent. That's how you build trust."

A City Charter revision adopted in 2012 requires the Board of Police Commissioners 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."

The board in May awarded a $69,000 contract to Troy-based T.J. Adams and Associates, to conduct a nationwide search to replace Craig, who is expected to announce that he will run as a Republican to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in next year's election.

Craig served as chief for seven years, 10 months — the second-longest tenure since the 1974 City Charter mandated the police department be headed by a uniformed chief instead of a civilian police commissioner, which had been the system since 1901.

The second chief under the new system, William Hart, served the longest, 14 years and five months, before resigning after he was convicted of embezzlement.

ghunter@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN