Coalition wants federal investigation into Detroit Police Department

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A consortium of activists Thursday renewed calls to defund the Detroit Police Department and asked for a federal investigation into what they said was officers' excessive use of force and a department steeped in racism.

DPD has a "continuing pattern and practice of police violence and killing," the Coalition for Police Transparency said in a 17-page letter to the U.S. Department of Justice that was released to the media Thursday.

"The entire spectrum of police conduct in Detroit ... is a record of oppression meted out daily and as a matter of course," the letter said.

Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said during a press conference on Thursday, May 19, 2022, that Detroit police need more federal oversight.

The Coalition, whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild and Detroit Will Breathe, said Detroit police use-of-force incidents are up 25% year-to-date in 2022 over last year.

The group said it based its statistics on media reports.

An email to the Detroit DOJ office was not immediately returned Thursday.

Detroit Police 2nd Deputy Chief Rudy Harper said in a statement: "Chief (James) White's administration is committed to transparency and accountability. This community desires safety, constitutional policing, and a community-first approach to law enforcement.

"This is why the Detroit Police Department is firmly committed to its mission to encourage thoughtful decision-making and a strong sense of community responsibility," Harper said. "To this end, the Department recently hired a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional with experience in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights." 

Detroit police were under federal oversight from 2000 to 2014. The city entered into the consent judgments to avoid lawsuits alleging excessive force by officers, mistreatment of witnesses and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn ended the federal oversight in August 2014 when he ruled the police department had sufficiently overhauled its practices and training.

But Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's Racial Justice Project, said during a press conference Thursday outside the First Unitarian Universal Church on Cass Avenue that more federal oversight is needed.

Fancher said the group has asked "local and state officials" to investigate Detroit police, but he said they refused.

"Our only recourse is the federal government," he said.

The Coalition was formed after the July 10, 2020, fatal shooting of Hakim Littleton by a Detroit police officer.

According to videos released by the police department, Littleton pulled a gun from his shorts pocket and fired two shots from about 2 feet away from a police officer who was investigating a mass shooting five days earlier.

Several officers fired back, killing Littleton, the videos from officers' body-worn cameras show.

The letter to the DOJ said the coalition has "suspicions that (former) Police Chief James Craig manipulated (the) footage," which, the group said, raises "questions about whether the multiple police officers involved had the option to arrest Littleton rather than kill him."

Fancher said people are asking the wrong questions when it comes to officers using deadly force.

"When the question is posed, 'Was this killing justifiable?' ... we suggest that's the wrong question to ask," Fancher said. "The question to ask is not whether (police) were justified; the question is 'Was the violence avoidable?'

"When an individual who is suffering from a mental episode engages in conduct that causes a police officer to fear for his life, does that mean (deadly force) is the best way of responding to someone who has mental challenges?" Fancher said.

It was never established that Littleton suffered from mental illness.

Fancher said many Black people fear for their lives when they encounter police, "and the thinking is, if I'm going to die anyway, I might as well take one of them with me," he said. "But if people respect the police, then they'll do what the police want them to do."

The coalition's managing attorney, Nancy Parker said the solution is to defund police.

"It is not complicated," Parker said. "You don’t need a PhD or a law degree to understand the meaning of 'defund the police.' Those who say they don't understand, or who say it's not a strong enough slogan, they are not on our side. 

"This is not about slogans; this is literally about the freedom and liberty of Black people who are being killed by those who are meant to serve and protect them," Parker said.

The coalition also said the police department has an "institutional culture ... that promotes ... racism."

During Thursday's press conference, Fancher pointed to a January 2019 incident in which two White former officers were reportedly captured on a Snapchat video taunting a Black motorist whose vehicle had been towed.

Craig set up the Committee On Race and Equality in 2016 after hearing reports about racial strife among officers. About a year after CORE was formed, former Detroit officer John Bennett, who co-chaired the group, discussed on his Facebook page a preliminary report that alleged the department had "a growing racial problem."

The January 2017 report, which was later released to the media, alleged White supervisors were denying training opportunities to Black officers. The report also claimed there was bias in the racial makeup of specialized units.

“It was determined that the problems within the department were ... top-down entrenched discriminatory practices," the report said. "Simply put, the racism that exist(s) in the department trickles down from command officers to the rank and file."

Craig replied that the report was based on rumors and innuendo, and didn't contain proof — an assessment that Fancher criticized Thursday.

"This is a department that is deeply troubled," Fancher said. "This is a problem that requires the Department of Justice to say, 'let's reboot.'"

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN