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Police board's oversight powers to remain limited

Christine Ferretti and George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday said it is prohibited for at least a year from voting to rescind an emergency manager order that has essentially stripped a police oversight board of its powers.

Willie Bell, chairman of the 11-member civilian Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, got encouragement but no formal help when he made an appeal to the council at its weekly meeting to win support for the police commission's intended role.

Kevyn Orr's Emergency Order 42, issued in late September, transitioned power over the police department from Orr's office to Mayor Mike Duggan, which Bell contends takes control away from citizens.

Council members can approve a resolution next fall to discontinue the order and allow the board to assume its oversight role under Detroit's 2012 City Charter, council legal staff said. But in the meantime, the council has no say, President Brenda Jones told Bell.

"What we have to say about the emergency manager order carries no weight, because the emergency manager carried that weight," Jones explained to Bell. "Regardless of how any of us feel, by law there's nothing we can do."

"I truly understand what your powers should be and how you all feel with your powers being taken away from you," Jones added.

Under a resolution approved by the council in September along with Orr's executive orders, city government is slowly returning to normal after it spent 18 months under emergency management. Orr's contract is set to end sometime around Thanksgiving.

The police board, however, has yet to perform duties mandated under the new charter.

"We have been sitting here with our hands tied since January," Bell said Tuesday after making a 25-minute presentation to the council. "We have waited patiently and thought we would be reinstated, until the order came down."

The board holds weekly meetings and is empowered by the charter to rule on proposed changes to the department's command structure and executive hirings or firings, mete out officer discipline and help citizens get action from the police.

But when Orr took over in March 2013 under a state financial emergency law, he issued an order that allowed the police chief to bypass the board.

Bell said he fears that Duggan will press for a charter revision to have the commission function only as a review board.

"(Residents) wanted oversight, but we don't have oversight," Bell said, adding city voters would have to approve any charter changes. "We should be the final authority."

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Hollowell told The News that Duggan has no say in whether the police board gets its powers back.

"The EM can waive charter provisions, and he has done so on several occasions," Hollowell noted. "The police board is not exempt; a lot of departments have been affected and continue to be restricted under Order 42."

The original board was a five-member body of mayoral appointees, but under the City Charter that passed on the 2012 ballot, the board grew to 11 members, seven of whom were elected, with the remaining four as mayoral appointments.

Council woman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez urged the police commission to stay committed, despite their diminished powers.

"I think you play an incredibly important role in the city of Detroit," she said.