Innocence advocates push police transparency bills

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two men who spent decades in prison for murders they didn't commit joined a state representative and innocence advocates Friday to lobby for making police discipline records public, which they say would help identify problem cops and curb wrongful convictions.

Darrell Siggers, 55, left, talks about the horrible things he witnessed while in prison for 34 years as his attorney, Wolf Mueller, listens. Siggers was wrongfully convicted for a murder he did not commit.

The "legislative virtual briefing" was hosted by Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, who on Thursday co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would require police departments release files of disciplined police officers requested under the Freedom of Information Act, or during court cases. The proposed bills are similar to those Carter co-sponsored last year, which expired in committee.

Joining Carter during Friday's meeting were Darrell Siggers, who spent 34 years in prison for a 1984 murder he didn't commit before he was exonerated in 2018, and Kevin Harrington, who served 18 years in prison for murder before his exoneration last year.

Megan Beth Richardson, an attorney with the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, moderated the hour-long meeting, which also was attended by Marla Mitchell-Cichon of Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School Cooley Innocence Project.

Rep. Tyrone Carter

Most police personnel discipline files are exempt under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, although Carter's legislation would allow the public access to officers' disciplinary files, along with both verified and unverified complaints against cops. 

"Ohio and Wisconsin don't withhold (police) misconduct reports, so if we're going to adopt best practices, we need to do this," Carter said of House Bills 4291 and 4292, which had not yet been recorded on the state's website Friday.

Carter pointed out that Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin, who was charged in the May choking death of George Floyd that sparked months of protests and calls for police reform, had a long history of complaints against him.

"He had all these misconduct allegations in his file and he was a training officer; he’s going to show (the other officers) how we do (the job)," said Carter, a 25-year Wayne County Sheriff’s veteran who retired in 2008.

"The secrecy has to stop," Carter said. "Police officers are public officials, whether they want it or not. They're being paid with taxpayer dollars."

Carter said it's important to see unverified complaints against officers because often citizens feel too intimidated to follow through. If an officer has a history of having citizens making complaints but never appearing for follow-up hearings, that could show a pattern that bears closer scrutiny, he said.

Marla Mitchell-Cichon

James Tignanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan union, did not immediately return a phone call Friday seeking comment. When Carter introduced similar legislation last year, Tignanelli told The Detroit News he didn't have a problem with making some discipline records available, although he said the process could get cumbersome. 

"Most officer discipline cases are for things like a guy calling in sick too many times," he said. "I think you'd go crazy trying to track all officer disciplines. How many people would the state have to hire to handle that kind of a database?

"If you're going to do this, you'd need to focus only on abuse and unprofessional behavior," he said. "And those cases really don't happen all that often."

Carter said his legislation focuses only on serious issues, and that disclosure of officer discipline for infractions like excessive absences or tardiness would not be required.

Siggers, who after his exoneration founded Legal Access Plus, a nonprofit that helps people navigate the legal system, said most of his clients ask for help getting police personnel files.

Siggers said had the discipline file of the officer involved in his arrest been accessible to his attorneys, he may not have spent 34 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

George Clark (l) and Kevin Harrington flank their attorney Wolfgang Mueller, who filed $160 million lawsuit against Inkster and two cops involved in the wrongful murder conviction that sent Clark and Harrington to prison for more than 17 years

"The police officer who gave false ballistic analysis in my case, unbeknownst to us, had a suspension for being involved with an insurance ring with 12 other officers," Siggers said. "Had that evidence been revealed, I don't think prosecutors would've even put him on the stand."

Mitchell-Cichon said the Cooley Law Innocence Project since its 2001 inception has used DNA evidence to prove the innocence of seven convicted prisoners in Michigan — "and six of those seven involved police misconduct," she said. "This is a critically important issue in the criminal justice system."

Officers who commit misconduct often go on to repeat the behavior, which results in innocent people going to prison, Richardson said.

"It is usually one bad actor who leads to multiple wrongful convictions," she said. "These are the exact kind of police officers who we might be able to detect faster if we could have access to their misconduct though the FOIA process.

"FOIA is a significant aspect of the work we do," Richardson said. "I truly believe this legislation would allow us to unearth more wrongful convictions, prevent more wrongful convictions from happening, and increase trust with the public."

Although Richardson didn't mention a name, she discussed during the hearing a former Detroit police homicide investigator who is "known for coercing confessions," including confessions that were found to be coerced in the murder convictions of Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott, which were vacated in 2018.

The investigator involved in that case was Barbara Simon, who has been an investigator with the Michigan Attorney General's Office since 2011.

Simon was lambasted this month by a Wayne Circuit judge, who granted a new trial for a man who'd been convicted of manslaughter because the judge said Simon "repeatedly lied" and engaged in a "common scheme of misconduct" in multiple cases, and that jurors may have not found him guilty if they'd known about Simon's history.

Megan Beth Richardson

Harrington said authorities should re-investigate cases handled by officers with multiple complaints against them.

"In a corporation, if someone writes a bad check, they're going to go through every check that person wrote," he said. "I don't understand why they don't do that in police departments."

When asked why more people don't speak out about wrongful convictions, Harrington said, "A lot of people don't like scary movies. This is horrifying."

Carter said race plays a role as well.

"If it wasn’t majority Black men (being wrongfully convicted), there would’ve been movement long ago," he said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN