Court-ordered federal oversight of Detroit police ends

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — After 11 years, millions of dollars, scandals and bumps in the road, the Detroit Police Department is no longer under federal control.

Federal Judge Avern Cohn agreed Monday to drop the use of a court-appointed federal monitor, which has been in place since 2003, although there will be an 18-month transition period in which the feds will review internal audits, offer technical assistance and make on-site visits.

Monday’s ruling means the city will save the $87,000 a month it was paying the federal monitor.

“It’s a great day,” said Assistant Detroit Police Chief James White, who was instrumental in getting the department into federal compliance. “This is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”

The police department in 2003 agreed to federal monitoring and a long list of changes to avoid a massive civil rights lawsuit alleging suspects and witnesses were subjected to excessive force, false arrests, illegal detentions and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

Federal officials said the department has improved in several areas, including use of force. From 1995 to 2000, Detroit police officers fatally shot 47 suspects; from 2009 to 2014, there were 18, White said.

The number of deaths in Detroit police holding cells also plummeted during federal oversight. From 1994 to 2000, there were 19 prisoner deaths; from 2008 to August 2013, when the department handed over lockup duties to the Michigan Department of Corrections, only one prisoner died in a Detroit police cell.

“Through substantial compliance with the consent judgment, the DPD has significantly reformed its use of force and witness detention practices,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Barbara McQuade said in a release. “The DPD has effectively eliminated the unconstitutional practices that made the consent judgment necessary.”

Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, which raised awareness of the issues that brought on the consent decree, disagreed that the police department has changed.

“There continue to be unresolved cultural issues between the Detroit Police Department and the citizens of the City of Detroit,” Scott said. “Use of force issues, which was one of the bases of this decree, have not changed appreciably in those 10 years.”

Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, said there have been significant changes in the police department.

“Today it would appear that there is a new and different approach to community policing where the people are engaged and respected,” Anthony said. “One of the ways in which Detroit may not become a Ferguson, Missouri, is by respect, community engagement, and a de-escalation of the appearance of a military force inserting itself in a community of law abiding and non-violent citizens.”

Retired Detroit police officer David Malhalab, who was on the police force when the consent judgment was imposed, said Scott’s remarks are inflammatory.

“His comments feed the feeling of the illiterate and undereducated residents of Detroit that DPD is against them and not policing in their best interests,” Malhalab said. “His comments are wrong.”

The attempt to comply with the consent decree has been marked with controversy and difficulty. In July 2009, federal monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood was removed after text messages obtained by the U.S. Justice Department revealed she had a “personal relationship” with former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick when he was in office.

The following year, Detroit’s Office of the Chief Investigator, which looks into claims of police abuse,was lambasted by U.S. Circuit Judge Julian Cook, who imposed a $1,000-per-day fine against the city because the office had a huge backlog of cases it hadn’t investigated.

White said although many of the department’s problems have been fixed, there is still work to be done.

“We’ll continue working hard to continue as a constitutional police department,” he said.

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