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Detroit police board vies for role after bankruptcy

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A panel that allows citizens to keep tabs on the Detroit Police Department is in danger of becoming obsolete in the wake of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's departure, critics fear.

Although most of city government is slowly returning to normal with Orr's contract set to end sometime around Thanksgiving, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners will remain essentially powerless for at least a year, the board's chairman said.

Detroit Public Safety Headquarters

"This is especially troubling, given the recent events that have unfolded in Ferguson, and the need to make sure police departments are being held accountable to citizens," board Chairman Willie Bell said of events developing in Missouri.

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 said, takes control away from citizens. The order is in effect for at least a year, and the Detroit City Council can then decide whether to vote to rescind it.

The issue was scheduled to be discussed Tuesday at a council meeting.

"We want to see how the City Council weighs in on this and put it in the public forum," Bell said.

The board, an 11-member civilian police oversight body, has been operating without any real power since last year, when Orr took over as the city's emergency manager. When Orr departs, the mayor's office will wield the powers originally charged to the board.

The board holds weekly meetings and is empowered by the City 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 met with Duggan last month about the issue and wasn't happy with the outcome.

"He said he was leaning toward the board being a review board, which is contrary to what the voters said they wanted both in 1973 and 2012, when they indicated they wanted an oversight board," Bell said. "He wanted the board to be under the mayor's authority.

"The mayor indicated that he thought the City Charter gave the commission too much power," Bell said. "But that's the will of the people. In January, he said he planned to fight for the board's power to be reinstated, but that's changed."

Duggan's spokesman John Roach referred questions to the city's top legal official, Corporation Counsel Butch Hollowell, who said 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 said.

"The police board is not exempt; a lot of departments have been affected and continue to be restricted under Order 42."

Bell, a longtime Detroit police officer, said he will seek clarification through legal channels if necessary.

"We will pursue every avenue; we're going to aggressively pursue this, because it's the will of the voters to have a citizen oversight board, not a board that's answerable to the mayor," he said.

The board was set up in 1974 to give citizen oversight of a police department troubled by allegations of brutality. One example of the board using its power was during the early 2000s, when the department wanted to issue Tasers to officers. When citizen groups objected, the board vetoed the request.

Even under Orr, the board has acted as a liaison between the police department and citizens, and allows people to discuss complaints and concerns at board meetings.

However, its power to override decisions by the police chief has been usurped, which has been heavily criticized by Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.

"The whole point of having a board is to allow an oversight body to monitor the police department," Scott said. "When you take that away, you're taking away power the City Charter granted to the people, and that's not how the system is supposed to work."

Since Chief James Craig assumed command of the department in July 2013, he's made the most sweeping changes in decades, many of which would have needed majority board approval if Orr was not in charge.

Among the changes were revamping the department's command structure and shutting down the Narcotics Section, while creating a new unit, the Major Violators Section.

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.

The board's duties are the same as under the old charter.

Bell said the current board makeup is better, since it's not composed solely of appointees from the mayor, who also appoints the police chief, when the city isn't under state control. Bell said that system led to former boards being reluctant to closely monitor the police department.

"If you look at past history, I don't think they always exercised their charter obligation in terms of monitoring the department," Bell said.

"Now, most of us are answerable to the people who elected us, which is what a citizen oversight board should be. There won't be as much reluctance to go against the police chief — but we're still in limbo as far as getting this new system up and running."

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