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2 members of Harper Woods PD fired amid probe of Priscilla Slater's death

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Harper Woods deputy chief and patrol officer have been fired in connection with a probe in the death of an African American woman in custody this year, city officials announced Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, our city has discovered that members of its Police Department attempted to conceal and manipulate evidence in the 'in custody death investigation' of" Priscilla Slater," said John Szymanski, acting city manager, in a statement.

Protesters march for Priscilla Slater, who was found unresponsive in her cell while in Harper Woods Police Department custody and later pronounced dead, throughout the streets of Harper Woods, Michigan on July 15, 2020.

As a result of the investigation, which is being led by the Michigan State Police, the city "has immediately terminated" Deputy Chief John Vorgitch and Officer Michael Pineau, he wrote. 

"The investigation by the Michigan Department of State Police is still ongoing in this matter," Szymanski said.

First Lt. Mike Shaw, a spokesman for Michigan State Police, confirmed the investigation is continuing but could not provide further details on when it would be completed.

Other details were not released by the city. Mayor Valerie Kindle and other city officials could not immediately be reached late Wednesday. 

An attempt to reach Vorgitch was not immediately successful. A person who answered the phone at a number obtained through a public search and listed as belonging to Pineau hung up on a reporter.

Controversy has swirled in the city in the two months since Priscilla Slater died in police custody.

Officers responding to a report of shots fired on June 9 arrested the 37-year-old at the Parkcrest Inn in the 20000 block of Harper.

She was later found dead in her holding cell at a police precinct. Authorities have released few details about her death or arrest.

A banner is put on the overpass at I-94 during a march for Priscilla Slater in Harper Woods.

Six Police Department employees, two supervisors and four civilian aides, were put on administrative leave in response to Slater's death, officials have said.

The death led to multiple protests amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have swept the nation since May, with local protesters seeking answers about what led to Slater's death and linking it to others around the country involving black residents and police.

During a protest on June 12, Margaret Poynter, the wife of the then-mayor, was accused of tearing up a demonstrator's sign; she later apologized.

Last month, Mayor Kenneth Poynter, angry about a protest outside his home, reportedly told community leaders and city department heads during a meeting that "I understand why white people would become white supremacists,” sparking outrage from civil rights activists. He resigned in July. 

In his statement Wednesday, Szymanski acknowledged the protests and controversy and added: "There was also a promise, by city officials, to remain transparent and accountable to residents for all the circumstances surrounding this matter."

Staff Writer Jasmin Barmore contributed to this report.