Coleman: Detroit police need civilian oversight

Ken Coleman

African-American police officers endure discrimination from white superiors and are intimidated and retaliated against, according to a report released this week by the Detroit Police Department.

The news, as serious as it is sobering, comes more than 40 years after the city’s first black resident, William Hart, was appointed chief of police and local residents elected an African-American mayor, Coleman A. Young, and approved the formation of a civilian commission to review police policy as well as investigate allegations of brutality, race discrimination and inappropriate treatment.

The report was released to The Detroit News.

“Our research revealed numerous incidents which involved some direct or indirect involvement of command staff members in discriminatory practices, which included intimidation and retaliatory behavior,” it reads. “The committee therefore determined that there were enough incidents to conclude that the department has a growing racial problem.”

Here’s a taste of the findings:

■“Command staff would call white officers on their personal cell phones to alert them to training or advancement opportunities, sometimes while black officers were present. If black officers complained about preferential treatment, they faced retaliation such as denial of leave time requests or transfers.”

■“Black officers reported retaliation if they complained about seeing bias in appointment of officers to the rank of detective, with some white command officers “blatant in their attacks against black officers who voiced their dissatisfaction” with advancement examinations, or who sought redress through collective bargaining.”

Police Chief James Craig, an African-American and former DPD officer who was hired in 1977 during a period when former Mayor Young sought to make the racial composition of the department better reflect the composition of the city, put together a committee to create the report. It included rank-and-file officers and officials. It interviewed and surveyed the department and the report landed on Craig’s desk last August.

“I view this as a morale issue,” Craig said, according to The News. “This was a proactive approach by this team to address any environmental issues before they became subject to complaints filed with the departments equal opportunity office.”

The report further suggests that the department offer more cultural diversity, more standardized access to training opportunities, and more department-sponsored events to promote a team approach and bolster morale. Equally important, the report suggests that the committee become permanent and that it serve in an advisory role to the police chief.

I’m not surprised by the document findings. In fact, as a member of the elected Detroit Charter Revision Commission from 2009 to 2011, I fought with vigor to retain civilian police oversight in the city’s framework document, in part, for this very reason. During my commission tenure, however, I remember a veteran black police officer lecturing me that it’s the 21st century, that Detroit’s a black city now, and that a civilian police commission with oversight power is a waste of time.

He was as wrong as Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers, the white police officers who fatally beat Malice Green, a black man, in 1992.

Ken Coleman is a Detroit author and a former Michigan Democratic Party communications director.