Bankole: Detroit police commission is not the Kremlin

Bankole Thompson

The arrest of Willie Burton, an elected member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, during a public meeting on July 11 conjures the image of snarling dogs and undemocratic policing that took place during the Civil Rights Movement.

Placing Burton in handcuffs because he refused to be silent in a meeting where he was representing people who are most likely to be adversely impacted by facial recognition technology emphasizes a staggering conflict between real democracy and what appears to be a KGB-style of policing.

Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed

His abrupt removal from the meeting, which was ordered by commission Chairwoman Lisa Carter, who seems to forget that she possesses no greater authority than any other elected member of the commission, represents a serious danger to the revitalization of Detroit.

Residents' legitimate concerns about facial recognition technology should not be suppressed. Detroiters should not be made to fear that those who represent them will be slapped with handcuffs for asking uncomfortable questions about issues that have serious impact on their lives.

Burton represents a constituency and has an obligation under law to speak out and defend their interest. Any attempt to infringe on the rights of any commissioner to speak out on behalf of their constituencies devastates the core concept of democracy as a government by the people’s representatives.

Carter is not a czar. The board of police commissioners is not the Kremlin. Carter should remember that in a democratic society an elected official exercising omnipotent and autocratic powers is abhorrent. It is a moral disgrace for a public body accountable to the people to be conducting a proceeding that exhibits repressive and anti-democratic values.

The incident left me in utter consternation, because it looked like a scene from a KGB movie where officers are ordered to take away anyone deemed unfavorable.

Such action stands under indictment by Henry David Thoreau’s moral cry for the masses to hold their government accountable.

People should have the right to question the use of facial technology. In Mayor Mike Duggan’s Detroit, the use of facial technology and the arrest of Burton by a seemingly overzealous police force does not represent the “One Detroit” that the mayor touted after his reelection, nor does it inspire confidence in positive change.

Detroit has come a long way and still has more ways to travel. Despite the comeback narrative, many people feel dejected, hopeless and abandoned, and the concept of trickle-down economics taking place in the city is a bandage solution.

Facial recognition technology complicates the day to day realities of Detroiters because of its overhanging threat of unjust law enforcement. That consequently undermines the economic aspirations of the people, which informs their basic survival. 

Every advocate of good and responsible governance should denounce and condemn the arrest of Burton and the charges against him should be dropped. The commission’s display of unbridled arrogance in leadership last week continues to paint a negative picture of Detroit to the rest of the nation and the world. Now is the time for police Chief James Craig (whose department has troubling racial issues) and Mayor Duggan to demonstrate that they are not interested in adverse policing.

Why can’t Detroit have a healthy and rigorous debate about the use of an invasive technology without the tactics of a police state, where those who question authority end up in handcuffs?

This is an affront to the history of civil rights and the struggle for justice. The right to speak and the expression of dissent has been at the crux of this nation’s founding. It should not be lost on any of us that what happened at the commission is antithetical to the norms and basic rights of a free society. These norms, which include our ability to freely express and debate hot-button issues without fear, remain the custodians of a civilized society.

There is a yearning in Detroit for a government that cares and respects the views of everyone. The police commission is no exception.

What transpired at the commission is a betrayal of the sacred aspirations of people who have time and again been the victims of broken trust.

No wonder they're wary about the new technology.