Bankole: Detroit council sits on sidelines of police reform

Bankole Thompson

The incessant cries for reform reflected in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations can only materialize into policy change when the Detroit City Council, which controls the purse-strings, realizes it must also become part of the sweeping calls for change in municipal policing across the nation. 

But you will be hard-pressed to find any appetite for changes in policing for the better on council. Even after African American Robert Williams was wrongly identified as a suspect by the Police Department’s facial recognition technology, a program researchers found misidentifies Black and brown people, the city’s legislative body seems to be sleeping through this new awakening to end police misconduct.  

Hundreds march along Woodward Avenue for Juneteenth and to protest police brutality.

Only council members Mary Sheffield and Scott Benson responded to an email inquiry asking if the nine-member body was going to support some of the public demands to end police brutality. 

While the Minneapolis City Council has moved to disband its police department in favor of a model that focuses on community policing, and New York Police Department followed with eliminating its plainclothes anti-crime unit, which has been involved in shootings, Detroit, the largest Black city in the nation, is showing no urgency for reform.  

Sheffield said: “In the past, it appeared as though there was no political will to end the use of facial recognition technology. In the interim, I have sponsored the Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance, which provides more transparency and community input in the surveillance of residents in the City of Detroit. It is my hope that the ordinance will be passed by council’s summer recess at the end of July.”

Sheffield said she supports victim compensation provided by officers involved in brutality, but added she is “not sure of the constitutionality of mandating police officers carry personal liability insurance, and typically in the City of Detroit and other major cities police officers are underpaid given the occupational hazardous nature of their jobs.” 

She stated: “I would be supportive of such a requirement if it is deemed legal and there is a corresponding pay increase for officers to cover the costs of the policies, especially if it would reduce the number of claims and settlements paid using taxpayer funds.” 

Benson offered a similar explanation: “While on the surface this seems like a good idea, unfortunately, I don’t think we can feasibly implement a model of this nature without exponentially increasing the cost of a Police Department. If officers are forced to purchase their own liability insurance, the cost would get passed onto the taxpayer via increased salaries so the officers could afford this new insurance cost.” 

On facial recognition technology, Benson has no qualms with its use by the Detroit Police Department. 

Benson said: “I have met with DPD and toured the Virtual Crime Center in the public safety headquarters where facial recognition is used. The current policies provide the protections and mechanisms for oversight that make me comfortable in using this technology as a tool in Detroit’s crime-fighting tool bag.”

Both Sheffield and Benson support calls for a national registry for cops who use excessive force. 

With a legislative body that has shown a lack of propensity for progressive reforms after scandals that rocked the Detroit Police Department in the last four years, reform-minded candidates in the next election cycle might be the best hope for Detroiters. What makes good governance work is rigorous debate on the most salient issues affecting our lives. 

This council has shown little intellectual curiosity to convene public debates on the issues of police reform that are dominating the headlines. It explains why every time there is a reported case of police misconduct, there is rarely a special public meeting on the issue, or members going on the record to explain their expectations for public safety.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s coffers will continue to bleed with millions of dollars in settlement claims in police brutality cases.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which broadcasts at 11 a.m. weekdays on 910AM.