Bankole: Detroit lessons could help Ferguson, others

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson, Missouri, and its police department after the death of an unarmed African-American youth by a white officer, found a disturbing pattern of racial bias and constitutional violations against residents by officers sworn to protect them.

A report, released last year, showed the saga that set off nationwide protests against police brutality and continues to be used today as the backdrop for the ongoing outrage against police shootings of unarmed black men, was bound to happen because Ferguson’s policing activities had basically set the city as a powder keg waiting to explode.

“In a sense, members of the community may not have been responding only to a single isolated confrontation, but also to a pervasive, corrosive, and deeply unfortunate lack of trust attributable to numerous constitutional violations by their law enforcement officials including First Amendment abuses, unreasonable searches and seizures, and excessive and dangerous use of force,” then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in March 2015, in announcing the report. The investigation also found a “severely disproportionate use of these tactics against African Americans” and was driven by “overriding pressure from the city to use law enforcement ... as a tool for raising revenue.”

In light of the many transgressions, Ferguson should have been long exposed before the murder of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson, and probably subjected to federal oversight — much like what happened in Detroit in 2003 when the feds came in to monitor the police department.

Detroit has not had a Ferguson situation or experienced the aftermath of a fatal encounter involving black men and police like those that have other cities on edge right now — though the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones who was fatally shot six years ago when officer Joseph Weekley led a search for a murder suspect into her east side home put the city on alert.

Ferguson may have been assuaged by what Detroit officials had learned as the city developed an accountability process and administered it with citizen input while under federal supervision.

Barbara McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said the 13-year federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department that ended in March worked for the betterment of the department and citizens.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade says the 13-year federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department worked for the betterment of the department and citizens.

“The consent judgment focused on three broad allegations of unconstitutional policing: use of excessive force, detention of material witnesses without legal justification and deplorable conditions of confinement,” McQuade explained. “The use of force issue was substantially improved and the second two issues were eliminated altogether. To address use of force, DPD implemented best practices in policy, training and a tracking system for managers to identify officers who are using force.”

Those improvements, along with the establishment of a board of commissioners to provide oversight and a police chief who is deeply engaged in the community, “have made DPD a model of constitutional policing and have improved community confidence and trust,” McQuade added.

James Craig, the current police chief, said trust remains key for a department now free of being monitored by the federal government.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who was appointed in 2013, addresses a press conference.

“We’ve learned quickly that if we were ever going to make a difference we needed to establish trust with our community and then back it up by empowering our citizens,” said Craig, who was appointed in 2013. “We have worked diligently over the past few years to bridge gaps and establish lasting relationships with our community at every level.”

But the questions remain: Could a Ferguson happen in Detroit? Would the local police force be prepared to handle any related outbreaks?

“We are very concerned. This is a very unfortunate reality of the world we live in today. We’ve taken to the digital world and trending social media sites to reach all who will listen to our message,” Craig said. “Our officers risk their lives daily to protect and serve the citizens of this great city and it is critical that they are supported.”

Officer Dale Dorsey joins Broadway cast members of "Disney's Newsies" to distribute holiday gifts at a Goodfellows event in Detroit.

Detroiter Bernice Smith, who belongs to a 15-member voluntary citizens advisory committee that meets with Craig once a month at police headquarters to discuss community concerns, said Detroit is an example for other departments around the nation that are finding it difficult to earn the trust of their communities.

“We are 100 percent better than other police departments because under Chief Craig when the officers are wrong they are brought up on charges,” Smith said. “He investigates all complaints and talks to the families of victims. Whenever he is wrong, we check him at the meetings to let him know.”

Smith said other police chiefs across the country should engage in continuous dialogue with local residents before a tragedy forces them to do so, noting a 6 p.m. Nov. 10 public forum she’s planning to hold at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. Craig and police chiefs from Inkster, Ecorse, River Rouge and Highland Park are scheduled to answer citizen questions on a wide range of issues.

McQuade said federal authorities also have been listening to area residents. “We’ve conducted a series of town hall meetings during the last 18 months of oversight and the only complaints we received were from residents who wanted to see more police officers in their neighborhoods,” she said. “We have not received complaints about DPD since the end of the oversight.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.