Detroit’s flawed police commission is failing to hold cops accountable

Fifty years after Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young created a civilian oversight board to monitor the city’s police department, the commission has drifted far from its original mission, with members showing more allegiance to the administration than to public oversight.

The shift has raised concerns about the board’s effectiveness and integrity at a time when police oversight is so important.

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is supposed to have seven elected members and four mayoral appointees. The idea is to ensure a majority of the commissioners are accountable to the public and to minimize the role that appointees play since the mayor also appoints the police chief.

But Mayor Mike Duggan recently appointed a replacement for one of the elected members who resigned, and some of the other elected commissioners either fail to show up to meetings, giving the appointees a majority, or fall in line with the police administration.

Now, the mayor’s appointees are running the commission, holding the chair and vice chair positions.

“Police oversight is dead in America’s Blackest and poorest city,” Commissioner Willie Burton, who was elected, tells Metro Times. “The mayor’s appointees are running the board. If you’re appointed, you’re beholden to the mayor and the police chief. If you’re elected, you’re beholden to the people who elected you.”

Despite being established as an independent oversight body, the commission is largely functioning as a rubber stamp for the Detroit Police Department. Instead of scrutinizing controversial decisions and asking tough questions, the commission’s members often offer congratulatory comments to police leaders and fail to hold the department accountable.

Critics argue that this lack of rigorous oversight undermines the commission’s role and erodes public trust in the accountability meant to ensure fair and just policing.

“The commission goes along with what the chief says,” Reginald Crawford, a former Detroit police commissioner, tells Metro Times. “They’re like cheerleaders for the police department. That’s the kind of commission you have.”

At a time when officer misconduct is a persistent problem and the use of controversial police surveillance technology is at an all-time high, even leading to false arrests, the commission rarely challenges the department.

The commission’s role is significant. It’s tasked with establishing departmental policies, investigating citizen complaints, and holding abusive officers accountable. But some elected commissioners aren’t showing up to meetings, and those who do often bicker over minor issues instead of making difficult decisions.

What’s worse, some elected commissioners say, is that Duggan is meeting privately with some of his appointees and diluting the power of the independent oversight board.

“The problem is the mayor himself,” Commissioner Ricardo Moore, who was elected and often challenges the status quo, says. “He meets secretly with commissioners and staff. Whatever he wants them to do, he’s going to suggest it.”

Duggan’s spokesman John Roach denied the claim that appointed commissioners are acting as rubber stamps, calling the assertion “fiction.”

“A cursory review of the Board of Police Commissioners’ votes over the last year will show that the mayor’s appointees rarely vote as a block on controversial issues,” Roach says. “Their votes diverge just as frequently as the votes of elected commissioners.”

When the police commission had the opportunity to address public concerns about heavy-handed responses to protests and surveillance overreach with facial recognition technology, the camera network Project Greenlight, license plate readers, and the gunshot detection system Shot Spotter, the appointed members largely aligned with the mayor and police chief.

But so did some of the elected members.

Commissioners Willie Bell, a former Detroit cop, and Lisa Carter, a retired Wayne County Sheriff’s lieutenant, often fall in line with the administration and rarely show a desire to act as overseers. They’ve also missed a lot of meetings.

Perhaps not surprisingly, groups connected to Duggan have supported Bell and Carter in their elections. A dark money group linked to Duggan, Our Neighborhoods First, which is run by current and former mayoral appointees and was incorporated by a lawyer for Duggan’s campaign, sent out mailers urging residents to vote for Bell and Carter in 2021.

A political action committee called Powering the Economy, which is funded primarily by the Detroit Regional Chamber and received donations from Duggan, contributed financially to the campaigns of two police commissioners who weren’t speaking out against facial recognition technology in 2017 and 2018.

In simple terms, Moore says, Duggan is a “puppet master.”

“You don’t see him, but he’s always right there in the mix,” Moore says.

Moore says some police commissioners also accept gifts and favors, which creates conflicts of interest. For example, he says, some of them receive “baseball tickets, get taken out to dinner, and ask the chief for favors.”

Burton says citizen complaints against police are stacking up, but no one is joining him in raising the issue.

“Police oversight is dead until we get rid of these rubber stamps and call on a charter amendment to ensure every commissioner is elected,” Burton says. “Residents want justice and accountability.”

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In April, a former top executive with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners claimed in a lawsuit that she was discriminated against because of her gender and that “a clique” of commissioners “sabotaged” her attempts to resolve a backlog of hundreds of citizen complaints against cops. The lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court alleges Melanie White was unlawfully fired from her job as executive manager after she was tasked with eliminating a “massive citizen complaint backlog.”

Since then, the backlog of citizen complaints has more than doubled, Burton says.

At an important commission meeting on June 13, when members were tasked with appointing the new leaders, only three elected members attended the meeting — Burton, Moore, and Cedrick Banks. The other four attendees were mayoral appointees. With a majority at the meeting, the mayoral appointees selected two of their own to serve as chair and vice chair.

Darryl Woods, who spent 29 years in prison after being convicted of murder for his role in a 1990 drug-related robbery, was selected to serve as the chair, even though he had just been appointed by Duggan last year. He also has been criticized for falsely suggesting he was exonerated.

The new vice chair is Tamara Liberty Smith, who was appointed by Duggan last year to replace elected commissioner Bryan Ferguson and resigned after getting arrested for allegedly getting a blow job from a sex worker in his truck on the city’s northwest side.

Burton tried to nominate an elected commissioner to serve in the leadership roles, but he was rebuffed.

For the position of vice chair, Burton nominated Cedrick Banks, who was elected to the commission. But Banks declined

“I’m not getting into that,” Banks responded at the meeting.

Then Burton tried to nominate Linda Bernard, but she didn’t show up to the meeting.

“The whole thing is sad,” Burton said at the meeting.

Under the city’s charter, an election must be held by November for Ferguson’s seat. But it’s unclear if that’s going to happen. To find out, Metro Times called the Detroit Bureau of Elections, which referred us to the Wayne County Bureau of Elections, which in turn directed us to the Detroit Bureau of Elections, which then insisted we talk to the Wayne County Bureau of Elections. We gave up.

Some of the appointed commissioners have also tried to shut down elected commissioners. In April, Woods urged the commission to censor Burton because “his posture and his demeanor is negative.” At the time, Burton was trying to pass a resolution that supported Palestinians and admonished the kinds of surveillance technology used by both Detroit and Israel.

Woods’s motions went nowhere because the board no longer had a quorum after too many commissioners left the meeting early.

At other times, mayoral appointees shut off Burton’s microphone.

“You have people in these positions who don’t understand their roles,” Burton says. “They arrived on this board and are silencing me and the 100,000 people who live in my district. They are putting a rope around democracy.”

Activists and others say one solution is making the entire board elected.

“I was elected, not selected,” Crawford says. “That’s what democracy is about. The charter should be revised so that all the commissioners are elected. It should come from the people.”

Burton agrees.

“Police oversight is dead until we get rid of these rubber stamps and call on a charter amendment to ensure every commissioner is elected,” Burton says. “Residents want justice and accountability. The only way they’re going to get that is to vote on elected leadership.”

Even the commission’s website lacks basic information. For example, the newest available minutes for public meetings is from 2020.

Burton says residents must demand accountability.

“Go to city hall, put your fist in the air, and say, ‘You’re not going to take it no more,’” Burton says, his voice rising. “No justice, no peace. Stand up to injustice. Stand up to officer misconduct. That’s what democracy is about.”

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