Detroit Police, Image and Reality

Against the Current No. 211, March/April 2021

Dianne Feeley

Detroiters protest police brutality — and get sued by the city.

FOLLOWING THE POLICE murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, at least 100 street demonstrations occurred in Detroit, led by a newly formed group Detroit Will Breathe, sometimes in coalition with other organizations. Unlike many actions, DWB’s marches continued for hours winding through the streets and venturing into neighborhoods where they passed out leaflets and encouraged people to join. Most wore masks and tried to socially distance.

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan and police chief James Craig labeled demonstrators, particularly white youth, as troublemakers from the suburbs intent on damaging the city. (Given that Duggan himself lived in a mostly white suburb until he decided to run for mayor, this almost seemed a joke.)

In reality what was happening in Detroit, as elsewhere, was the emergence of a Black-led movement that attracted white youth whether or not they lived north of Eight Mile Road (the city’s northern boundary).

Chief Craig said that police used force on six occasions during the first three nights of protests, in response to projectiles thrown at officers. Later he admitted a level of force was also used when a police scout car was twice “vandalized.” He also supported the use of force when marchers tied up downtown intersections, saying the police thought they were going to set up a police-free zone as had happened in Seattle.

Along with his hostile rhetoric, Craig stood behind his troops when they physically attacked, arrested and teargassed marchers. He denied that police used chokeholds, even when photographs captured the action.

At the beginning of September, attorneys representing the demonstrators filed a lawsuit to stop the use of teargas, chokeholds, rubber bullets, sound cannons, riot gear, and batons. Teargas was of particular concern since it is banned in war and causes respiratory problems even when an airborne virus is not raging. They won a temporary restraining order.

Chief Craig underplayed the order by remarking that just the week before, the Board of Police Commissioners banned chokeholds. He denied all the accusations outlined in the lawsuit, claiming that protesters “repeatedly turned violent, endangering the lives of police and the public.”

In a stunning development, the city has filed a countersuit, claiming that demonstrators organized a “civil conspiracy,” defaming the mayor and the Detroit Police Department (DPD). It refutes the accusation of using a chokehold, claiming that the officer “lost her hold, which caused her arms to momentarily touch Wallace’s neck.” It continues by comparing the officer’s account to the dictionary definition of a chokehold, concluding that the time period was too brief for it to be so labeled.

The suit also claims that DWB promoted a “false narrative to rile the public” about the fatal July shooting of Hakim Littleton, which is discussed below.

To move forward on its countersuit, the city attorney requested $200,000, which was approved by the City Council in late January by a 5-4 vote. Meanwhile a judge dismissed 28 disorderly conduct charges against demonstrators; the city’s law department followed up by dropping misdemeanor charges against most of the other arrestees. Despite their determination to chill dissent through this suit, Craig and Duggan’s suit may come back to haunt them.

The Historical Background

Like many cities, Detroit spends about 25-30% of its budget on police. But unlike many other, Detroit has a majority Black police force and a police oversight commission with substantial powers. Unfortunately, these reforms have not proved adequate.

In the aftermath of the 1967 rebellion, which was set off by a police raid on an after-hours celebration, police only intensified their stop-and-frisk policies. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the Kerner Report outlined what needed to be done to end racial profiling and police violence, but the department pushed back and by 1971 initiated STRESS (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), a specialized police unit.

STRESS teams were undercover for surveillance and decoy operations, supposedly arresting muggers and robbers. Over the two years of its existence, STRESS teams murdered 22 civilians, all but one African American, with six shot in the back.

Opposition to the repressive police grew until a broad coalition organized for the abolition of STRESS. When Coleman Young ran for mayor in 1973 against the then current police chief, he promised to create “a people’s police department.”

Once elected — one of the first African-American mayors of a major U.S. city — Young abolished STRESS and issued an executive order to recruit more Black officers. At that moment Detroit was about 45% African American yet had a police force that was 85% white. [For more historical background.]

In response to the demand to end police violence, in 1974 the new City Charter created the Detroit Police Commission for civilian oversight with broad powers. Currently seven of the 11 commissioners are elected by district, with four appointed by the mayor. All are Black or Mexican American; four are women.

Today 55% of the police are African American and 5% are Latino; 25% are women. Because of a state law, police are no longer required to be city residents. Of the 39% of the force who are white, only 3% live in the city. This contrasts sharply with the 62% of African-American cops who are Detroiters.

Over the last 50 years police chiefs have been African Americans; the latest is James Craig, who has held the job since 2013. Many other top administrators are African American as well.

Craig has guided the department as it emerged through some rough patches. In 2011, when Detroit was forced into bankruptcy, the department’s budget was cut by $75 million. This meant a 10% pay cut and the layoff of 380 cops.

Craig had to rebuild his department and successfully end federal monitoring. While going to bat for his staff, he’s also had to confront internal corruption, an historic problem. Craig’s still ongoing investigation of narcotics officers uncovered evidence that some have been taking money from crime scenes, planting drugs on suspects, securing false affidavits to obtain search warrants, and embezzling money meant for confidential informants.

So far Michael Mosley, a 19-year veteran of DPD, is the first to plead guilty to taking $15,000 in cash bribes from a drug trafficker and awaits sentencing.

Police Killings

Between 1995-2000 a total of 47 civilians were killed by Detroit cops, of whom 14 were shot in the back. Another 19 died in police custody. The prosecutor brought charges in only five cases, resulting in one conviction. Over that same period, six successful lawsuits forced the city to pay out $8.6 million.

In 2003 then mayor Dennis Archer asked the federal government to step in. A federal monitor was appointed to oversee the department with the objective of reducing the number of excessive force and civil rights abuses, along with ending a culture of covering up misconduct.

Lasting from 2003 to 2016, the oversight cost more than $50 million, including $87,825 a month for the monitor.

The result of the federal oversight has been touted as successful in reducing police killings of civilians, increasing accurate record keeping, implementing a policy that police warn civilians before using sprays, and upgrading fire prevention in the jail.

Perhaps the most disturbing civilian death during that period was in 2010. Officers of the city’s Special Response Team, looking to make an arrest, threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of a house. Kicking in the door of the wrong home, lead officer Joseph Weekley fired a shot, hitting and killing 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was sleeping on the couch as her grandmother watched TV.

Weekley had been featured on “The First 48,” a true-crime TV show, and the crew was on the scene, filming for an upcoming episode. Five years later, after two mistrials, Weekley was reinstated; later he served as co-chair of a committee on racial equity the department set up.

A second crucial case occurred in 2015. A multi-agency task force, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehensive Team, came to the home of Terrance Kellom’s parents with a warrant to arrest him for armed robbery.

The newspaper account reported that when the team entered the house, Terrance was upstairs. He jumped down through an opening in a bedroom closet, a hammer in his hand. Mitchell Quinn, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent (ICE) on the team, shot and killed Terrance, claiming he feared that Kellom was going to attack.

Terrance’s parents were outraged, saying he was shot while surrendering. Their story was that he had been brought downstairs by two police officers and was kneeling in the hallway when Quinn fired.

Shortly afterwards, as neighbors gathered, Chief Craig showed up and attempted to defuse the situation by promising a community-police meeting held in the neighborhood within 24 hours. Indeed, the meeting took place, with Craig aggressively defending the task force. He rattled off statistics proving how many violent felons they’ve caught by pooling multi-agency resources.

Craig painted Kellom (age 20), his parents sitting in the front row, as one more dangerous criminal they’d apprehended.

Although Mitchell Quinn, the ICE agent, was never charged, we do know he had been a Detroit cop who had been fired for threatening his wife with a police gun. Six months later he had a job with ICE.

Kellom’s parents have lost their suit against the city and in federal court. But they do have a deposition by Detroit police officer Darrell Fitzgerald, who admitted that Kellom “was on his knees” at the time he was shot and had nothing in his hands.

Between 2009-2014 police killed 18 civilians, with another five dead between 2015 and June 2020. During the last six months of 2020 five more were killed.

Although police minimize the number and importance of lawsuits filed against the department and the city’s financial settlements, between 2015-2020 a total of $31.5 million was paid out, including $8.25 million to the family of Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Ten more lawsuits were filed last year.

The Role of Police Chief Craig

In comparison to 2019, last year Detroit homicides were up by 19%. When asked why, police chief Craig suggested “It could be any number of reasons, but it could be the anti-police rhetoric that’s permeating our country.” He then added, “The fact that there’s bail reform and some individuals being released, and frankly suspects feel emboldened.”

He and current mayor Mike Duggan see eye to eye on most issues. The mayor applauded Craig’s performance last summer, saying “Chief Craig has the kind of job approval ratings politicians only wish for. I think he is doing an outstanding job and we haven’t seen any looting or fires every other major city has seen.”

Craig is a “hands on” chief with a shining image, who is on hand to make sure the department’s version of what happened gets out to the neighbors and larger community.

Last July an African-American teenager was stopped by several police. His friend Hakim Littleton, (age 20), walked by and ended up dead. Neighbors quickly came to the scene and demanded answers.

Craig promised to show the police cameras at police headquarters that same day. The videos showed Hakim walking by as his friend is stopped. He appears to size up the event, fumble around in his pocket, take out a gun, aim and fire at the cop closest to him as he turns to run. The officer is not hit, runs after him, and either Hakim tripped or was knocked down. Three cops fire their guns and Hakim lies dead.

Craig explained that there had been eight bullets fired, four from Hakim and four from the officers. Later the police found a ninth shell, so Craig revised the story based on the discovery of the additional bullet. He made a point of saying that the police were restrained in firing so few bullets. Craig maintained Hakim was an alleged gang member with a record.

Many activists have seen another video that shows once Hakim is on the ground, his gun is kicked away and the officer who ran after him keeps him pinned down. Yet another officer walks over and shoots him once in the head. But even if I hadn’t seen that video, I ask why should that young person be dead.

I will disclose that I know Hakim’s uncle and attended the repast. I heard the family say that Hakim was on parole because of a teenage spat in which someone stole his friend’s cell phone; he retrieved it and was reported to have stolen it. It seemed simpler at the time to plead guilty and agree to probation.

But even had Hakim stolen the cell phone, does that mean he should end up dead? Youth make mistakes, that’s what being young is all about, but African American youth who misjudge may lose their lives, as Hakim did.

Surveillance and Police Militarization

As Detroit emerged from bankruptcy and the police budget was increased, Craig made sure to convince the mayor and City Council that Detroit needed to install a surveillance system. Currently Detroit has the most advanced system of any police department in the country.

In 2016 the City Council approved Project Green Light for “real time” monitoring of crime. Over 700 businesses have gone in with the police to install cameras at their store or gas station.

Craig secured an initial $8 million to open the DPD’s “Real Time Crime Center.” This 24/7 center monitors camera feeds from various public and private camera networks, including Project Green Light. Within a year it had a staff of 60. One third were officers, functioning as “crime analysts, video surveillance analysts and intelligence specialists.”

In 2017 the City Council approved a $1.05 million contract with DataWorks for software and in September 2020 another $220,000 for upgrades. This facial recognition software measures certain elements of a person’s face to create a template that is then compared to other images, including a mugshot database. But it misidentifies non-white faces 96% of the time!

While cities such as Los Angeles decided not to use this technology, Detroit’s Police Commission decided it could regulate its use, limiting it to first-degree home invasion or “part 1 violent crimes” (robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault, or homicide.)

During the 2020 City Council hearings Craig asserted that despite the drawback, the technology was helpful for investigations. How he could justify a $1.3 million contract to Dataworks, given that at least 85% of city residents are Black or Brown, remains a puzzle.

Further, the technology was used for a year and a half before any oversight was established. During that time, police “solved” two larceny cases based on matching facial technology, but both Robert Williams and Michael Oliver could prove their innocence. In the process Oliver lost his job, his apartment and his car; the two are now suing the department.

For his part, Mayor Duggan stated:

“I strongly oppose the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance…. DPD is not permitted to use facial recognition software for surveillance and I will never support them doing so. The technology is just not reliable in identifying people from moving images and research has shown it is even less reliable in identifying people of color….

“I have spoken to several members of the Detroit Police Commission and have encouraged them to continue this practice by formally adopting a ‘no surveillance’ policy for facial recognition technology and providing for serious discipline for any DPD employee who violates this policy.”

Indeed, the commission requires that the department report to it weekly how many times it needed to look at Project Green Light cameras to see if it could find a match. In the first nine months of 2020, it looked for matches on 106 occasions, producing 64 to aid the police in bringing 12 charges.

Again, this seems like an enormously expensive technology for the return. Yet in 2019 the City Council voted another $4 million to expand the center and set up two smaller ones on the city’s east and west sides.

The City Council also approved a $3.9 million contract for 300 cameras mounted on traffic lights at intersections. These cannot be used to identify people or even license plates, only similar-looking vehicles. They can, however, be an “aid” in police investigations.

Meanwhile the police haven’t decided whether they have a use for drones. Nonetheless they have signed a $1.5 million contract with ShotSpotter to install a sound sensor system that detects gunfire, alerting the police.

Another source of police surveillance is through the federal government’s 1033 program. Since 2012, DPD has purchased about three-quarters of a million dollars in equipment, including two helicopters and much digital computer equipment. Maybe this is where they got their piercing-sound cannons.

We also know the Detroit police have a tank, which they brought out last summer onto Michigan Avenue to intimidate Black Lives Matter demonstrators. All this gear teaches both police and residents that the police are warriors ready for battle — and this culture continues to drive the use of excessive force on individuals and demonstrators.

Why have shields, batons, teargas, guns, rubber pellet guns and the training to use them if you never employ them? It’s just the logic of the police tool kit.

De-escalation Teams

Four of the five cases where people were shot dead by Detroit police in the last half of 2020 were mentally unstable:

• Darien Walker (age 28), an African American had a sword and two knives as he stood in the middle of the street, threatening to use them. When cornered, he threw a dagger at one of the officers, striking him just below the eye. Walker was then shot and killed. Described as being obsessed with weapons and becoming a knight, Walker had, over the previous month, been taken by police twice to a psychiatric unit but discharged.

• Michael Moza (age 30), who was schizo­phrenic, had gone to a hospital but was released. Driving at high speed on the freeway, he evaded a police chase but when they later found his car, he led them on a second chase. He was killed after he fired shots at them.

• Kevin Fox, a 28-year-old African Amer­ican, with a history of domestic violence, killed his ex-partner, attacked a police precinct with an AR-15 and then drove away, only to park nearby and remain seated in his car, where he was killed by police.

• A 42-year-old African American described as bipolar, kidnapped his girlfriend, and barricaded them in her family’s home. The siege lasted nine hours, ending when a police sharpshooter killed him.

According to DPD figures, in the first 11 months of 2020 there were 6654 calls that can be attributed to mental issues, 1000 of them armed. Craig reported that 911 gets at least 20 such calls each day. And from a national study we know that mentally unstable people are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police than other civilians. They are also 23% of Detroit’s jailed.

Getting these calls out of the hands of the police seems to be the most important first step we can take in saving lives. We need to re-route calls about mental instability, homelessness, domestic violence and issues such as noise abatement to de-escalation teams comprised of social workers, nurses and community members, all trained and able to access resources.

Similar teams have been in operation in cities such as Eugene, Oregon where CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a crisis intervention program staffed by health clinic personnel and has been in place for almost three decades. (These teams are unarmed and not dispatched if a gun is involved.)

For his part, Craig is exasperated by the problem of getting mentally-ill people to a hospital only to find them back on the street within a day. As a result, the department started a Crisis Intervention Team that provides 16 hours of de-escalation training. Fifty officers have completed the program; another 20% will be trained in 2021.

However, recognizing that the CIT program is not much of a proposal, Chief Craig, with the mayor’s support, is launching a more ambitious one with the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. Called the Mental Health Co-Response Partnership, it will hire two behavior health specialists to take 911 calls that involve issues of mental stress or homelessness. (It is estimated that 30% of homeless people are mentally unstable.)

To answer these 911 calls the downtown police precinct launched a trial run in 2020, pairing an officer with a behavior health specialist. In 2021 a second team will work out of another precinct in northwest Detroit. But each team will be armed, a signal that may well set off people who are unstable.

Funding from the police budget will be supplemented with $800,000 from the health network. There will be additional funding from the city’s already meager housing department.

A friend of mine who is a bilingual social worker told me that Wayne County once had an innovative team of a six (nurse, a psychiatrist and four mental health workers) assigned to a maximum of 60 mentally unstable people frequently desperate for help. The person was able to call 24/7 and two team members would meet up with the individual work through the specific problem. This is important because many mentally-ill people are repeatedly in need of help.

However, the state government, which funded the innovative program, decided it was too expensive to dispatch two team members, so only one would be allowed. Social workers of course felt that was too dangerous an assignment for one person, especially at night, and the program was disbanded.

This “evidence-based program” could be adapted to develop a dozen or more de-escalation teams necessary for Detroit. A particularly innovative program would use not only experts, but trained members from the community. Having unarmed de-escalation teams as first responders would be an essential component in building community trust.

Who Is in Charge?

For his part, Chief Craig projects an image of efficiency and reasonableness, reassuring Detroiters that their safety lies in supporting the police department. He likes to have community organizations visit the Real Time Crime Center with all its technology. He tries to convince community organizations that he and the police commission will weed out “bad” and corrupt cops; he promotes surveillance as an important police tool.

How much safety does this expensive surveillance technology provide for a city in which 40% are living in poverty? Statistics about police spending in Detroit, from the 2017 Center for Popular Democracy survey across 12 cities, says it all: for every dollar of police spending, Detroit’s budget allocated 14 cents for housing and nine cents for health. This is a price tag Detroiters can’t afford.

Between 2009 and 2015, the city over-assessed homeowners by approximately $600 million. As a consequence, many lost their homes to foreclosure while others saved them by foregoing other necessities. Yet when the city admitted what they had done, it claimed there were no available resources to compensate Detroiters.

Similarly while Detroiters have the high­est water bills in the country, from the bankruptcy to the pandemic people more than two months in arrears had their water shut off. This repressive austerity functions to bred a sense of hopelessness.

While nearly 50 years ago, the establishment of police commissioners to create civilian oversight of the department was an important reform. Today the commission has  become more of a rubber stamp for the police chief. Yet the commission does have the authority to set policy, discipline, and approve the police budget; it can and does propose changes in police procedures.

Last June, partly in response to the George Floyd murder and local protests, the commission established a series of changes: building a de-escalation continuum, recordkeeping in every case when police use force and requiring that police report when other officers use excessive force. But changing the culture of the department requires a commitment from within the department, a reinvigorated police commission, as well as a buy-in from the city administration.

About half of the 11 police commissioners are former police officers or strong advocates of surveillance programs. But the crisis people are facing calls for providing resources, not criminalizing those suffering from trauma. It would be impressive if Detroit could elect a younger, African-American commissioner in the next election, reducing the ex-police presence.

Landis Spencer

Landis Spencer, 24, a member of the Black-Brown Alliance of Metro Detroit DSA, has decided to enter the race. His campaign could help Detroiters see more clearly how we need to set different priorities. In a welcome development, his election campaign coincides with a discussion and vote on revisions to Detroit’s City Charter.

As the charter commissioners finalize their draft, it includes eliminating the mayor’s ability to add commissioners as well as rerouting cases of mental instability to de-escalation teams. These proposed revisions may unleash a long-needed change in the city’s responsibility to its residents.

The information in this article is from Detroit newspapers and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners website. I would like to thanks Kim Hunter and Susan Newell for their suggestions.

March-April 2021, ATC 211

1 comment

  1. The surveillance cameras will probably lead to many people being misidentified and wrongly convicted, We need to fight against using military weapons against the people in Detroit. I agree that the money should be used to make sure people can stay in their homes, have running water and get the medical care they need. I lived in Detroit between 1973 and 1979. There were more jobs jobs at Chrysler, there was less poverty and less untreated mental illness. I hope that Landis Spencer gets elected to the police oversight commission so that he can help create more justice for the people in Detroit.

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