Monday, July 20, 2009

US District Judge Blasts Slow Pace of Detroit Police Reforms

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Judge blasts slow pace of Detroit Police reforms

Paul Egan / The Detroit News

Detroit -- Cameras mounted inside Detroit police cars are supposed to record sound and video images of every encounter, but it's unlikely many do, a federal monitor's report shows.

The lack of working cameras was among issues cited by U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. on Friday when he slammed the Detroit Police Department's compliance with court-ordered reforms as "grossly inadequate."

"I am extremely concerned -- extremely disappointed -- at what has happened thus far," Cook said, noting that six years after two consent decrees on the use of force and the condition of lockups took effect, the department is only 39 percent compliant.

The department plans to scrap the existing cameras and call for bids for a new system, Allan Charlton, an attorney for the city, said Friday. The cameras are federally mandated in Detroit.

The federal monitor's report released Thursday described the existing system as "useless," saying many cameras don't work. There also is a failure to make sure microphones work and even images that are recorded are often not saved because there is no system to upload images into a central repository, the report said.

David A. Robinson, a Southfield attorney who has repeatedly sued the Detroit Police Department on behalf of citizens, said city patrol car video failures are "the rule more than the exception" and a new system is "not a bad idea."

Police departments nationwide use in-car video cameras to record incidents of abuse and to refute false allegations.

"It's important to document what really happened," Robinson said of the cameras. "It's important to document the truth, whether it's a good truth or a bad truth."

The department has been under federal monitoring since 2003, after a Justice Department investigation documented violations of civil rights through police brutality, detention of homicide witnesses and unsafe holding cells where many prisoners died.

The court order on use of force was supposed to last five years, and the one related to jail cells was supposed to last two, but Cook extended both to July 2011. Now, the order related to use of force must be extended again because the department must be in "substantial compliance" for two years before it is lifted, meaning it would have to be in compliance now.

Only one year of compliance is required for the holding cell consent decree to be lifted, so it's not clear whether it, too, will have to be extended beyond 2011.

Cook could find the city in contempt and fine it for failure to comply, but it's not clear what impact that would have on the cash-strapped city.

He has instead tried to coerce the city through public comment, such as those he made Friday.

Cook has also set deadlines for specific tasks, such as making the jail cells comply with the fire code, which happened at the end of 2008. Patrol car cameras are far from the only issue facing the department, recently criticized for keeping inaccurate and artificially low homicide statistics.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Levy, who handles the consent decrees for the Justice Department, told Cook working cameras "are critical to building the kind of confidence in the Detroit Police Department that the citizens of Detroit want and deserve."

She asked Cook to set deadlines for getting the camera system working, along with a computerized "early warning system" to alert police managers about problem officers. He is expected to set those deadlines at a later date.

Charlton said a request for proposals for a new in-car video system should be sent to potential vendors by Aug. 10.

A cost estimate was not available, but Levy said a Justice Department grant is likely to cover part of the cost.

The Justice Department and the city disagree about the viability of an electronic
"management awareness system" to flag problem officers as well as those worthy of commendations.

An expert hired by the Justice Department recently concluded the system developed in-house also won't work, but Charlton said it can be tweaked and there is no need to start over with a new system.

On the positive side, federal monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood said murder witnesses are no longer arrested without court orders, jailhouse deaths are no longer a significant issue, and the department has recently shown progress in training.

Cook said he was also encouraged by a recent meeting with Mayor Dave Bing, who voiced his commitment to satisfying the consent decrees.

Police Chief Warren Evans, who recently took over the city job from his post as Wayne County sheriff, said Thursday he wants to revisit his earlier proposal to have the county take over the jailing of city police prisoners.

"That would take care of 50 percent of the consent agreement," he said.

But Robinson said there are also problems with the county lockups.

"It's taking junk out of one drawer and putting it into another drawer," he said of Evans' proposal. (313) 222-2069

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July 18, 2009

Detroit police slow on reforms

Judge: Something needs to be done


Reforms within Detroit's long-troubled police department have been "grossly inadequate," U.S. District Judge Julian Cook said Friday, even as he lauded Mayor Dave Bing as a welcome change.

After six years and more than $10 million, federal monitors say in their latest report that the city has met only 39% of promised reforms.

"It cries out for something to be done immediately," Cook said during a hearing in his courtroom.

"I'm extremely concerned, I am extremely disappointed by what's happened thus far," Cook said.

But, he said, his meeting Wednesday with Bing gave him a "renewed feeling that this problem ... can be resolved and resolved quickly."

Even with the accolades Friday for the new administration, divisions remain between federal officials and Detroit Police on key parts of the ordered fixes.

The reforms were ordered in 2003 after the Free Press uncovered problematic police shootings, dragnet arrests and illegal detentions.

Federal monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood and Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Levy said the department's computerized early warning system to identify problem police officers is seriously -- perhaps fatally -- flawed.

Having a fully functional early warning system "is a centerpiece of the required reforms," Levy said.

Allan Charlton, an attorney for the city, said the computer system "obviously needs to be tweaked," but can work.

Wood said the city was "slow to realize" that the police must change, rather than trying to change the decrees to fit their practices.

Deputy Mayor Saul Green said the city is committed to reforms and cooperation: "We're not digging in and we're trying to work together."

The city and federal officials agreed the police in-car video cameras need to be replaced.

They also agreed the department has curbed illegal mass arrests, fixed fire hazards, improved sanitation in holding cells and reduced the number of prisoners dying in custody.

Contact JOE SWICKARD: 313-222-8769 or

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