The People’s Police Department

Why federal consent decrees are working in Detroit, but not in Oakland.

In January of 2011, 38-year-old Lamar Deshea Moore walked into the Detroit Police Department’s sixth precinct and opened fire. Two officers were hit in the head with shrapnel, a commander was shot in the back, and a fourth officer was shot in the chest, although a bulletproof vest saved her from serious injury. “As you can imagine, utter chaos and pandemonium took place,” Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. said at the time. “Through it all, our officers maintained courageous calm. … They returned fire, they took cover, they did all the things we train them to do under pressure.”

Miraculously, no cop was fatally wounded. The shooter, though, was killed in a barrage of police bullets. While the horrific details of the incident drew national attention, one aspect of it flew under the radar. Moore was the first and last person to be killed by Detroit police officers in all of 2011. As of earlier this month, only one civilian had been killed by police fire in 2012.

The low number of officer-involved slayings in Detroit represents a stark contrast to years past. Between 1990 and 1998, Detroit PD was the deadliest police force in the nation, averaging ten shooting deaths per year. Autopsies showed that many of the civilians were shot in the back, and yet the majority of the officers involved were never punished. Given such statistics, how has Detroit PD made such progress on reducing civilian casualties in recent years?  

Much of the department’s success stems from a 2003 federal lawsuit that accused Detroit PD of system-wide misconduct. In order to avoid a potential federal takeover, the department agreed to two legally binding agreements known as consent decrees. The decrees systematically overhauled the department’s policies to ensure accountability and “best-practices” policing.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Oakland Police Department is under a remarkably similar consent decree that the City of Oakland signed in 2003. Both police departments also are under the oversight of the same independent court monitoring team led by Robert Warshaw, former police chief of Rochester, New York.

But in recent years, while Detroit has made significant progress in implementing the reforms required in its federal consent decrees, the Oakland Police Department has made little to none. In fact, by year’s end, Detroit PD could emerge completely from federal oversight, while Oakland could become the first police department in the country to be put in federal receivership.

Detroit PD’s turnaround began in earnest three years ago when Chief Godbee took the helm of the department in 2009, and instead of making excuses, used the consent decree as a roadmap for creating a new police culture. As a result, over the past two years citizen complaints have dropped 41 percent, according to a recent monitoring report by Warshaw and his team. In addition, Detroit cops now rarely draw and point their firearms while on duty and taxpayers’ payouts from police misconduct cases have dropped, according to the department’s oversight division.

“Chief Godbee appeals to the best in people in the department and is really giving people who will perform in the public interest an opportunity to shine,” said longtime Detroit City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel. Godbee and his executive team are “change agents,” she continued. “They’re willing to take risks — risks that will succeed and sometimes risks that will fail. But they’re willing to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go back to the table to do it again.”

These “risks” come in the form of a number of innovative programs that have turned Detroit PD into a sort of People’s Police Department. Detroit PD, for example, now has public accountability meetings in which police command staff must justify their actions and results to city residents. The department also supports a highly productive Civil Rights Integrity Bureau that conducts routine audits and investigations of police accountability. There’s also a project that encourages police officers to buy homes in the inner city.

According to interviews and public documents, the department’s innovative programs, paired with Godbee’s strong leadership, have fundamentally changed Detroit PD. And for many in the community, the transformation was long overdue.

For one week in the summer of 1967, tens of thousands of Detroit residents looted and pillaged. Forty-three people died, 7,200 were arrested, and 2,000 buildings were burned to the ground. Many cite racially exclusionary housing policies and employment discrimination as the root causes of the violence, but Cockrel said the riots were a reflection of stewing tension between police and black residents. “It was all about police violence, police misconduct,” she said, “the way police operated in the city in relationship to African-American people.”   The 1967 riots set in motion demands for the Detroit Police Department to improve its practices — in particular, to have the city’s police force better reflect the growing number of African-American residents. By 1973, this demand was answered. Detroit elected its first black Mayor, Coleman Young (since then, every mayor of Detroit has been African American), and one of Young’s campaign pledges was to integrate the city’s largely white police department and curb corruption on the force.

By the 1990s, part of his vision had become reality; a majority of officers in Detroit PD were African-American. However, integrating the police force did little to improve police-community relations. “The city was majority African-American, the police department was majority African-American, and the police officer whose particular behavior sparked public outrage was an African-American officer who shot and killed three other black men in a very short window of time — all under the color of law,” Cockrel said.

That officer’s name was Eugene Brown. Between 1991 and 2003, he cost the City of Detroit $7.5 million in lawsuits. Most of that money stemmed from nine shootings he was involved in, three of which were fatal. Despite his frequent use of lethal force, Brown was cleared of wrongdoing by internal police investigations in all instances.

David Robinson, a former Detroit cop who’s now an attorney, said the department’s protection of Brown was not out of the ordinary. “The average investigator would never throw an officer to the wolves unless there was some impartial evidence,” he said. “Police investigators have always seen things through blue spectacles.”

By 2000, community frustration with police had boiled over again. Police watchdog groups formed, activists staged strikes, and there was strong pressure to remove then-Police Chief Benny Napoleon, who regularly defended the department’s “shoot to kill” policy.

Eventually, the US Department of Justice conducted what’s known as a “pattern or practice” investigation of Detroit police. The DOJ found Detroit PD to be in violation of numerous laws. Most shocking was the state of the city’s holding cells.

Between 1990 and 2000, numerous inmates died of drug withdrawals, heart attacks, diabetic comas, and myriad other health issues. In many instances, inmate bodies were found in a full state of rigor mortis — meaning they had been dead for at least four to six hours before being discovered. “For years and years,” Robinson said, “Detroit’s lock-up was tantamount to a torture chamber.”

The sheer ineptitude of Detroit PD forced the Department of Justice to write two separate federal consent decrees. These legal agreements, signed by the City of Detroit, deal with police use-of-force issues and address the deadly conditions in the city’s holding cells. Much like Oakland, federal monitors and a federal judge oversee Detroit PD’s progress in implementing the reforms. The decrees themselves promised to make “a significant impact on the way business is conducted.”

But it would be a long time before tangible impacts emerged.

When Detroit signed its two federal consent decrees in 2004, the city was led by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The city had a projected $389 million budget shortfall over three years, and Kilpatrick promised to “lead Detroit out of the desert.”

But while many saw hope in his leadership, Kilpatrick turned out to be a far cry from the city’s savior. Only one year into his term, Time magazine named him one of the three worst mayors in the nation.

In 2008, Kilpatrick was charged with numerous felonies for assaulting and obstructing a police officer and lying under oath about an affair he had with Sheryl Robinson Wood, who was the then-head monitor overseeing Detroit PD’s reforms. After pleading guilty to perjury, Kilpatrick was forced to resign. In 2010, he was also indicted on 31 counts of criminal racketeering. It was revealed that he and two top aides had run a crime ring built on bribery, extortion, and fraud.

During Kilpatrick’s corrupt and incompetent tenure as mayor, Detroit PD made dismal progress on the consent decrees — even worse than Oakland. By 2010 — seven years and one extension into the process — Detroit had only completed 29 percent of the tasks outlined in the decrees.

The police force also continued to cost the city. Lawsuit payouts stemming from police misconduct between July 2006 and June 2009 totaled $19.1 million.

However, after Kilpatrick’s resignation, things took an unexpected turn. In 2009, Detroit PD was put under the guidance of a new monitoring team, Police Performance Solutions, with Warshaw as the primary overseer.

Along with new federal monitors came an entirely new administration. NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing was elected mayor and Godbee became police chief. Godbee immediately brought a fresh outlook on crime and policing in the Motor City, refusing to bow down to pressures to “get tough on crime.” Instead, he’s focused much of his energy on building a new type of police culture and fully embraced the consent-decree reforms.

Detroit PD, as a result, has made enormous progress. Today, the department is 85 percent compliant — an increase of 56 percentage points in just two and a half years. The department is also expected to emerge from the federal oversight process before the end of this year.  

In an April 2012 report, Warshaw attributed Detroit PD’s rapid improvement to Godbee’s success in not only recording technical compliance with the reforms, but “understanding the substantive meaning behind those requirements and by embracing the opportunities they present for improving the quality of policing in Detroit.”

Godbee, in essence, viewed the consent decrees not as a hindrance or a big list of things to do, but as an opportunity to create a more effective police department — one that was much more responsive to the community and thus was better at fighting crime.

From 1995 to 2000, Oakland averaged just under 7,000 violent crimes a year, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the country — although not as dangerous as Detroit. When he took office in 1999, then-Mayor Jerry Brown promised to reduce violent crime by 20 percent.  Shortly thereafter, Brown named Richard Word, an inexperienced police captain, to be the department’s police chief. Some longtime police observers in Oakland say that Brown and then-City Manager Robert Bobb instructed Word to take an aggressive, no-holds barred approach to crime, which came as a relief to many residents who felt besieged by violence.

“The community was desperate and they really wanted a police department to do something,” said civil rights attorney Jim Chanin. The OPD adopted what some viewed as a “by-any-means-necessary” approach to policing. “And this behavior took care of crime, so people just let it go down,” Chanin said.

It was in this atmosphere that four OPD narcotics officers — Francisco Vasquez, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung, and Clarence Mabanag — thrived. They called themselves “The Riders.”

These rogue officers were notorious for beating and framing countless drug suspects in West Oakland. By 2000, 129 people had accused The Riders of crimes that included assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. In total, these people had served forty years behind bars for crimes they likely had never committed.

As the criminal charges against The Riders mushroomed, other civil rights lawsuits emerged, and at least twenty other officers were implicated in similar abuses. Civil rights attorney John Burris, who co-represented with Chanin the people victimized by “The Riders,” said it became clear that the situation wasn’t the product of a few bad apples. “There was a culture of brutality, a culture of lawlessness that existed,” Burris said. “But most troubling was an unwillingness within the department to hold officers accountable for their conduct.”  

In 2003, in an effort to avoid crippling taxpayer payouts, the City of Oakland agreed to a federal consent decree, also known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA). Written as a 5-year, 51-point plan, the decree aimed to make the department more accountable.

And today, OPD has partially met that goal. Deputy Chief Sean Whent, who has worked on the force for sixteen years, including stints in the department’s internal affairs division, said that the changes the department has made as a result of the consent decrees have enabled it to be more responsible and forward-thinking. “Every complaint is investigated now, whereas in the past some were just filed,” he said. “We also do much better investigations of uses of force, even low-level uses of force. We report out and track the statistics on that a lot more.” Substantial improvements have also been made to internal affairs and how complaints are handled.

But despite these positive changes, OPD remains a hotbed of misconduct. Over the past decade the department accrued an astonishing number of complaints and misconduct payouts, totaling roughly $60 million since 2003. This is evidence that while OPD has changed its policies, it hasn’t fully changed its practices.

A big reason for this discrepancy has been an often-hostile attitude toward the decree — not just from rank-and-file officers, but also from the department’s top brass. In short, there has been no Ralph Godbee in Oakland. This lack of a strong and consistent leader is key to understanding why the department has had such a tumultuous decade under the consent decree.

When the decree was signed in 2003, Richard Word was chief, and for two years “there was virtually no movement at all on the reforms,” noted Rashidah Grinage, director of PUEBLO, a police watchdog group. “He was very popular among the rank-and-file, but he didn’t get anything done on the NSA.”  

This indifference traveled down the chain of command, and in their fourth report in 2004, federal monitors observed: “Commanders [had] an open disdain of Settlement Agreement training … which [was] undermining reform efforts.”

In 2005, federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversees the department’s progress, took notice, saying that he had “never seen anything like this in 25 years [as a judge.] This is contemptuous. I’m so angry at the slap in the face, the ignoring of this decree.”

The same year that Henderson issued his condemnation, Mayor Brown replaced Chief Word with Wayne Tucker. A veteran of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, Tucker made reforming the department his priority. Two years later, in their eighth quarterly report, the court monitors commended Tucker for giving the department the “momentum” to “achieve significant compliance with the agreement.”

By 2009, OPD had successfully implemented a number of system-wide reforms. Each officer was assigned a clearly defined, single supervisor. Early identification and intervention systems were set up to catch problem officers, misconduct investigations became more thorough and timely, and use-of-force investigations improved. These improvements set the foundation for “a strong culture of effective, responsive, and accountable policing,” federal monitors stated.

If Tucker had remained chief, the Oakland Police Department may very well be in full compliance with the NSA today. But in 2009 he retired, after a public feud with the city council — which was on the verge of approving a no-confidence vote in him as crime worsened in the city. Tucker responded by contending that the council had only paid lip service to the reforms and public safety.

Then-Mayor Ron Dellums hired Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts to replace Tucker. Batts often talked publicly of the importance of implementing the NSA reforms, but, in reality, showed little to no interest in actually doing so. “When he first became chief he told me that for too long, the consent decree has been more important than fighting crime,” Chanin said. “And he came in and said: ‘I’m going to reverse that.'”

In the two years that followed, the federal court monitors expressed “serious concern” with the department’s progress, saying that change had been “marginal” under Batts’ command. Judge Henderson began threatening receivership, meaning that if the OPD didn’t make reforms quickly, the department would be taken over by the federal government. The court monitors also expressed alarm about the number of times police officers were drawing and pointing their firearms — not only at suspects, but also at witnesses and innocent bystanders. Then, just days after the release of another monitor’s report strongly criticizing his command, Batts abruptly quit.

Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana appointed Assistant Chief Howard Jordan to take over the department, and he immediately promised to make the NSA a top priority. In an interview earlier this summer, Jordan told me: “We take the judge’s orders and everything having to do with the settlement agreement very seriously.”

The federal monitors, civil rights attorneys, community activists, and police representatives also have all expressed hope in Jordan’s ability to turnaround the department. Yet under his leadership, progress on the decree has stagnated. Jordan also oversaw OPD’s heavy-handed response to Occupy Oakland protests. Henderson has criticized the department for its reluctance to punish officers involved in fatal shootings. And a recent audit revealed that the department has squandered millions of dollars on faulty technology.

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland police union, said the focus shouldn’t be on the department’s difficulty complying with the NSA, but on its financial constraints. Despite an increase in crime, the size of the police force shrank from 837 officers in 2009 to about 650 today. “Officers are struggling to just keep up with the calls for services,” he said. “Many of them would like to take individual interests in portions of their beat but they find themselves rushing from call to call.”

It’s not uncommon for police representatives and others to cite external factors for the difficulties in complying with consent decrees, including uncooperative politicians, overzealous plaintiffs’ attorneys, rampant crime, and massive cuts to the force.

However, a look at Detroit shows that these factors do not have to block police reforms.

Since the 1960s, the decline of Detroit’s auto industry has substantially eroded the city’s tax base. Counting bonds and pension obligations, Detroit’s total debt stood at about $20 billion at the start of 2012. The State of Michigan has proposed placing the entire city under state control in order to better manage the books.

This grim economic situation has depleted the Detroit PD’s resources in a number of ways. In 2005, half of the city’s police precincts were closed for budgetary reasons. A few years later, the crime lab shut its doors due to poor management. The department also has experienced massive layoffs: Between 2001 and 2011, 1,400 Detroit police positions were eliminated, and the projected city budget for 2012-13 shows an additional 18 percent reduction in the force — or the elimination of 300 more positions.

In an effort to save $100 million a year to avoid state receivership, Mayor Bing also has proposed cutting cops’ salaries by 10 percent. If that happens, Detroit police officers would become the 48th worst-paid cops among 50 major American cities (with Oakland being the third highest-paying department on that list, according to data compiled by the Detroit police union). And for this dismal pay, Detroit cops work under incredibly difficult circumstances: The city consistently ranks in the top three most dangerous places in the country — worse than Oakland. Because of all this, Detroit police officers contend that they have arguably the most difficult working conditions of any police force in the country.

With a shell of a police department remaining, Godbee decided to pursue new avenues for crime fighting. “With [this] backdrop, for us to continue to try to do police work the same way, under the same methodology, with fewer resources is simply ludicrous,” Godbee said in an April interview with the Michigan Daily (Godbee declined requests for interview for this story).

Godbee and Mayor Bing’s policing strategy rests largely on improving community-police relations and accountability through a number of projects and programs — all of which are absent or seriously underutilized in Oakland.

In 1999, a law that required Detroit police officers to live within the city limits was lifted. What followed was a mass exodus to the suburbs, with roughly 50 percent of officers leaving over the past decade.

In 2011, Mayor Bing addressed the issue through Project 14. Named after police code 14 — signifying a return to normal operations — this program encourages Detroit police officers to purchase homes within the city through a number of federal subsidies and grants. “Project 14 is one approach that my administration is deploying to take two challenges facing Detroit, public safety and vacant homes, and turn them into an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization,” Bing stated in a 2011 press release.

Today, 29 police officers either have moved, or are in the process of moving to the city. Two hundred others have expressed interest in the program, according to the mayor’s office. In Oakland, about 90 percent of police officers live outside the city (see “The High Costs of Outsourcing Police,” 8/8).  

Another groundbreaking step made by the Detroit PD has been the creation of the command accountability meetings. These meetings are conducted internally twice a month, and publicly every quarter. In them the department brass, along with a number of officers, discuss matters pertaining to the consent decree. “We notify the command officers that we have a problem, a global problem, department-wide problem with this particular issue, but then we drill down to the actual officer who is causing the violation at the same time,” explained one commander at a 2011 Detroit Board of Police Commissioners hearing.

These meetings increase transparency and make officer misconduct public. Eric Lambert, professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University, told me that they have been a game-changer for community-police relations. “They are showing [officers] how and why these reforms work, that they are actually improving their image in the community,” Lambert said, “which then improves their ability to interact with civilians. And everyone knows that the best crime control is when citizens are involved and they become the ears and eyes of the police department.”

Another cornerstone of Detroit PD’s recent success is its Civil Rights Integrity Bureau (CRIB), an internal unit of the Detroit PD in charge of auditing and investigating the department’s practices. CRIB is required to conduct 26 audits a year. However, in an effort to give individual commands more specific information, CRIB conducts far more than that. In 2011, it carried out a total of 135 audits and did roughly sixty inspections.

Commander Jeff Romeo, who heads the division, told me this diligent oversight is central to the department’s rapid improvement. “You can’t just put out a policy and expect people to follow it,” he said. “Some people will and some people won’t. You need to inspect it, audit it, and wake people up to the new procedures in place. Let them know that this is how we do business now.”

The Oakland Police Department has a similar unit, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), but it has been much less active than CRIB. In 2010, OIG conducted seven audits and investigations; in 2011, it did twelve; and so far this year, it’s done five, according to Steven Tull, who heads the division. Tull said he hopes to do more than the bare minimum in the future.

How exactly that will be done, however, is unclear. Mayor Quan is looking into civilianizing the inspector general’s office, although it’s uncertain whether the department will have the necessary funding to do so.

Detroit PD also has a fully functioning computerized system for tracking police officer conduct — the Management Awareness System (MAS). MAS issues a red flag when an officer accumulates three or more complaints in six months. It is then policy for the officer’s supervisor to set up a meeting, and, if necessary, intervene.

This system has become an integral part at ensuring that officers are held accountable for their actions. “Now we know the officers that may be involved in behaviors that put the city more at risk,” said Godbee in an April interview with the Michigan Citizen. “And there are intervention strategies that have to be documented to show what we did to address the officer’s behavior.”

Oakland has a similar tracking system, the Internal Personnel Assessment System (I-PAS), which was born out of the NSA. However, I-PAS has been either nonfunctional or partially functional for years. Only in the latest monitor’s report in July was I-PAS deemed up to speed, although serious technical problems remain (the department has circumvented these problems temporarily by requiring arrest data to be entered by hand into the system). OPD hopes to have the system fully functional in the next few months, but the monitors have expressed doubts that it will be used to its full potential.

Detroit PD’s efforts to ensure accountability also have led to clear results. (When looking at all of the numbers below, bear in mind that Detroit’s population is more than twice as large as Oakland’s, and the city has roughly four times as many police officers. It has more officers because it pays each one a much lower salary on average than Oakland does.)

In Detroit, citizen complaints are down 41 percent from two years ago, and in all of 2011, the department counted just over 500 complaints. Meanwhile, OPD’s internal affairs department classified 1,039 misconduct complaints related to Occupy Oakland alone.

In Detroit, use of force reports are also down. In 2010, the department recorded 1,479 uses of force. Over the past six months that number has fallen to 635, suggesting a considerable annual decline this year. In Oakland, these figures are on the rise. In the last three months alone there were 1,116 documented use-of-force incidents (which is equal to the projected number for all of 2012 in Detroit). That’s an increase of 8 percent from the previous quarter.

In Detroit, officers are also much more hesitant to draw and point their firearms. In 2011, there were 261 such instances. During the same year, OPD counted 3,623 incidents of officers pointing their firearms (roughly ten a day). So far this year, OPD officers have continued to draw and point their guns at alarming rates, counting 925 incidents in the first three months alone.

At first glance, there appears to be one outlier to the statistics above. While Oakland PD has reported only nine officer-involved shootings since 2011, Detroit reported 29 cases last year alone. However, this data also suggests that Detroit cops use their weapons much more discriminately than Oakland’s — and that they don’t shoot to kill.

In sum, Detroit PD may not be a perfect department, but there’s no doubt that residents are benefitting from the reforms made in recent years. Meanwhile, OPD’s struggles have exacted a huge financial and social toll on the city.

“Our resources have been frittered away — $58 million in lawsuits, millions and millions in monitors and consultants fees, not to mention the $8 million in overtime,” noted Grinage of PUEBLO. “I mean, it’s a miracle that there is any money left in this city for anything else, and the question is: What are we getting in return? We are not safer, we are not a better police department, we are still not compliant, we still have police shootings, we still have officers drawing their weapons at an alarming rate, so where is the gain from all of this? What could Oakland have done with all of that money? How many jobs could have been created, how many schools could have been repaired, how many mentors could we have had for kids? When you think about the resources that have been wasted, it is outrageous.”

OPD’s future is precarious. The seemingly most plausible outcome is federal receivership, meaning that the US government would step in and take control of the department. No other police force has been federalized, so it’s uncertain exactly what this would look like, but most agree that it could cost the city a lot of money. Earlier this year, Jim Chanin told me that the idea of incurring more debt for Oakland was the only thing preventing him from requesting federal receivership.

Lord knows they deserve it,” he said of the police department. “But what libraries are going to close? What recreation centers are going to close — because of the money for the receiver? It’s just a matter of balancing the equities and trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.”

When I spoke to Chanin again this summer, he had decided to write a motion in support of a federal takeover. In his view, the department can’t be trusted to reform itself. It’s an ineptitude that continues to baffle Chanin and many Oakland residents.

“We are not asking for much,” he said. “We are not asking for these police to like everyone in Oakland, we’re just asking them to follow the United States Constitution and treat people equally. When they go home to their families they can say anything they want. Hopefully, we can get officers who actually go home to Oakland and say, ‘What a great city this is.’ Because it is.”


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