unchain police commission

Unchain the Police Commission


When Mike Duggan was a candidate for Detroit mayor he lambasted Gov. Rick Snyder for appointing Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and decried the need for the bankruptcy proceedings that followed. He pledged he had no higher priority than giving Orr the boot and restoring the duties of the mayor and City Council to the duly elected representatives of the city.

We now know that was mere political posturing. Today, Mayor Duggan seems to be wedded to the governor. Orr is a “best bud” that he would prefer to keep around in some capacity. And local power and control has now become complete mayoral control as evidenced in the battle shaping up between Duggan and the duly elected Board of Police of Commissioners.

The Police Commission was created in 1974 by City Charter and approved by voters. In an era when cops were considered a brutal “occupying force,” the Charter vested broad supervisory authority and oversight over the Police Department. The five-member civilian Board, appointed by the mayor, was charged with review, evaluation and establishment of all Department policies, the budget, promotions, discipline, citizen complaints, etc.

Because the mayor appointed the commissioners, however, the Board tended to yield to his wishes. Past panels were primarily defined by their lack of decisiveness and unwillingness to address rank and file excesses and shortcomings among the police hierarchy.

Some tinkering around the edges was necessary to improve Police Department accountability. The 2012 City Charter amendment process mandated a Board comprised of 11 members – seven elected and four appointed by the mayor. The thinking was that this arrangement would give the commission more autonomy to act in the best interest of the people.

The imposition of the emergency manager introduced a completely alien dynamic to the process. Orr effectively cut the legs off the mayor, council and by extension, the police commission. The commission was prohibited from conducting a search to identify candidates; then-Mayor Dave Bing was not allowed to appoint a chief from a list of qualified applicants that was to be submitted by the Board of Police Commissioners. Through executive order, Orr forced Police Chief James Craig onto the department.

images-1Orr subsequently restored much of the power and authority of the mayor and council, reintroducing a limited self-governance. However, the duly elected Board of Police Commissioners was excluded from the jubilation that followed. The executive order that gave Chief Craig extraordinary and unprecedented authority to override the police commission’s Charter mandated responsibilities remains in place – apparently with Duggan’s blessing.

Chief Craig would not have been the first choice of the commission. And I have reason to believe he would not have been Duggan’s selection had the mayor been given a choice. Yet I’m told that the Duggan administration plans to place on the next citywide ballot a charter amendment that would render the commission impotent. Seems no police chief worth his or her salt would accept a job in Detroit if required to answer to a commission with such extraordinary powers.

The most recent Charter amendments were designed to ensure the commission would be an independent check on the mayor and the department. Under Orr’s executive order, there is no check on the mayor, or the police chief that reports to him. This arrangement seems to ignore the Department of Justice’s recent dismissal of a court-appointed federal monitor who had been in place since 2003. The DOJ action was a result of a long list of allegations that the rights of Detroit citizens, suspects and witnesses were violated over many years. Is civilian oversight no longer required?

Is Mayor Duggan being forthright or deceptive? Does he truly believe in the democratic process? Does this lofty ideal only have meaning during an election cycle — in the silly season of politics? Detroiters deserve to know.

In the meantime, like the mayor and the council, the Police Commission should be unchained.

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