The police commission charade


Detroit’s tide of crime and violence fuels the belief that the guardians of the law are reluctant to move against police mismanagement and misconduct.

While fingers usually get pointed at the police chief or the mayor, it is important to remember that technically, neither is directly responsible for police department policy or oversight.  That’s the duty of the largely invisible Detroit Police Commission, now charged with recommending a replacement for discredited former Chief Ralph Godbee Jr.

Good luck with that!

Commission involvement in the selection process is nothing less than a charade. But then, a charade is all the commission has been.

The five-member civilian Board of Police Commissioners was established under the 1974 City Charter following allegations that police were an “occupying army” that brutalized the public, according to critics of the time.

Commission members, appointed by the mayor, were subsequently charged with establishing a budget, writing rules and regulations, overseeing discipline, resolving citizen complaints and guarding the public interest. They were supposed to be the final authority that made the department more accountable. But the record shows that Commission oversight has more often been inconspicuous than apparent.

The idea of having a civilian panel over the police is supported by different constituencies, albeit for different reasons. Some groups are drawn to the idea because it seems to “depoliticize” the police. City officials like the political cover the commission provides when things go wrong, namely allowing City Hall to quietly exert control behind the scenes.

The experience of Detroit’s police commission shows why such panels usually fail: institutional models created under the guise of being independent tend to shatter when they come face to face with the gritty realities of crime and politics.

Evidence of the commission fiddling while the city explodes is too numerous to mention. It dispassionately fails to protect citizens and assure them of reasonably safe streets and secure homes, or to provide solutions to Detroit’s permanent position at or near the top of the list of major cities in the number of murders. The rates of robbery, rape and aggravated assault show no statistically significant decline since the establishment of the panel.

Nor is expertise exhibited in providing accountability among department brass, or restructuring the department to strategically put cops where crime is happening. A reorganization plan to get more officers from behind desks and on the street is nonexistent.

Neither the chief nor the police commission came up with preventative measures to check or root out renegade cops who give the department a bad name. Recent sexual misconduct allegations add to an already tainted image of a police force run amok.

If anything, corruption, mismanagement and unchecked authority are worse than ever. When police are found culpable, it is almost always by the courts rather than the commission. But then, having the police commission investigate its own command doesn’t lend to public credibility.

So members of this useless authority end up as powerless whipping boys for the mayor and department brass. Their main mission is to stay out of the way when decisions are made. The body should have been abolished with the last round of charter commission revisions.

The mayor, an elected official, should appoint the police chief directly and be responsible to the voters for the consequences, rather than indirectly through a panel of faceless time-servers behind whom he can hide when things don’t go right. The mayor’s ability to remove commissioners without cause, which limits their independence –is the ultimate charade.

The real casualties are the people of Detroit who are denied assurance that the police commission is working in their best interest. And in a city where crime is high and public trust low, Detroiters can’t be confident that a laughable police commission selection process for a new chief will make a difference.

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