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In Detroit, Oversight of Police Is Welcomed

Two consent decrees are seen as giving the city's leaders 'political cover' to clean up department.

July 05, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The police officer known as "Robocop" has been sued at least four times for excessive use of force, cost the city more than $1 million in legal settlements and received more citizen complaints than any other in the city. Another officer has shot at suspects nine times in 10 years on the job, killing three and wounding several others.

Federal investigators had obvious places to start when they launched their inquiry into the Detroit Police Department at the end of 2000. Few knew how long the investigation would last or how deep it would delve.

The process so far has resulted in two of the most sweeping consent decrees in the nation. In June, the city agreed with the U.S. attorney's office here to bring in an outside monitor for at least five years and to overhaul almost every unit in the department, as well as scores of policies and procedures.

But the probe isn't over yet.

A week after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick agreed to improve everything from the way the department investigates officer-involved shootings to the food it serves detainees -- typically bologna on two slices of white bread, every eight hours -- U.S. Atty. Jeffrey Collins on June 19 indicted 17 officers for allegedly waging a private war on residents whom they deemed undesirable.

The group, allegedly headed by William "Robocop" Melendez, is accused of stealing guns, money and drugs from suspects, planting weapons and breaking into homes without search warrants, among other crimes. All 17 have pleaded not guilty.

More indictments, local and federal authorities say, are on the way.

Unlike Los Angeles and several other jurisdictions, where federal monitors arrived to very cold welcomes, Kilpatrick and Police Chief Jerry Oliver have publicly welcomed oversight of the department.

"Detroit will never be a major player until the police department is a major, respected police department in this country," Oliver said at a news conference announcing the decrees. "There will never be a renaissance here without it."

Many believe Detroit's best-intentioned public officials could not retool the 4,000-person department without help and pressure from the outside.

"Detroit politics is ossified -- it's hard to make changes through the normal political process. This consent decree is so deep it gives city leaders political cover," said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and a former federal prosecutor. "They can say, 'I have to do this, there's a court order.' How often do you see an investigation that says your police department is in almost complete disrepair, and the mayor and police chief say thank you?"

A decade after then-Police Chief William Hart was convicted of looting a secret police fund and sent to federal prison, most officers seem to agree that the department -- not unlike the city itself -- long has been in decay. Detroit lost 1 million residents, half its population, between 1950 and 2000, and the long-sought renaissance to which Oliver referred has thus far been limited to a small section of downtown.

Officers face some of the highest violent-crime levels in the nation, according to FBI statistics, while their colleagues in adjacent suburbs face some of the lowest.

As the scope of the consent agreement has become clear -- it will cost the city tens of millions of dollars to comply with -- and with prosecutors pledging more investigations, police supporters have begun railing against the U.S. attorney's office. And officers are blasting Oliver, whom Kilpatrick brought in last year to clean house.

Even as Oliver was praising the consent decrees, the police union was preparing a series of ads that accuse the new chief of not supporting his officers.

It was in December 2000 that then-Mayor Dennis W. Archer asked federal authorities to investigate the department amid a growing outcry over a series of controversial shootings and long-running allegations that some officers routinely stole from and abused suspects.

Investigators found a number of officers who have remained on the force and continued to be promoted despite their involvement in controversial shootings, drunken brawls or allegedly illegal detentions of suspects, federal documents show. They also discovered an internal department investigative and discipline system so erratic that officers accused of wrongdoing have worked as long as two years before being summoned before a hearings board.

As for Eugene Brown, the officer who shot at suspects nine times in 10 years on the job, he was cleared of wrongdoing each time by internal investigators. Later, a special investigator for the department recommended he face criminal charges, but that has not happened. Brown has sued the city over not being promoted to sergeant.

Among nearly 200 fundamental changes listed in the consent decrees is an order for the city to implement a computer database to track disciplinary problems, a type of system now common in most major cities.

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