HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Police Administration/
Internal Affairs

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The five-member civilian Board of Police Commissioners oversees the nearly 4,100-person police department. Its members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council and serve five-year terms. The board has been criticized in the past for not acting independently of the police department. Said former City Councilman Keith Butler of the commission, during the uproar caused by the Green incident, "It has not acted as an independent commission. They are supposed to watch out for citizens, not be a rubber stamp for the mayor and police department."35

As with many internal affairs divisions, the Detroit IAD does not provide much information to the public about its operations or investigations. An IADrepresentative told Human Rights Watch that there are no standardized complaint forms, and the number or type of complaints investigated by IAD are not published. But he did claim a 40 percent sustained rate on complaints handled by IAD.36 Since no information is provided, there is no way to verify this claim, nor to isolate the sustained rate on excessive force complaints, since the IAD's overall sustained rate includes theft, drug, and other corruption investigations that are typically sustained at a much higher rate than excessive force cases.

The IAD representative confirmed that OCI often has no knowledge of IAD investigations. Furthermore, he stated that IAD does not have access to OCI records on past abuse complaints (nor does OCI have access to IAD data), meaning that significant information about an officer's past misconduct complaints may not be known to investigators.

If a complaint is sustained, we were told, there are internal disciplinary hearings; no civilians are involved, except for an attorney to represent the accused officer. IAD does not recommend disciplinary sanctions, said the IAD representative; these are handled entirely by the chief of police.37 In late 1997, the police department created a computer tracking system to identify officers who are repeatedly the subjects of civil lawsuits or citizen complaints.38 Prior to this development, IAD did not have a real tracking system, but maintained "cards" on allegations to look for patterns; it was a judgment call as to whether an officer required attention.39

Prior to January 1994, there was a special team to monitor incidents of firearms discharges, but it is now defunct. Only the police homicide division now investigates shootings by police.

A ride-along by Human Rights Watch with two Detroit police officers was instructive regarding officers' attitude about misconduct charges.40 The two officers were from the 1st Precinct, which covers the downtown area; one of the officers was a man and white, the other a woman and African-American.41 The male officer toldHuman Rights Watch that he believed police do not receive enough respect and that citizens have too many rights. He stated that the Malice Green case was a "travesty" - not the alleged abuse, but the way it was handled in court.

The woman officer told of a colleague (also female) who, having witnessed abuse by a fellow officer, was prepared to testify against him at a disciplinary hearing; she was taken off the witness list when superiors learned of her intent. Both officers said that there is a lot of favoritism, so that whether or not you get punished or dismissed for misconduct has more to do with your connections than with the seriousness of the alleged abuse. The woman officer did say that if she sees another officer out of control and becoming abusive, she calls for a sergeant.

35 Zachare Ball and David Ashenfelter, "Detroit police board faulted," Detroit Free Press, November 21, 1992.

36 Telephone interview with Lt. Williams, August 16, 1995.

37 The Board of Police Commissioners is the final authority in disciplinary matters.

38 David Migoya, "Police computer will track complaints against officers," Detroit Free Press, September 6, 1997.

39 Telephone interview with Lt. Williams, August 16, 1995.

40 Ride-along, August 16, 1995.

41 The force is divided almost equally between whites and African-Americans.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch