City administration fails to meet reform deadlines in reducing deadly force and cleaning up the deplorable conditions in the lock-ups
by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire, May 27, 2008
DETROIT--When New York City police were absolved of criminal culpability in the murder of Sean Bell, the continuing problems of law-enforcement misconduct and criminality gained nation-wide attention. In an obvious response to mass protests and condemnation of the acquittal of these cops, the New York City Police Department announced that there would be an internal investigation into the conduct of the officers who were found not guilty in a bench trial.
In subsequent weeks a videotaped beating of several African-American men by police in Philadelphia brought about the termination of some of the officers involved. Similar to the Rodney King incident of 1991, if there had been no videotaping of the beating, it is highly unlikely that any action would have been taken against these officers.
A trial in Atlanta involving another egregrious case of police terrorism, when a 92-year-old woman, Kathyrn Johnston, was gunned down by the police when they mistakenly raided her home in a purported search for illegal drugs. One of the officers connected to this killing plead guilty to perjury.
African-Americans, Latin@s, young people, LGBT communities and other oppressed groups in the United States know and understand the dangers of police brutality. In most cases, police are allowed to get away with blatant violations of the law when they insult, rob, assault, maim and kill people without provocation and walk free absent of any fear of prosecution or the loss of their jobs.
In the city of Detroit, police brutality has been important part of the repressive apparatus of the ruling class. In 1967, the community rose up in rebellion after police raided a private party being held for a soldier returning from Vietnam.
During the 1970s the ascendancy of the first African-American mayoral administration of Coleman A. Young (1974-1993) was in response to a mass struggle for the abolition of a racist police decoy unit known then as STRESS (Stop Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets). Young, a state senator in 1973, had been a left-wing labor organizer for the National Negro Labor Councils in the aftermath of World War II. He had been brought before the House Un-American Activities Committe during the early 1950s where he defied their attemtpted interogation and became a respected activist in the city.
Under the Young administration there was at least a perception that police brutality was on the decline. However, during the second black administration in the city under Dennis W. Archer (1994-2001), a more moderate political figure, there was a sharp rise in police killings of Detroit residents.
A Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality (DCAPB) was formed in 1996-1997. The organization documented acts of law-enforcement misconduct and brutality, held demonstrations outside police precincts and the main headquarters downtown. The DCAPB created an atmosphere where the City Council was forced to hold a public hearing on police misconduct in late 1997.
By 2000 the situation involving police-community relations became so outrageous that activists began to call for the resignation of Mayor Archer and the then police chief Benny Napoleon. That summer a deaf man, Errol Shaw, Sr., was shot down dead in front of his mother on the northwest side of the city while she pleaded for the white police officer to refrain from firing his weapon.
Failure of the Justice Department to enforce civil rights law
Several months later Mayor Archer announced that his administration would welcome a Justice Department investigation of the police department. Archer did not seek a third term in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was elected that year and in 2003 the Department of Justice announced its finding which indicated that there were serious violations of federal civil rights laws taking place through the operations of the Detroit Police Department in the areas of the use of lethal force and the deplorable conditions found in the city lock-ups.
Judge Julius Cook was appointed to enforce two federal consent decrees which mandated drastic reforms in the operations of the police department in Detroit. A private firm Kroll, Inc. was appointed to monitor the city's compliance over a five year period with what was required by the Justice Department. A motion to intervene in the monitoring process was filed by the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality in 2003, however, the motion was denied by Judge Cook.
Since 2003, the city has failed to implement the reforms mandated by the two federal consent decrees. Members of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality continue to emphasize that it will require a mass struggle against law-enforcement misconduct to effectively address the need for ending abusive behavior by local area cops.
Assessing the ongoing struggle to end police brutality
In a recent interview with Ron Scott and Sandra Hines, leaders of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, it was acknowledged that the federally-appointed monitor Kroll Associates, had not taken any effective action to force the local police department to finally resolve the issues uncovered by years of harassment, abuse, assault and murder.
Pointing to the successes of the DCAPB's work, the organization stated that there had been advancements made in mobilizing large numbers of people to fight police misconduct and terrorism. In addition, Scott and Hines stated that "we have broadened our political analysis, effectively utilized the mass media to increase awareness and consciousness about police brutality. Moreover, we have educated our constituency about the origins and character of police violence against people and that they have been effective in court monitoring, legislative advocacy and the pressuring of the local Board of Police Commissioners which is appointed by the Mayor."
The DCAPB representatives also stated that "we have defeated a City of Detroit panhandling ordinance, publicized the necessity of ending police chases that endanger peoples lives, defeated on a state level a legislative effort to impose the death penalty in Michigan, supported cab drivers' rights to equitable access to passengers in the city and to end police intimidation and harrassment of taxi drivers."
Hines and Scott went on to say that "the DCAPB challenged the Greektown Merchants Association downtown and their so-called 'Men-in-Black' private security guards who were actively engaged in assaulting the homeless population in the entertainment district. We have worked in conjunction with several organizations to establish a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness."
Through its weekly radio broadcast entitled "Fighting For Justice", which is heard over the local Air America affiliate on 1310 AM, WDTW, the DCAPB utilizes this access to the mass media to both inform the public about the ongoing problems of police terrorism and to effectively mobilize the public to fight law-enforcement, the city administration and the courts which provide no justice for the victims of this state sanctioned violence.
According to Ron Scott, "it is necessary for us to build a real parallel institution focusing on more research, discipline, and resource-gathering. We must balance the nationalization of policing with stronger organizational and political efforts which counter government agencies."
Scott and Hines concluded by emphasizing that "police and governmental agencies are responding by centralizing and transforming their approach. We must be smart and agile enough to respond and extend our program beyond what we have been able to achieve in the current situation."
Editor's Note: For more information on the activities of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, people locally can listen to the "Fighting for Justice" radio program every Sunday morning from 10:00-11:00 a.m. over WDTW, AM 1310. You can also write to the DCAPB at 220 Bagley Avenue, Suite 808, Detroit, MI 48226. In addition you can call 313.963.8116 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To read the quarterly reports of Kroll's monitoring of the Detroit Police Department's lack of compliance with the federal consent decrees just log on to the following URL: http://www.kroll.com/about/library/detroit/