Detroit police board chair assures ‘transparency’ amid investigations 

The chair of the city’s police oversight board is assuring the community “accountability and transparency” amid multiple investigations and the seizure of citizen complaint records. 

Bryan Ferguson, chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, issued a statement noting that the board and its staff are under investigation by the city’s Office of the Auditor General, Office of Inspector General, the Detroit Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit and the current board and staff leadership.

“Some or all of these investigations were initiated because of inconsistencies discovered by

Commissioners and/or Staff members who recognize the importance of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility in our service to the community,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson, who also read the statement in its entirety during Thursday’s BOPC meeting, said that the board and its staff are committed to being “fully cooperative” with the investigations. 

“Staff will continue to be given the opportunity for due process,” he added, “and, if warranted, any appropriate discipline will be brought before the full Board for determination after the conclusion of the investigations.”

Commissioner Ricardo Moore confirmed to BridgeDetroit Thursday two staff members are on administrative leave to preserve evidence during the course of the investigations. He declined to identify the staffers. 

The situation, he said, is “a huge distraction to public trust” and to the board’s primary mission.

“The police need oversight. We have to provide the oversight. It’s just two dysfunctional entities going through the motions,” Moore said. “Eventually this will come to an end. I’m just concerned that federal oversight might be part of the equation.”

A backlog of hundreds of citizen complaints against Detroit police officers has been an ongoing concern for the board since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials with the Office of the Chief Investigator (OCI) – the investigative staff for the police board –  had vowed to resolve it by the close of 2022, but that goal fell short. 

Last July, the number of backlogged complaints – complaints that had been in the system for longer than 90 days without being resolved – was 779. At the time, Interim Chief Investigator Lawrence Akbar had projected that the backlog would be down to zero by the end of last year. 

Last month, there were just over 300 cases older than 90 days remaining. On Thursday, board officials noted that of an overall 502 open complaints, 295 were older than 90 days. 

“Our cornerstone issue is citizen complaints,” Moore said.  “We’re drowning in that area and we need help.”

The office of Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha seized closed complaint files last month from the OCI. In a Feb. 23 letter, Ha notified the board that it had taken the records through a subpoena.

The inspector general is empowered under Detroit’s City Charter to subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence related to matters under investigation. 

The records remain in the custody of the OIG. Ha’s letter notes that the records will be returned at the conclusion of the investigation of the BOPC and/or the OCI unless otherwise determined, or if the records are required to be turned over by law to another party. 

Ha’s letter notes the OIG is “bound by confidentiality” and “Therefore, as this OIG investigation is currently open, we are not able to answer any questions your honorable body may have pertaining to the seizure of the OCI records or the substantive nature of our investigation.”

The Detroit Police Department confirmed Thursday that its internal affairs office is investigating, but declined to give specifics, noting the department does not comment on open investigations. 

William Davis, a former member of the police board, argued during public comment Thursday that BOPC members are “turning a blind eye” to what’s going on with BOPC and its staff. 

“I’ve been raising a number of concerns,” Davis told the commissioners. “We need to turn the table and start doing what the public wants y’all to do. Stop being so opaque and start being transparent. There’s corruption going on. The corruption is sitting at that table.”

Resident and activist Brenda Hill told the board that it needs to be above reproach. 

“There are issues on this board and you all continue to act like you’re getting it right and you’re not getting it right. People are being investigated … you’re not transparent about that,” Hill said. “Week after week, I go away not feeling secure in ya’ll abilities and that should not be there.”

Ferguson said Thursday that the circumstances are “difficult” and that he knew serving on the board would be a “herculean task.” He responded to the critics saying, “I’m a big guy, I can handle it.”

“We’re trying to do this right,” Ferguson told the public. “ I’m trying to get this trust back.”

The board has moved quickly to get new staffers in place to avoid legal problems and contain the backlog. 

Akbar and interim secretary Melanie White served three years before the city’s Law Department urged the board to find full-time replacements for the pair, noting that their continued tenure was a violation of the City Charter. 

Both Akbar and White stepped down from their interim roles before the close of 2022 and had resumed their former jobs with the board and OCI, respectively, BOPC officials said last month.

The board voted in recent weeks to offer the secretary position to Victoria Shah, a former candidate for the commission’s District 7, and the chief investigator job to Jerome Warfield Sr., a west side pastor and former police board commissioner. Warfield’s hiring was never finalized after the BOPC and Warfield “couldn’t come to terms on the salary negotiations,” Ferguson said during a recent budget hearing with Detroit’s City Council. 

The board on Thursday voted to instead offer the chief investigator position to Courtney Blakes. 

Commissioner QuanTez Pressley told BridgeDetroit Thursday that he’s looking for a speedy resolution to the investigations so the board can get back to handling the people’s business. 

“The Office of Chief Investigator is supposed to be helping us manage citizen complaints and right now we can’t do our work,” he said. 

Ferguson said that the board will continue to operate in the best interest of Detroiters by taking steps “to maintain the security and integrity of all documentation and potential evidence.” That process, he said, includes limiting and/or removing certain staff members’ access to the offices of the board and of the chief investigator as well as citizen complaint records, personnel records, or operational systems based on perceived or actual risk.

“We appreciate the community’s patience and support as the Board and Staff go through the growing pains of improving transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility in order to provide the civilian oversight that Detroiters deserve,” Ferguson’s statement reads. “A full report will be made available to the community upon the completion of the investigations.”

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