The People's Police Department 

Why federal consent decrees are working in Detroit, but not in Oakland.

Page 2 of 6

That officer's name was Eugene Brown. Between 1991 and 2003, he cost the City of Detroit $7.5 million in lawsuits. Most of that money stemmed from nine shootings he was involved in, three of which were fatal. Despite his frequent use of lethal force, Brown was cleared of wrongdoing by internal police investigations in all instances.

David Robinson, a former Detroit cop who's now an attorney, said the department's protection of Brown was not out of the ordinary. "The average investigator would never throw an officer to the wolves unless there was some impartial evidence," he said. "Police investigators have always seen things through blue spectacles."

By 2000, community frustration with police had boiled over again. Police watchdog groups formed, activists staged strikes, and there was strong pressure to remove then-Police Chief Benny Napoleon, who regularly defended the department's "shoot to kill" policy.

Eventually, the US Department of Justice conducted what's known as a "pattern or practice" investigation of Detroit police. The DOJ found Detroit PD to be in violation of numerous laws. Most shocking was the state of the city's holding cells.

Between 1990 and 2000, numerous inmates died of drug withdrawals, heart attacks, diabetic comas, and myriad other health issues. In many instances, inmate bodies were found in a full state of rigor mortis — meaning they had been dead for at least four to six hours before being discovered. "For years and years," Robinson said, "Detroit's lock-up was tantamount to a torture chamber."

The sheer ineptitude of Detroit PD forced the Department of Justice to write two separate federal consent decrees. These legal agreements, signed by the City of Detroit, deal with police use-of-force issues and address the deadly conditions in the city's holding cells. Much like Oakland, federal monitors and a federal judge oversee Detroit PD's progress in implementing the reforms. The decrees themselves promised to make "a significant impact on the way business is conducted."

But it would be a long time before tangible impacts emerged.

When Detroit signed its two federal consent decrees in 2004, the city was led by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The city had a projected $389 million budget shortfall over three years, and Kilpatrick promised to "lead Detroit out of the desert."

But while many saw hope in his leadership, Kilpatrick turned out to be a far cry from the city's savior. Only one year into his term, Time magazine named him one of the three worst mayors in the nation.

In 2008, Kilpatrick was charged with numerous felonies for assaulting and obstructing a police officer and lying under oath about an affair he had with Sheryl Robinson Wood, who was the then-head monitor overseeing Detroit PD's reforms. After pleading guilty to perjury, Kilpatrick was forced to resign. In 2010, he was also indicted on 31 counts of criminal racketeering. It was revealed that he and two top aides had run a crime ring built on bribery, extortion, and fraud.

During Kilpatrick's corrupt and incompetent tenure as mayor, Detroit PD made dismal progress on the consent decrees — even worse than Oakland. By 2010 — seven years and one extension into the process — Detroit had only completed 29 percent of the tasks outlined in the decrees.

The police force also continued to cost the city. Lawsuit payouts stemming from police misconduct between July 2006 and June 2009 totaled $19.1 million.

However, after Kilpatrick's resignation, things took an unexpected turn. In 2009, Detroit PD was put under the guidance of a new monitoring team, Police Performance Solutions, with Warshaw as the primary overseer.

Along with new federal monitors came an entirely new administration. NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing was elected mayor and Godbee became police chief. Godbee immediately brought a fresh outlook on crime and policing in the Motor City, refusing to bow down to pressures to "get tough on crime." Instead, he's focused much of his energy on building a new type of police culture and fully embraced the consent-decree reforms.

Detroit PD, as a result, has made enormous progress. Today, the department is 85 percent compliant — an increase of 56 percentage points in just two and a half years. The department is also expected to emerge from the federal oversight process before the end of this year.  

In an April 2012 report, Warshaw attributed Detroit PD's rapid improvement to Godbee's success in not only recording technical compliance with the reforms, but "understanding the substantive meaning behind those requirements and by embracing the opportunities they present for improving the quality of policing in Detroit."

Godbee, in essence, viewed the consent decrees not as a hindrance or a big list of things to do, but as an opportunity to create a more effective police department — one that was much more responsive to the community and thus was better at fighting crime.

From 1995 to 2000, Oakland averaged just under 7,000 violent crimes a year, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the country — although not as dangerous as Detroit. When he took office in 1999, then-Mayor Jerry Brown promised to reduce violent crime by 20 percent.  Shortly thereafter, Brown named Richard Word, an inexperienced police captain, to be the department's police chief. Some longtime police observers in Oakland say that Brown and then-City Manager Robert Bobb instructed Word to take an aggressive, no-holds barred approach to crime, which came as a relief to many residents who felt besieged by violence.

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