James White was named incoming interim police chief this week. White spent 24 years with the Detroit Police Department and recently served as the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. (City of Detroit photo)

Last week, Detroit Police Chief James Craig announced that he will retire June 1 after spending the last eight years leading Detroit’s police department. On Monday, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the appointment of former Detroit Assistant Chief James White to the position of interim chief. 

Here’s a few things Detroiters should know about James White.

White is a Detroiter who has an understanding of trauma and loss.

White was born in Detroit and spent his entire career in law enforcement until last August, when he left to lead Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights. White, who was raised by a single mother who had him when she was a teenager, grew up in the historic Boston-Edison neighborhood in a house with his grandmother and 11 of his aunts and uncles.

One of White’s uncles, who he said was like a father figure to him, was killed by gun violence when he was young. He discussed his upbringing at this week’s press conference. He also said that loss made him empathetic and able to recognize trauma. He also said he never forgot the experience of seeing the police deliver the bad news to his grandmother. 

White is a leader with a civil rights and community relations background. 

At the state, where he was charged with investigating instances of discrimination, White led more than 80 people and managed a $16 million budget, according to an online bio

White was selected by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission because of his background in “reforming police operations and improving community relations,” according to an August 2020 press statement. In the police department, White was first named an officer of internal controls, but eventually became a deputy police chief in 2013.

White helped lead the department’s decade-long effort to comply with a federal consent decree, which involved orchestrating oversight and policymaking for the Detroit Police Department’s Civil Rights Integrity Bureau. White also briefly led DPD while Chief Craig and other department leaders were out with COVID-19. 

Duggan said his leadership skills made him a desirable candidate.

“We needed somebody to step up and Assistant Chief James White stepped in and took the lead and said, ‘I’m going to handle this,’” Duggan said. 

Mental health training guides his work.

White said during the press conference that his understanding of mental health “absolutely informs everything” he does. 

“I became a mental health counselor because of how I dealt with the tragic loss in my family, but also how I see the tragedy around our community and how people are struggling, struggling with trauma, and the loss of people,” White said. 

White is a graduate of Wayne County Community College, Wayne State University, and Central Michigan University, where he earned a master’s in mental health counseling. 

Fifth District Police Commissioner Willie Burton believes White’s mental health background could prove to be useful in guiding the department forward.

“Having someone like (White) as chief means officers could have more support as far as talking about the things they experience on the job, and they could even consider having social workers go out with them to handle situations where someone might be having a mental health crisis,” Burton said. 

Most of police board commissioners believe that White is a good choice.

Aside from Commissioner Willie Burton, the Board of Commissioners has mostly praised White’s track record since Monday’s press conference. Commissioner Willie Bell, who serves as chairman of the board, says he was impressed with the way White stepped up in Chief Craig’s absence last year due to COVID-19. 

“He’s always been a professional (and) a straight shooter with board members. I have worked with him for almost eight years, so I know him well, and he’s an outstanding selection,” Bell said. 

Commissioner William Davis, who represents the Seventh District, is excited to have White in the role. 

“Mr. White needs to come in ready to start working because we do have a major crime problem in Detroit,” Davis said. 

It’s not a done deal. 

Last week, the Board of Police Commissioners moved to select a search firm to fill the Detroit police chief position. In accordance with the city charter, the board will identify candidates, but Mayor Duggan will select the permanent chief, with City Council approval.

Commissioner Bell said the charter-mandated process could take “two to three months, maybe longer.” 

White will not be the only candidate under consideration. 

Commissioner Burton said the position could go to another candidate like Assistant Chief Todd Bettison, Assistant Chief David LeValley, Deputy Chief Mark Bliss or another officer in the department. It could also go to someone who isn’t in Detroit right now.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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