An ex-Detroit police chief’s political hopes — and pending lawsuits

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Four outstanding lawsuits involving former Police Chief James Craig contend Detroit police responded to peaceful demonstrations with beatings, chokeholds and mass arrests. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Retired Detroit Police Chief James Craig is charming Republicans as he teases a potential run for Michigan governor. But as he touts his record against Black Lives Matter demonstrators last year, the jury is still out on whether his tactics encouraged Detroit police to routinely use excessive force. 

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There are four outstanding lawsuits involving Craig that contend Detroit police responded to peaceful demonstrations with beatings, chokeholds and mass arrests without probable cause. It’s too soon to tell whether the courts will agree with Craig or protestors and others who filed the legal actions against him, the City and specific police officers. So far, the most definitive actions taken by a federal judge haven’t gone in Craig’s favor.

Craig, who retired as Detroit police chief in June, claims his policies helped maintain peace in Detroit during last year’s protests. The protests began nationwide, including in Detroit, in late May 2020 following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The demonstrations were part of a major social movement that continues to shape debates about systemic injustice in seemingly every avenue of public life.

Craig takes pride in his decisions to use tear gas and other non-lethal weapons against demonstrators, along with other tactics. “I took a firm stand: We don’t retreat here in Detroit,” Craig told a Wall Street Journal editorial writer in a recent glowing profile.

Craig, who retired as police chief in June, is getting lavish attention from Republicans and  influential conservative media. This week on a national Fox News show, Craig said he will make an “important announcement” soon. Many expect him to challenge Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, in next year’s election. 

The former police chief often makes a distinction between peaceful protestors and a small number of people who were looking to incite violence and cause injury to law enforcement officers. 

Rulings haven’t gone in Craig’s favor so far 

Detroit police officers restrain Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Detroit police have since been banned from using chokeholds after excessive force lawsuits and a change in Board of Police Commissioners policy. (Photo courtesy of Adam J. Dewey)

There are four open legal cases in Detroit that name Craig and contend that his policies encouraged police to cross the line and use excessive force against non-violent demonstrators and others, including legal observers and a man who says he came to the aid of an injured protester. The lawsuits name Craig, the City of Detroit and specific officers as defendants. 

“This is not something to be proud of. … The City has been very aggressive and uncooperative so far,”  said Detroit attorney Solomon Radner, who represents Marlon Frazier, who says he was attacked and thrown to the ground by a Detroit police officer during a May 31 protest near Comerica Park. The officers put a knee on Frazier’s neck and back before he was wrongfully detained, the suit contends.

In most cases, the Detroit police are still conducting its own internal investigations, Lawrence Garcia, the City’s corporate counsel, said during a City Council committee meeting on July 7. 

Detroit Will Breathe’s legal victories 

The most high-profile case involves Detroit Will Breathe, the group that helped organize many of last year’s demonstrations. Several members of the group sued the City and Craig in August 2020. The case is ongoing

In September, a federal judge ruled in favor of Detroit Will Breathe and issued a temporary restraining order restricting police from using batons, shields, tear gas, rubber bullets, chokeholds and other tactics against peaceful protesters, legal observers and volunteers providing first aid. The judge later denied a request by the City and the police department to lift the order. 

The City, which included Craig as a plaintiff, counter-sued Detroit Will Breathe, alleging the protesters were part of a “civil conspiracy” and should be held collectively liable for acts of violence and vandalism. A judge tossed out the counter-suit in March. 

The larger issue of whether police used brutal tactics against demonstrators remains unresolved in the legal cases. 

City officials begin to distance themselves from Craig’s policies

This week, City Council soundly rejected a request to spend another $200,000 in taxpayer money to help defend Craig, the police department, and the City in three lawsuits stemming from last year’s demonstrations. 

Council voted 6-0 to deny a request by the City’s Law Department to hire the outside law firm Clark Hill to assist in the cases. Those who voted against it were Council President Brenda Jones, President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, members Janee Ayers, Raquel Casteñeda-Lopez, Roy McCalister and James Tate.  In January, the Council narrowly approved a $200,000 contract for Clark Hill to help defend the City in the Detroit Will Breathe case. 

This week, Mayor Mike Duggan generally praised Craig’s eight-year record as police chief. He also noted more progress needs to be made when it comes to community policing methods.

Speaking at the Detroit Policy Conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber, Duggan credited Craig for bolstering relations between police and community leaders that helped build trust. “He gave us something to build on,” Duggan said. 

“Chief Craig took us in the right direction,” during his years as police chief, Duggan said. “The next generation of police leadership will advance public safety even further.”

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