The backlog of citizen complaints filed against Detroit police officers was supposed to be solved by the end of 2022, but officials now say that isn’t likely.
The Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) and the Office of the Chief Investigator (OCI) have been dealing with a backlog of citizen complaints since before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the investigation process in 2020.
In late July, the number of backlogged complaints – complaints that have been in the system for longer than 90 days without being resolved – was 779. At the time, Interim Chief Investigator Lawrence Akbar said the backlog would be down to zero by the end of this year.
But now, there are 438 complaints older than 90 days, and Akar said during a monthly Citizen Complaint Forum on Monday that he doesn’t believe the backlog will be resolved by the end of the year, as previously expected.
“My staff does put time into trying to close those old cases,” Akbar said Monday. “But we also are responsible for the incoming cases too, and we receive a lot of income cases so we’re attacking this situation from both sides.”
One of the biggest challenges to clearing the backlog has been the lack of staffing within OCI, which will have eight new investigators on Dec. 5. Akbar said it will take time to train the new staff and they therefore won’t have a large impact on closing out cases between their start date and the end of the year. No residents spoke about citizen complaints during Monday’s meeting.
Akbar said during Thursday’s BOPC meeting that he can’t give a timetable for when the backlog will be resolved, because his position as the interim chief investigator could be coming to an end next month.
“Considering the fact that I don’t know how much longer I’ll be sitting in this seat, it’s hard to say,” Akbar said. “Even with the speed that things are going, we’re working hard to get (the backlog) down as low as possible.”
Charles Raimi, deputy corporation counsel for the City of Detroit, recently issued a letter to BOPC and its staff calling for Akbar and Interim BOPC Secretary Melanie White to be replaced by Dec. 15, as their interim status in these positions violates the City Charter. If they aren’t replaced by then, Raimi’s letter said, both Akbar and White could be terminated.
The charter, Raimi noted, states that the individuals who fill the positions must have not worked for the city for three years before stepping into the roles. Akbar and White both worked from the city before taking their respective positions.
Raimi first informed the board of the charter violations in April, then in October sent the letter regarding the potential firings of Akbar and White. The board has been holding interviews for both positions for the past month, marking the third time it has held interviews to permanently fill the posts since 2020.
Another big issue for OCI is the high number of citizen complaints that are continuing to come in. There were 1,075 citizen complaints filed against DPD officers between January and October, according to Akbar.
OCI and the citizen complaint review process has been questioned by police commissioners multiple times. Commissioner Ricardo Moore, who represents District 7, said he believes the entire complaint investigation process needs to be audited by an outside entity.
“We need to make sure … that investigators are really investigating what citizens are claiming instead of rubber stamping cases through,” Moore told BridgeDetroit on Monday.
Moore was the chair of the Citizen Complaint Committee for BOPC until Board Chair Bryan Ferguson removed him in August. The decision from Ferguson came a few weeks after Moore publicly expressed concern for how OCI was handling the backlogged complaints.
“This (backlog) comes from not producing a public plan of action,” Moore said. “See, when you provide a plan of action publicly, the whole world can see it, scrutinize it and provide better checks and balances. But that’s not what happened.”
Moore questions whether cases are being handled carefully enough amid the push to clear the backlog, which was as high as 850 cases earlier this year. Moore said he would ask questions about complaints or ask for more detail from OCI investigators, but instead of getting the information he requested, the cases were assigned to District 4 Commissioner Willie Bell.
Commissioner Linda Bernard, who represents District 2, told BridgeDetroit in September that she’d had a similar experience. Bernard said when she asked OCI for more detail on complaint cases that were assigned to her, those cases would instead be given to Commissioner Willie Bell for approval.
“When I ask for more clarification on a complaint, I’m not doing it be nasty, I just want more information so I can figure out how it should be handled,” Bernard said. “But instead of getting me the stuff I asked for, they just reassigned the cases to Bell.”
Bell told BridgeDetroit Monday that Bernard and Moore’s criticism is “not accurate.” He said the cases were handed to him because other commissioners “take too long to get the cases back to OCI.” Bell said the citizen complaint backlog will likely remain because the volume of complaints is greater than the staffing at OCI and BOPC.
“We don’t turn people away in terms of filing a complaint,” Bell said. “So with the way policing is right now in this country, people will exercise their right to complain and then we will take it seriously and investigate it when they do.”
Bell said he’s optimistic that the complaint caseload can be managed in the first six months of 2023, thanks in large part to increased staffing at OCI. Bell, who was a DPD officer for over 30 years, has previously downplayed the significance of the backlog and the severity of many of the complaints citizens launched against the police department saying many of the complaints “don’t really impact one’s life.”