Detroit police board to get major shakeup this fall

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Detroit voters created the Board of Police Commissioners in the 1970s to provide oversight on city policing. (Screenshot from Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting)

The filing deadline to run for office in the city of Detroit was in April, so residents now know who will be running for mayor, City Council and the Board of Police Commissioners, which is the city’s civilian oversight body that supervises the Detroit Police Department. The board, which was authorized by the City Charter in 1974, is responsible for holding the police department accountable. 

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The board’s significance was highlighted last summer, when the police department, along with law enforcement agencies across the country, faced scrutiny following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Residents in many cities, including Detroit, are demanding new levels of accountability in policing. 

That board will have at least three new faces come Jan. 1, 2022, because Commissioners Darryl Brown, Shirley Burch and William Davis have all declined to seek re-election. 

The eleven member board is made up of seven elected representatives and four at-large positions.

Current police commissioners include Linda Bernard, Willie Bell, Willie Burton, Lisa Carter, Martin Jones, Jesus Hernandez, Annie Holt and the Rev. Jim Holley. The board’s website includes their respective districts and a brief bio for each. 

Commissioner Davis, who represents the city’s seventh district, was elected to the board in 2017. Davis said he decided not to run for a second term on the board because of “board politics.”

“As long as you have appointed commissioners and former law enforcement as a voting bloc, I don’t see any reason for me to stay,” Davis said. 

Davis has been critical of the board’s use of appointed commissioners and former law enforcement because he thinks they will always take the side of the police department. 

“How can we have true civilian oversight of the police with former police on the board? I just don’t think it should be allowed,” he said. 

Davis also doesn’t believe appointed commissioners provide a check on police authority. Appointed seats include the four at-large board members: Annie Holt, Jesus Hernandez, Jim Holley and Martin Jones. 

Appointed commissioners are selected by the mayor, not elected by voters, which Davis sees as a problem.  According to the charter, city council approves the mayor’s selections.

Commissioner Bell, who is a retired Detroit police officer, represents the fourth district. Bell was elected and has filed to run for a third term on the board. 

Bell believes his time as a police officer is an asset to the board. He compared it to boards that have oversight of legal, medial and education professionals. 

“The overriding body is normally made up of individuals who are highly qualified, who have been in the legal, medical or education field. They are no lay people in those areas who judge other lawyers and doctors and educators. So why would policing be any different from any other endeavors?” Bell told BridgeDetroit. 

Instead of running for re-election on BOPC, Davis has filed to run for the District 7 City Council seat this year; that seat is currently open following Gabe Leland’s resignation and decision not to seek re-election. 

Commissioner Brown, who represents the first district and is also running for City Council, disagrees with Davis. He, like Bell, believes law enforcement experience is an asset. 

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to have law enforcement experience. It helps the rest of us on the board better understand what it is that officers are seeing on the streets and what they are going through,” Brown said. 

Brown, who was elected to the board in 2017, says he ran for the police commission seat because he wanted a new way to serve his community. 

“If you look at my resume, it speaks of serving and service to my constituents, so when I first ran, I was looking at how else could I be useful to the community,” he said. 

Brown is a retired Detroit firefighter and the former regional director for the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters. Before he decided to run, he noticed a lot of Detroiters had questions and complaints about the police. He figured, “Well, I can get those questions answered.”

“After looking through all of these different things we’ve done since I joined the board, I see that a lot of things are just a miscommunication between the police department and the community,” he said. 

Brown says voters should be looking for commissioners who have a “strong sense of community.”

“If you don’t really want to help the community or help residents and police get along better, why would you run for this board? That’s just bad for everybody,” he said. 

Commissioner Burch, who represents the third district, also was elected to the board in 2017. 

“My focus is and always has been on serving the third district, so I did my tenure of four years, and now it’s time for me to go back to helping the third district at a different level,” Burch said, explaining his decision not to seek re-election.

Burch admits that she wasn’t fully aware of the responsibilities of a police commissioner until 2015, only two years before she ran for a board seat. Burch says she first ran because some of her constituents claim the former third district commissioner wasn’t a “visible presence” in the community. 

“So I ran because I wanted people who live in my district to come to meetings and see someone they knew, someone they could actually get in touch with when they were having a problem with police,” she said. 

Like Brown, Burch thinks having a commitment to the community ought to be the top priority for all elected officials. 

“A lot of people who don’t tune into (BOPC) meetings every week don’t even know who their commissioner is, and that’s a problem. That’s something voters should be looking at, who on the ticket do they actually recognize?” she said.

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