To address complaints and encourage more resident participation, Detroit’s police oversight board is allowing public comment earlier during its weekly meetings.
The “trial period,” moving public comment from the end to the top of the meeting, went into effect Thursday after being initiated by Bryan Ferguson, the new chairman for the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. Ferguson, who represents District 1, said the board agreed to the temporary change after residents raised issues with waiting until the close of the lengthy meetings to engage with commissioners and police administration about their concerns.
“When we did our last community meeting, people said they wanted to move it up,” Ferguson said, “so I figured why not try it a different way and see what people think.”
The board’s Thursday meetings start at 3 p.m. and typically end after 5 p.m. Ferguson said the format will remain in place over the next few weeks. The board will then get feedback from residents and decide to go with “whatever the majority wants.”
“If the majority (of residents) say they want to keep (public comment) at the start, fine, because what I noticed (Thursday), I got different people calling in and that’s what I want,” he said. “I want to hear from different people.”
Victoria Shah, a Detroit resident who lives on the city’s west side, regularly attends BOPC meetings and said she’s glad that the board is moving public comment earlier in the meeting.
“We’ll see if the community prefers the end, the beginning or some other placement of the public comments, but regardless of where we land with that, this does send a message that the board is listening to the public and taking public requests and recommendations seriously,” Shah said.
One benefit to doing comments earlier, Shah said, is that more police department officials are able to hear from Detroiters.
“It gives (Police Chief James White) an opportunity to be present for the public comments, which is great, because I know sometimes he has to leave the meetings early for his responsibility. So this may work out really well,” she said.
Detroiter Bernice Smith is frequently the first person to speak at BOPC meetings. Smith said she doesn’t care if she gets to speak at the beginning of meetings or the end.
“To me, it doesn’t make that much of a difference because I’m gonna be here regardless,” Smith said. “The only thing is now I gotta get to the meeting earlier to make sure I get my comments heard.”
With the public comments now being heard earlier, residents must let the board staff know that they intend to make a comment by a 3:30 p.m. cutoff to be recognized.
William Davis, a former police commissioner and active participant during public comment, said he hopes that will change.
“We do not want people to be rushing to the meeting and not being able to speak,” he said, “because a number of people have a number of concerns about what’s going on with this board.”
Davis added he’s skeptical of the board’s motivation to move public comments to the beginning of the meeting, even if he is in favor of the decision.
“Is this an attempt to lessen the number of people able to do it because it’s difficult for some people to get there before 3:30,” he said at a BOPC meeting last month.
While there are usually about a dozen public commenters during BOPC meetings, there were only seven on Thursday.
Commissioner Willie Burton, who represents District 5, has tried several times to extend the public comment time. Burton has sought to boost the current two minutes allotted by an additional minute. Over the past 18 months, he’s also fought for an additional 30 seconds for each public comment and for 20 seconds.
Each time Burton has introduced motions to extend the time given to residents to make their comments, they have either failed to be seconded by a fellow commissioner or did not secure enough votes to pass.
“I just think that with some residents having speech problems, or sometimes internet connectivity issues with the Zoom call, we should be giving people more time to make their comments,” Burton told BridgeDetroit last month.
Ferguson is interested in hearing when residents prefer to provide comments and why. He is encouraging continued comments during weekly meetings or asking residents to call the BOPC office to give their opinions on the placement of public comment in meetings. Residents can reach the BOPC office by calling (313) 596-1830 or by emailing email@example.com.