The Board of Police Commissioners has been grappling with a growing backlog of citizen complaints for more than a year and officials say staffing losses induced by the COVID-19 pandemic are to blame.
As of this month, more than 780 non-criminal complaints made by residents to the Office of the Chief Investigator over police procedure, force, harassment, searches and arrests have yet to be resolved. Complaints that allege criminal conduct by an officer are handled by Detroit Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs.
Some residents say the backlog is hurting their confidence in the oversight board’s ability to hold the police department accountable and board members are divided on whether enough is being done to address the problem.
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“If their whole job is to protect and serve people, the people need to be able to tell somebody when the police are doing them dirty,” said James Miller, a 67-year resident of Detroit.
Miller said he’s mainly had positive interactions with Detroit police, but knows they can be “brutal” sometimes. The backlog, he said, means fewer citizens are being heard.
“The more these complaints are looked at and investigated, the more people can actually hold the police accountable for the stuff they do and say on the streets,” he said.
The Office of the Chief investigator reports to the police commission, Detroit’s civilian oversight board for Detroit’s Police Department. The BOPC was implemented in 1974 under former Mayor Coleman Young after Detroit residents voted to add it to the City Charter.
Lawrence Akbar, the board’s interim chief investigator, has said his office has had a problem filling out its staff of investigators since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
The OCI lost eight investigators in 2021. During a March 21 budget hearing in front of Detroit’s City Council, interim board secretary Melanie White said the OCI had 12 vacancies as of Feb. 28, but has since filled seven of those positions. Overall, the office has 15 to 16 investigators, White told council members.
On Friday, Akbar told BridgeDetroit the OCI has 10 investigators and it hired another seven who are going through the city’s human resources process. Akbar couldn’t say Friday how many investigators would be needed to resolve the backlog.
The Rev. Jim Holley, the BOPC chairman, has spoken about ways to solve the backlog during commission meetings. Holley said the additional investigators will help ease the caseload each investigator is facing.
“Another thing that will help is more overtime hours for the investigators,” Holley said. “That way we can get more cases handled more quickly.”
The board already approved additional overtime hours for investigators. Holley expects the backlog will be resolved sometime in September, but not everyone thinks that’s realistic.
Commissioner Linda Bernard, who represents Detroit’s District 2, said the assertion that the backlog will be resolved this year is “ridiculous.”
“We’re spending money on the problem, but we’re not making, in my opinion, the strategic progress that is appropriate for what we’re spending,” Bernard said.
Each investigator the board hires for OCI costs about $100,000 a year between salary and benefits, according to Bernard. Instead, she said, the board should hire an outside firm to evaluate whether the BOPC and OCI’s handling of citizen complaints is having an impact.
“We’re stuck in doing things the way we’ve always done them and that’s distressing to me because I’m all about continuous improvement,” she said.
Bernard said she also wants an independent review of the type of complaints citizens are filing as well as the relationship between Detroit police officers and Detroit residents.
Akbar came to the OCI in February 2020. Since then, the office has received 2,486 citizen complaint reports and has closed 1,702 of them, according to a presentation Akbar gave in early March.
Commissioner Willie Bell, who represents the city’s District 4 and was serving as the BOPC chairman when Akbar joined the OCI, noted staffing troubles prompted by the pandemic are widespread.
“There’s staff shortages all over the country, so this isn’t just a Detroit problem,” Bell said.
Commissioner Willie Burton, who represents District 5, stressed the board needs to be focused more on providing police oversight and accountability. The OCI isn’t handling citizen complaints in a timely manner and that hurts the board’s reputation, he said.
But, “we also can’t just have OCI rush the complaints through,” Burton said.
“We need to make sure they are really looking at what the officers did, if the same few officers are getting multiple complaints and what kind of discipline actually works,” he said.
Eric Blount, a minister at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit, is a regular attendee of police commissioner meetings. He has been critical of the civilian oversight board in the past for giving the police department much more time to speak during the weekly meetings than residents.
He’s urging the board to allow the OCI to report on citizen complaints at every meeting.
“What OCI does is critical to the board’s purpose for existing,” Blount said. “If the board isn’t spending most of its time talking about officer misconduct and police accountability, they’re wasting their time.”