A member of Detroit’s police oversight board is calling for “real public discussion” on an independent review of its practices that found the charter should be revised to give the police board more authority and the body routinely relies on incomplete, misleading and out-of-date data.
Linda Bernard, a member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, is advocating for the team of Wayne State University researchers behind the report to come before the board to present its findings and recommendations.
“We need to have this on the agenda soon,” Bernard told BridgeDetroit of the nearly year-old report following Thursday night’s board meeting, “and have a real public discussion about this report.”
BOPC staff in May 2021 asked for the “independent review” of the police department’s use of force and citizen complaint data, reports and presentations as a means of improving police accountability in the city. The WSU review examined data and reports from BOPC, the Detroit Police Department and the board’s Office of the Chief Investigator, from 2019 and early 2020.
David Goldberg, an associate professor of African American Studies at WSU and one of the researchers who compiled the report, said some of the data sets that the team reviewed were incomplete, misleading, and “often verifiably untrue.”
Goldberg noted that some citizen complaint numbers given out during public BOPC meetings haven’t matched information found on the city’s Open Data Portal, which houses datasets relating to public safety, transportation, education, housing and more.
Among the recommendations, WSU’s team said BOPC and DPD should ensure information on the city’s Open Data Portal remains accurate and up-to-date, make available data easier for citizens to understand, and improve transparency around what residents can expect from the citizen complaint process. The team also suggested more public discussions on how citizen complaints are resolved and how officers are or aren’t disciplined following investigations.
Goldberg said the team tried to be mindful of ways in which the structure, funding, and lack of accountability for BOPC has been shaped by the design and policies of Detroit’s City Charter.
“The lack of independence and limitations placed on the board effectively limit it to being a public relations firm for the department,” he said, “rather than a watchdog designed to curtail and address police misconduct.”
Bernard, who represents the city’s District 2, said it’s imperative that Goldberg and his team make a presentation to the board because the report has “a lot of real criticisms” about the BOPC and how it operates.
“The entire board, our staff and public have a right to know how these recommendations came about so we can talk about implementing these changes,” she said.
Commissioner Willie Bell, who wasn’t present at Thursday’s meeting, told BridgeDetroit that he hopes to see the WSU recommendations on the agenda soon. Bell said the board is focused on addressing its citizen complaint backlog and hasn’t reviewed the report yet.
In July, there was a backlog of 850 complaints against DPD officers. According to Detroit Documenters, the OCI received 93 additional complaints in August, but had closed 217 other complaint cases by the end of July.
“For the past year or so we’ve been dealing with this backlog and the public has been demanding we do something,” Bell said. “Now that we’re moving through the backlog a bit faster we can turn our attention to this.”
Commissioner and Vice Chair Annie Holt said she believes BOPC will implement at least some of the recommendations, but it’s difficult to say which ones until the report is an official agenda item. The report notes that implementation would require “some investment, particularly in data systems, data storage, and public information.”
BOPC Chairman Bryan Ferguson, who joined the board in January, declined to discuss the report ahead of a full board discussion, but said the BOPC and OCI are focused on accountability.
“They give me everything I have asked for. If any commissioner asks for some data or a report, they give it to them,” he said.
Ferguson argues that BOPC has adequately addressed instances of officer misconduct, but Goldberg challenged the notion. Goldberg said the biggest structural barrier to police accountability in Detroit is the city’s charter and that BOPC needs subpoena power and “unfettered access to all police documents, reports, etc.”
Nancy Parker, the interim managing attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, has been critical of BOPC and said the body doesn’t have the access to disseminate “true and accurate data.”
She said members must have the ability to compel the city and police department to turn over body cam footage, crime stats, officers’ disciplinary records among other necessary data.
Victoria Shah, a Detroit resident who attends BOPC meetings, said she’s noticed discrepancies between the number of citizen complaint reports provided at public meetings and what’s listed on the city’s Open Data Portal. It needs to be “cleaned up,” she said.
Shah, who also is a member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said the inconsistencies endanger public trust.
“We don’t need people to not trust the oversight entity,” she said. “It’s one thing to not trust DPD but then when you don’t trust the board, where do you go?”