Why does this police commissioner keep getting muted?

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During a March 18 Board of Police Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Willie Burton held up a note that read: “I am on mute.” (Board of Police Commissioners Screenshot)

The Board of Police Commissioners has a problem on its hands, some commissioners and Detroit residents say. 

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Commissioner Willie Burton and his constituents in District 5 are being shut out of police board meetings. Burton, the youngest member on the board, claims Chairman Willie Bell has used his power to silence him.

Burton has been muted during virtual Zoom meetings that have taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burton was also forcibly removed from an in-person meeting and arrested back in July 2019 after he brought up concerns over the city’s use of facial recognition technology. 

Burton spoke with BridgeDetroit last week about that 2019 meeting. He says he was being intentionally silenced by people in power. 

“I was bringing up the concerns of my constituents regarding the racist facial recognition technology, concerns that many people in the city still have, but they removed me from the meeting, I think, because they disagreed with the things I was saying,” Burton said.

Burton filed a lawsuit against the City last summer alleging physical and emotional harm as a result of that arrest. Nabih Ayad, Burton’s attorney, sent a letter to the entire board last month regarding a January 2021 meeting when Burton was once again shut out of a meeting. In the letter, Ayad calls the board’s treatment of Burton “utilitarian.”

“The despicable locking-out of Commissioner Burton from Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meetings is a leap backwards for the City of Detroit to a time when civil rights were a matter of convenience, often ignored by those in power,” Ayad wrote in the letter. 

Bell declined to comment on the lawsuit or Burton’s treatment during the meetings. Ayad says if the board continues to silence Burton or his constituents, he will file another lawsuit against the board. Burton began holding up a sign that reads “I’m mute by BOPC” during meetings when he is muted. He says the board should apologize to the people in his district.

“I am a duly elected official in the city of Detroit, and every time I’m being silenced or kicked out of a meeting, or unlawfully arrested for saying things others might not agree with, the people who elected me to represent them are losing out because now their voice isn’t being heard when it should be,” Burton said. 

Burton and his attorney aren’t the only ones who are fed up. Commissioner Linda Bernard, who represents District 2, says she believes Bell’s actions are disrespectful towards Burton.

“I think it is illegal, I think it is inappropriate, I think it is unprofessional, and, in my view, it is targeted against Burton. There is, in my opinion, a personal animus between Chair Bell and Willie Burton,” Bernard said. 

Bernard, who served as the board’s attorney before deciding to run for a commissioner position last year, says there have been numerous times when Burton has his hand raised to speak in meetings but isn’t called on, while others on the board are recognized by the chair right away. She says watching Bell silence Burton and others has pushed her to rethink her own position within the board. 

“That’s what motivated me to run for the board, because I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. 

She says the public displays of disrespect towards Burton would never happen during Detroit City Council meetings. 

“I’ve served on more than 30 boards, including the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, and I have never ever seen a chairperson treat a fellow board person in this manner,” she said.

Commissioner William Davis, who represents District 7, says Bell is a “bully” who has something against Burton and others who speak out during meetings. 

“I’ve called him a bully, I’ve called him a coward, I’ve called him corrupt, because I believe he’s abusing his authority,” Davis said. 

Davis believes both Bell and Commissioner Lisa Carter, who represents District 6, pick on Burton because they think they can “get away with it.”

“Burton makes some good points, but sometimes it takes him a while to get to his point,” Davis said. “And I think that they see that as being something that they can pick on.” 

Scotty Boman, who sits on the Community Advisory Council, says he has witnessed Bell ignore  Burton and others in the meetings. Boman says the city’s inspector general or the state’s attorney general should get involved in the case. 

“We’ve had a rogue and ineffective Board of Police Commissioners, and it’s not the fault of many of them, it’s the fault of Bell and a few that go along,” Boman said. 

The Board of Police Commissioners meets every Thursday at 3 p.m. You can join virtually on Zoom, and you can watch past meetings on the board’s website. Have you attended any of these meetings? What do you think about commissioners and residents being silenced? Don’t forget to subscribe to BridgeDetroit for FREE! 

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