The U.S. Department of Justice has received a community coalition’s request to investigate Detroit police for an alleged pattern of killings and excessive force. If the DOJ acts on the request, it would be the second federal civil rights review of the agency in two decades.
The letter sent last week by the Detroit Coalition for Police Transparency and Accountability follows a Deadline Detroit investigation that found the department struggling to rein in problem cops through an internal oversight system one former DOJ official called “deeply broken.”
The Justice Department declined to say how it plans to proceed. Detroit would be only the second police department to undergo a civil rights investigation twice. The investigations often precede federal oversight, which Detroit was under from 2003 to 2016 for an alleged "pattern or practice” of civil rights violations, including excessive force and illegal detentions.
The coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Detroit Justice Center, cited a spike in police violence in their request. Category 1 uses of force – those that can kill or seriously injure – have seen double-digit increases in each of the past two years, up 24 percent from 2020 to 2021, and 41 percent from 2019 to 2020. Overall uses of force, meanwhile, jumped 6 percent and 23 percent in those periods, respectively.
“A culture of policing has insinuated itself into the very fabric of the department — a culture which says that the way to deal with a community that has challenges and problems with crime and violence is to intimidate them, to overwhelm them, to harass them, to bludgeon them and to kill them,” said Mark Fancher, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan.
Though Fancher said the department’s conduct has worsened since federal intervention, he feels more monitoring is the only way forward.
“What else do we have to look to?” he said. The department faces “a cultural problem … probably bigger than what local leadership is even able to deal with.”
Chief James White, who replaced longtime former Chief James Craig a year ago, has vowed to reform the department without outside help. He recently implemented changes that include looking more closely at the department’s highest-risk officers, though activists and civil rights attorneys have said they fall far short of the systemic fix needed to root out abuse.
“White's administration is committed to transparency and accountability,” the department said in a statement. “This community desires safety, constitutional policing, and a community-first approach to law enforcement. This is why the Detroit Police Department is firmly committed to its mission to encourage thoughtful decision-making and a strong sense of community responsibility.”
Mayor Mike Duggan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Experts have said the consent decrees struck between the city of Detroit and DOJ in 2003 were weaker than those applied in other cities today.
According to Jonathan Smith, who from 2010 to 2015 ran the special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division, they were more process- than outcome-driven, incentivizing the department to “tick a box rather than get it right.” They also did not include a community engagement component, leaving the city without watchdogs to continue the effort.
“When we left Detroit the project was not done, we just couldn’t get any more out of that decree,” Smith said in Deadline Detroit’s April investigation. “It was not a particularly good decree. I would never negotiate one to look anything like that today.”
The Justice Department has investigated more than 70 local police departments since a Rodney King-era law gave it the authority to do so. The investigations were largely curtailed under the Trump administration.
Cleveland is the only U.S. department to have been investigated twice, in 2002 and again in 2014. Only the second investigation — which followed an incident in which officers fired 137 shots at two people following a police chase, killing them — yielded a consent decree.
In determining whether to investigate a department, the Civil Rights Division weighs its history, the nature and number of allegations of constitutional violations, and interventions by department leaders.
For context, Albuquerque, a city with a slightly smaller population than Detroit, was investigated after 20 fatal police shootings in four years. Detroit officers, meanwhile, have shot and killed 21 people in the last five years. In both cities, about a fifth of victims were allegedly unarmed, according to Police Scorecard, a research group that evaluates departments nationwide.
Detroit was investigated following a 2000 Free Press report that found it had the highest rate of police killings of any major force in the country. Then-Mayor Dennis Archer requested the review and agreed to a subsequent consent decree that cost the city more than $50 million.
The reforms, which included a computerized monitoring system that issues early warnings for problematic officers, are credited with helping reduce deadly shootings by officers and civil lawsuit payouts. However, Detroit continues to compare poorly to major forces around the country. According to Police Scorecard, the department shoots more people per arrest than 97 percent of its counterparts and pays more for misconduct claims than 89 percent.