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The People's Police Department

Why federal consent decrees are working in Detroit, but not in Oakland.

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In the two years that followed, the federal court monitors expressed "serious concern" with the department's progress, saying that change had been "marginal" under Batts' command. Judge Henderson began threatening receivership, meaning that if the OPD didn't make reforms quickly, the department would be taken over by the federal government. The court monitors also expressed alarm about the number of times police officers were drawing and pointing their firearms — not only at suspects, but also at witnesses and innocent bystanders. Then, just days after the release of another monitor's report strongly criticizing his command, Batts abruptly quit.

Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana appointed Assistant Chief Howard Jordan to take over the department, and he immediately promised to make the NSA a top priority. In an interview earlier this summer, Jordan told me: "We take the judge's orders and everything having to do with the settlement agreement very seriously."

The federal monitors, civil rights attorneys, community activists, and police representatives also have all expressed hope in Jordan's ability to turnaround the department. Yet under his leadership, progress on the decree has stagnated. Jordan also oversaw OPD's heavy-handed response to Occupy Oakland protests. Henderson has criticized the department for its reluctance to punish officers involved in fatal shootings. And a recent audit revealed that the department has squandered millions of dollars on faulty technology.

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland police union, said the focus shouldn't be on the department's difficulty complying with the NSA, but on its financial constraints. Despite an increase in crime, the size of the police force shrank from 837 officers in 2009 to about 650 today. "Officers are struggling to just keep up with the calls for services," he said. "Many of them would like to take individual interests in portions of their beat but they find themselves rushing from call to call."

It's not uncommon for police representatives and others to cite external factors for the difficulties in complying with consent decrees, including uncooperative politicians, overzealous plaintiffs' attorneys, rampant crime, and massive cuts to the force.

However, a look at Detroit shows that these factors do not have to block police reforms.

Since the 1960s, the decline of Detroit's auto industry has substantially eroded the city's tax base. Counting bonds and pension obligations, Detroit's total debt stood at about $20 billion at the start of 2012. The State of Michigan has proposed placing the entire city under state control in order to better manage the books.

This grim economic situation has depleted the Detroit PD's resources in a number of ways. In 2005, half of the city's police precincts were closed for budgetary reasons. A few years later, the crime lab shut its doors due to poor management. The department also has experienced massive layoffs: Between 2001 and 2011, 1,400 Detroit police positions were eliminated, and the projected city budget for 2012-13 shows an additional 18 percent reduction in the force — or the elimination of 300 more positions.

In an effort to save $100 million a year to avoid state receivership, Mayor Bing also has proposed cutting cops' salaries by 10 percent. If that happens, Detroit police officers would become the 48th worst-paid cops among 50 major American cities (with Oakland being the third highest-paying department on that list, according to data compiled by the Detroit police union). And for this dismal pay, Detroit cops work under incredibly difficult circumstances: The city consistently ranks in the top three most dangerous places in the country — worse than Oakland. Because of all this, Detroit police officers contend that they have arguably the most difficult working conditions of any police force in the country.

With a shell of a police department remaining, Godbee decided to pursue new avenues for crime fighting. "With [this] backdrop, for us to continue to try to do police work the same way, under the same methodology, with fewer resources is simply ludicrous," Godbee said in an April interview with the Michigan Daily (Godbee declined requests for interview for this story).

Godbee and Mayor Bing's policing strategy rests largely on improving community-police relations and accountability through a number of projects and programs — all of which are absent or seriously underutilized in Oakland.

In 1999, a law that required Detroit police officers to live within the city limits was lifted. What followed was a mass exodus to the suburbs, with roughly 50 percent of officers leaving over the past decade.

In 2011, Mayor Bing addressed the issue through Project 14. Named after police code 14 — signifying a return to normal operations — this program encourages Detroit police officers to purchase homes within the city through a number of federal subsidies and grants. "Project 14 is one approach that my administration is deploying to take two challenges facing Detroit, public safety and vacant homes, and turn them into an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization," Bing stated in a 2011 press release.

Today, 29 police officers either have moved, or are in the process of moving to the city. Two hundred others have expressed interest in the program, according to the mayor's office. In Oakland, about 90 percent of police officers live outside the city (see "The High Costs of Outsourcing Police," 8/8).  

Another groundbreaking step made by the Detroit PD has been the creation of the command accountability meetings. These meetings are conducted internally twice a month, and publicly every quarter. In them the department brass, along with a number of officers, discuss matters pertaining to the consent decree. "We notify the command officers that we have a problem, a global problem, department-wide problem with this particular issue, but then we drill down to the actual officer who is causing the violation at the same time," explained one commander at a 2011 Detroit Board of Police Commissioners hearing.

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