I'm starting to believe that Detroit really is Comeback City.
But when I'm talking comeback, I'm talking about all the old players and all the old games that are starting to re-emerge and replay themselves. I'm talking about problems with a run-amok police command, criminal grand juries, and failed jail projects. I'd swear we were back in 2010 again.
It starts with Police Commissioner Willie Burton, a relative newcomer to the Detroit political scene, and a friend – seemingly -- of the Constitution.
Burton was arrested by the Detroit Police last week at a Police Commission meeting. He was accused of disorderly conduct, but never charged after Burton railed against the secret use of facial recognition technology by Chief James Craig.
As the commission as a whole was set to vote to make the use of this technology official city policy, Willie spoke out. Willie was cuffed. And Willie was hauled off to the pokey. Meanwhile, the police locked in the outraged citizens to prevent trouble outside.
“It's like the Gestapo,” Burton tells me. “They're trying to take the voice from the people, and I am their elected voice.”
Burton held a press conference on Thursday. His spokesman was Sam Riddle, no stranger to handcuffs himself. Sam plead guilty in 2010 for passing money to an elected official. To his credit, Sam did his time, apologized to the public, and has since been an advocate for the voiceless. – not the least of whom is Commissioner Burton.
Return of Bob Ficano
Burton's defense attorney was also present at the press conference. Who is that, you ask? Former Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. Remember him? He got caught in a blender of controversy and grand juries beginning in 2010 with his now infamous failed-jail project that dripped with incompetence and cronyism.
No one was ever convicted in that one. But more than $300 million of taxpayer money is gone. Some got rich. All the public got was the bill and a hole in the ground.
Still, it's good to see people rehabilitate themselves and their images.
And in retrospect, Ficano's deal looks pretty damn good compared to the new and newly troubled jail project, negotiated by Ficano's successor Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, along with Rock Ventures, the development arm of billionaire Dan Gilbert's business empire.
According to a memo that was quietly dropped the day before the July 4 holiday by Evans' office to the county commissioners, the new, no-bid Criminal Justice Center project is $75 million over budget and the foundation for the sprawling facility has yet to be laid.
Among many problems with the current deal: the geniuses in Evans' office never bothered to lock in a power and water source for the new facility before signing the contract. County taxpayers will have to yet again pony up for the mistake.
I know. My mom lives in Wayne County.
You might remember Warren Evans? He used to be the Detroit chief of police, that is until he was fired in 2010 after his officers were captured by a cable TV crew accidentally killing a 7-year-old girl in an early morning raid. Turns out Evans was at that time also being filmed for a cable TV pilot called “The Chief,” where he stands with a semi-automatic rifle saying, “I'll do whatever it takes.”
Now his successor as chief of police, James Craig, has been caught using facial recognition software from surveillance video culled from across the city in order to catch violent criminals in a city where he can't seem to catch violent criminals otherwise. The FR technology – it should be noted -- is notoriously poor – misidentifying members of the public as potential criminals 96 percent of the time in London, according to the Independent.
And it gets worse, the darker your skin color.
Offering anecdotes but no data
Craig has offered anecdotes about the success of his secret program, but no data. The town is rightly outraged. And the reaction from the police department? Arrest the commissioner.
If there's a silver lining, it's that Commissioner Burton did learn something from the experience. That is, that it can take officers hours to process a prisoner, since every person arrested in Detroit is funneled to the Mound Detention Center near Hamtramck.
“I was sitting in the car for a minute,” he recalls. “And by minute, I mean a long time. Officers had time to talk for a while. I sat in the back of the police car and it was pretty hot back there."
But no hotter, certainly than the mayor's chair. Mike Duggan, the self-styled smartest man in the room, was at a loss this week. Hizzoner shocked his staff when he openly asked for suggestions on how to react to the public uproar over the facial recognition software. His bloated and overpaid staff had no answers.
Here's a free bit of advice, your honor: call a moratorium on the program. Tell the public you're studying the issue and culling the collected data that you never bothered collecting. Then let it quietly die away without admitting defeat.
But in his defense, Mayor Mike is consumed with other things: like corruption grand juries and electronic messages to a gal pal. Again it feels so 2010, except Mike drives a city-owned Taurus while Kwame preferred the Lincoln Navigator.
Then again, they're both Ford products. So you can see what I'm saying.