Detroit police commissioner to sue city over controversial arrest

August 12, 2020, 2:01 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Burton's arrest on July 11, 2019. (Photo: Screengrab, WXYZ video)

A Detroit police commissioner arrested last year during a contentious meeting over facial recognition technology plans to sue the city, alleging his civil rights were violated.

Commissioner Willie Burton's "unlawful and politically motivated" arrest caused him career setbacks and emotional and physical harm, his lawyer, Nabih Ayad, says in a media release. The suit is expected to be filed Thursday in federal court. 

Burton was pulled by police from the July 11, 2019 meeting of the oversight board and arrested for disorderly conduct after then-chair Lisa Carter ordered his removal. The commissioner was asking Carter if she planned to take a different approach to governing than her predecessor, a mayoral ally. Carter told him he was out of order several times before police stepped in. 

Burton, who became the youngest commissioner to serve on the board when he was first elected by District 5 residents in 2014, is an outspoken critic of Chief James Craig and by far the most pugnacious of a group often criticized for serving as a "rubber stamp" for the department.

Activists and others called his 2019 arrest unjustified.

John Bennett, a retired Detroit police officer, said at the time he couldn't "wrap my head around what we are doing as a city and government."

"It's one thing to arrest a disruptive person in the audience but we are now locking up elected officials we disagree with. This is beyond disturbing and we need to get a grip."

At the time, Burton was in a minority opposed to the department's use of facial recognition. His fears, his lawyer says, have since been realized, with the technology found in recent weeks to have misidentified at least two Black people.

Though the department has maintained for years that the technology is only used in violent crimes and that matches undergo a thorough vetting, the cases tell a different story. In one false match, a Farmington Hills father and auto worker was wrongly arrested for allegedly stealing watches from the Shinola store in Midtown after an officer had a worker who was not present during the theft select him from a lineup of potential matches. The original image run through the software in that case was grainy.

In another case, a young man was wrongly arrested for grabbing and throwing a cell phone. That crime was allegedly committed by a teenager whose arms, video showed, had no tatoos. The man arrested after that false match was 25 years old and heavily tatooed.

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