Detroit Chief James White dismisses article on bad cops: ‘It sells papers’

May 10, 2022, 10:56 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

James White: “We are not guaranteeing perfection.” (Photo: AP)

Detroit Police Chief James White has publicly offered no new solutions to his department’s accountability woes following a Deadline Detroit investigation that found what one expert called a “deeply broken” system for reining in problem cops. 

Instead, at a meeting of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners last week, he dismissed the report as unworthy of response and assured the panel he has the situation under control.

“We can’t react to everybody who decides to say something negative or everyone who writes an article,” he said. “We need to trust the process and not be derailed.”

Asked by the oversight board’s president how he would proceed so “we won’t be talking about this a year from now,” White grew defensive, saying: “But we will (still be talking about it) because it sells papers and we will because … we’ll be talking about it, right? It’s working.”

The investigation published two weeks ago revealed how the department failed to sideline a sampling of 10 problem cops before their behavior resulted in criminality or alleged criminality. Partly to blame was the department’s top brass, who reduce or dismiss most penalties for officers, and officers who looked the other way on or outright covered up wrongdoing. Some internal affairs investigations, meanwhile, appeared biased in favor of officers, and supervisors responsible for intervening when subordinates exhibited red flags failed to do so.

'Extraordinarily distrurbing' revelations

White further revealed at last Thursday’s meeting that the department’s most common response to misconduct is not discipline, but informal counseling, which generally does not appear on an officer’s record. He said 225 officers were counseled for misconduct last year, compared to 177 who were disciplined.

Commissioner Linda Bernard called Deadline Detroit’s findings “extraordinarily disturbing.”

“This is so embarrassing,” said the commissioner representing District 2. “The officers we’ve given passes to have gone out and been in these chases that resulted in deaths and … all kinds of mayhem, but we don’t know anything about it. We sit here every week, and we play patty cake.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful that no one from your department or ours … has consolidated this data … We keep throwing money at it with no analysis ... of … what’s really been happening and how this affects … the community.”

Still, neither Bernard nor her colleagues asked White to respond to the specific issues outlined in the report. Nor did they ask whether reforms he announced last year could indeed fix the problems.

Board president Jim Holley, a mayoral appointee, agreed with White that the department must continue “to give the officers the benefit of the doubt, give them their due process rights” and then suggested he respond to the piece with a letter to the editor. White declined to be interviewed for the story and did not respond to a lengthy written summary provided weeks before publication.

In speaking to the board, White sought to downplay his role in problems, noting the cases highlighted by Deadline Detroit predated his time as chief. (He was, however, in charge of the department's Civil Rights Integrity Bureau, which is responsible for auditing problematic officers and trends and developing policies to address them.)

But he also did not acknowledge that we’d raised any new issues that warrant addressing.

"I think we can’t say it’s an embarrassment and it happened if we haven’t done our own analysis," White said.

In September, he announced a package of reforms in response to a TV news report on an officer who remained on the streets despite a high number of inconclusive citizen complaints. They include a closer review of 128 officers, or five percent of the force, deemed “high risk."

Activists, civil rights attorneys and an expert familiar with the changes have  called them a remix of existing reforms that are unlikely to have much impact. The list of “high risk” officers, for example, does not include all of those with questionable records. Three times as many officers have three times the department average of uses of force, civil suits, citizen complaints, or some combination of thereof.

"We are not guaranteeing perfection, but what we are guaranteeing is transparency and accountability," White told the board.

Separately, White did not take issue with the police union contract provisions that limit accountability. The largest contract, with the Detroit Police Officers Association, contains some of the strongest officer protections in the country. The city has been renegotiating it and two others ahead of a June 30 expiration.

“I just don’t want to characterize the union as the reason for the discipline problems. That would not be true, but they have rights,” he said. “I don’t want to say it usurps my authority to hold officers accountable. Absolutely not, I can hold officers accountable.”

He did concede his hands are tied by some union protections, noting they're responsible for the removal of officer disciplinary records older than two years and make it difficult to stop problem cops from being promoted.

While he further tried to blame arbitrators for light discipline, the overwhelming majority of punishments are ultimately decided by commanders appointed by the chief. Roughly half of the time, they cut punishments to officers, in some cases reducing dayslong suspensions to informal counseling. A quarter of the time, they dismiss penalties entirely. 

White blocked officer's dismissal

White himself, as assistant chief, in 2019 overturned the termination of Officer Stephen Heid, who committed misconduct in relation to three car crashes within two years before covering up a chase that killed a teen. The chase violated department policy and resulted in Heid’s conviction for misdemeanor neglect of duty.

White also took umbrage with Deadline’s report because he felt it failed to highlight “that the department currently and consistently operates in a state of transparency.”

The information underpinning the story — 10,000 pages of disciplinary and investigative records for 10 officers and the profiles of another two dozen — was obtained over the course of years and involved an open-records battle. We began requesting officer profiles in 2019, but had to wait a full year for the department to produce them. When it did, it redacted officer discipline older than four years, forcing us to file an appeal that further delayed our reporting.

Separately, we were issued a $41,000 bill for broad-level disciplinary information the department had months earlier supplied for a civil suit in two spreadsheets. DPD spokesperson Rudy Harper claimed the department did not keep the information in the aggregate, and that it would have needed to go through thousands of pages to complete the review.

Nearly 24 hours after publication, the department responded to this article with a statement saying "Chief White is not embracing the status quo mentality."

"Chief White intends to stay the course on his commitment to address problematic behavior within the department," the statement read in part. "This includes administering discipline in a manner that ensures the integrity of the department while not violating the rights of officers."

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