The Job Was Crazy, But Jerry Oliver Didn't Suspect He Was Working For a Racketeer

March 19, 2013, 10:14 PM


He was the first piece of Team Kwame Kilpatrick when the hip-hop mayor infused Detroit with hope.

He was the reformer; the change agent; the brash outsider brought in from Richmond, Va., to transform the troubled Detroit Police Department.

Now, as Kilpatrick sits behind bars facing hard time, Jerry Oliver recalls his stint in the Motor City as an outlandish dream. Oliver has for the most part remained quiet since his departure from Detroit.  Now that the federal Kilpatrick racketeering trial is over, he’s speaking out. 

“It was all just a two-year period of my life that I now look back on and say, ‘I guess I am thankful to have gone to Detroit and I’m very thankful to have gotten out,’ ” Oliver told Deadline Detroit in a telephone interview.

 “All these people I worked with and knew were tied up in a racketeering enterprise?  It’s really very surreal.”

Detroit hasn’t gone away for Oliver, who is retired after a long career in law enforcement. Later this year, he will host a presentation in front of the Phoenix Rotary Club 100 about his time here and the challenges he faced as chief.  He is president-elect of the club.

“Unchallenged power can easily be corrupted,” Oliver said. “I have never seen a city like that where the mayor is king. Everybody was kissing his ring and kissing his ass to work with the city and that was part of the problem. He discovered he could do whatever he wanted. He gets an entourage. He gets a mansion. There are advance people arriving at locations before him for security scans.”

Suspecting Beatty and Kilpatrick 

Kwame Kilpatrick, the seducer, captivated Jerry Oliver when they met.

Detroit’s new mayor with all the flair flew to Richmond in 2002, accompanied by his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, seeking his first police chief.  Oliver, then chief in Richmond, turned out to be his guy.

"When Kwame Kilpatrick shook my hand and asked me to come there I think he was sincere. I think he was a different guy.  I think he really wanted to do great things for Detroit,” Oliver said. “In my view, he got a little taste of power and power corrupts.  He got corrupted."

From Day One, Oliver said he had suspicions about Kilpatrick and Beatty, who turned out to be lovers.

“From the time they came to Richmond, I had an inkling that their relationship was more than professional,” Oliver said. “But, at the time, it was not my business.

“I think most people that worked around them suspected that they were something more than friends. I think a lot of people in the press knew it.  They were just too close. When we had staff meetings, they didn’t disagree as a boss and a subordinate – it was like a couple’s argument. They disagreed as a husband and wife would.”

Billed as a change agent, Oliver was a rare outsider to run the police department. He reorganized the police administration, tightened disciplinary procedures for officers and oversaw the first revision of a policy manual in 30 years. Cops labeled him as an outsider and union-buster.

In “Surrendered,” his autobiography, Kilpatrick wrote that many cops considered Oliver’s attempt to overhaul the department’s leadership “an official declaration of war.”

“Lines were drawn, clearly defined battle groups started to form and the enemies, Jerry Oliver and Kwame Kilpatrick, were clearly identified,” Kilpatrick wrote.

Kilpatrick said he let Oliver select his top aides, but the ex-mayor wrote that he received negative feedback about one -- Gary Brown as the head of internal affairs.  After he thought about it for a week, Kilpatrick let Oliver keep Brown.

“I’d brought Jerry to Detroit to help create positive and revolutionary change,” Kilpatrick wrote. “I trusted his experience and expertise in law enforcement. He was strong, committed and engaged. I appreciated his tenacity and focus.”

The gun in the suitcase

Oliver believed he was making great progress.  But he didn’t even last two years.  A scandal involving a handgun in Oliver’s checked luggage at Detroit International Airport led to his resignation in October 2003 and a misdemeanor charge.

The prosecutor who charged Oliver was Mike Duggan – now the front-runner to become Detroit’s next mayor.

Predictably, Oliver isn’t a Duggan fan.

“I look at that city and think they need a fresh start,” Oliver said. “Duggan, certainly, is not that. He’s part of that old, McNamara regime.”

When Kilpatrick did not privately come to his defense during the gun incident, Oliver knew it was time to go. 

“It was like I had robbed a bank or something,” Oliver said. “I was police chief and I had a gun in my luggage. It wasn’t a huge deal.  By that time, Kilpatrick must have realized he wanted somebody he could control. I knew I wasn’t wanted.”

In his book, Kilpatrick noted police unions and rank-and-file cops called for Oliver’s resignation because he had instituted a zero-tolerance policy for officers who did anything wrong. Kilpatrick wrote he was willing to support Oliver if the chief believed he could still lead the department and enjoy community support.

“Jerry decided it would be best for him to step down,” Kilpatrick wrote.

To Oliver, the power struggle between mayor and chief had begun six months earlier, when Kilpatrick made a decision that many point to as the origin of his downfall.

In Oliver’s mind, a lot of Kilpatrick’s shenanigans would have remained under wraps had it not been for one huge mistake – Kilpatrick’s firing of Gary Brown, whom the mayor had been nervous about in the first place.

The trouble began when Brown began digging into rumors of a wild party at the Manoogian Mansion. This infuriated Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick’s decision to get rid of Brown completely shocked Oliver.

“I still remember it vividly,” Oliver said. “It was a Friday afternoon and I got a call ordering me to the mayor’s office.

“I walk into the mayor’s office – Christine Beatty is there with Kwame. The mayor tells me to fire Gary Brown.  He says, ‘I want him gone immediately,’” Oliver recalled. “I was dumbfounded.”

Oliver said he protested and told the mayor he needed Brown on his staff.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘You don’t understand Detroit.’ I want the guy gone… now.’”

Oliver said he couldn’t hide his look of befuddlement.

“Christine Beatty looks at me and says, ‘Hey, chief what’s wrong with your face? Is there a problem?’ “

Oliver said he replied: “This is the dumbest thing I have ever seen. I don’t know why I am getting ready to terminate this guy. This is a terrible move.”

Then he walked out.

“That’s when it all started to unravel – for me and, most likely for the mayor,” Oliver said. “It was a clear sign from a personal standpoint that I had made a mistake by coming to Detroit.”

Wondering about Bobby F.

Brown, a city councilman, sued Kilpatrick and, with another cop, won $6.5 million.

In January 2008, the Free Press published text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty that showed they had committed perjury for lying under oath during Brown’s whistleblower trial about their affair and decision to fire Brown. Kilpatrick resigned, pleaded guilty to state perjury charges and served 99 days in prison.

Then came the whammy -- federal indictments against Kilpatrick, his father and contractor Bobby Ferguson, and guilty verdicts on many of the charges last week.

“I’m sure, in hindsight that the financial misdeeds would have eventually come to light,” Oliver said. “But it may have dragged out even longer had he not fired Gary Brown.”

Oliver said he never noticed the financial misdeeds – but he always wondered about Ferguson, who was convicted of rigging City of Detroit contracts through the mayor's office.

“The guy was always rolling in cash, expensive suits and nice cars,” Oliver said. “He had some hideaway with a bar and bedrooms.  I always wondered where he got all his money.  Now it makes sense.”

Oliver was in charge when the police department came under federal oversight. Privately, Oliver said, Kilpatrick wasn’t happy with the decision to have a federal monitor in charges of mandated changes.

Kilpatrick arguably made the best of it.  He wound up having an affair with the court-appointed monitor, Sheryl Robinson.

Text messages revealed the affair long after Oliver left Detroit.

“Oh, that was embarrassing,” Oliver said. “What a mess.  I personally knew Sheryl Robinson.  And you’ve got this overseer and she got in bed with the mayor. Hot dog!”

Praying for Detroit

Megan Norris, a lawyer at Miller Canfield, served as a police commissioner under Oliver and befriended him.

“Jerry Oliver came to Detroit with a wealth of experience and great motivation to really turn around a struggling department that was being investigated by the federal government,” she said.

“Unfortunately, he encountered tremendous resistance to any suggestions from ‘outsiders’ and a mayor who had a personal agenda for the police department. Jerry may have underestimated the challenges and taken too long to understand the need for cooperation with existing department leadership and the police commission, but when we lost him we also lost a great talent.”

Oliver landed on his feet after Detroit in Phoenix where he was appointed director of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control.  He retired in 2009 and still lives in Phoenix, working as an advisor for the Center  for Alcohol Policy, based in Washington D.C.

From the dumpy conditions at police headquarters to the shoddy record-keeping in the evidence room, Oliver faced many more challenges besides a greedy, lustful mayor.

“For the first time in my life I went to a city that under every rock, I don’t care which rock I picked up, there was a major problem,” he said. “To a degree things appear to still be broken in Detroit.  And not all of it had to do with money – a lot had to do with leadership.”

Now, Oliver is praying for Detroit and its survival.

“It really is a very, very sad story,” Oliver said. “I just thought there was so much potential to have a world class police department in Detroit if more people had been committed to change.  I experienced overpowering resistance on many levels.”

Ben Schmitt is a former Free Press reporter.

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