David Shepardson; The Detroit News December 13, 2000, Wednesday Copyright 2000 The Detroit News, Inc. The Detroit News December 13, 2000, Wednesday
(DETROIT) -- The U.S. Justice Department has begun an extensive investigation into the Detroit Police Department, far broader than the one Mayor Dennis Archer requested in September.
The Justice Department will look at the department's use of excessive force, including the large number of fatal shootings. But it has expanded the inquiry to include at least four deaths of inmates locked up in precinct holding cells over the past three years.
"Our investigation will focus on allegations that the ... department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating individuals' constitutional rights by using excessive force and providing inadequate conditions of confinement to pretrial detainees," the department said in a two-page letter signed by Bill Lann Lee, the assistant U.S. Attorney for Civil Rights, and Saul Green, the U.S. Attorney in Detroit.
The department has paid out more than $600,000 to settle two lawsuits stemming from the deaths of two prisoners in custody.
The expansion of the investigation comes nearly three months after Archer asked Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to look at how the department has handled probes of police officers who have killed people in the line of duty.
But in meetings with Reno, Lee and Green, Archer asked for a limited investigation along the lines of technical assistance.
Archer asked the department not to conduct a wide-ranging probe, known as a pattern or practice investigation, like those that have been done in Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, Steubenville, Ohio, and Pittsburgh.
On Tuesday, however, Archer said he supported the Justice Department's decision to conduct a broader investigation.
"We strongly believe that the Detroit Police Department has made tremendous efforts to ensure that its law enforcement activities are effective to protect the public safety and welfare," Archer said. "We always seek the opportunity for further improvements of our department. We look forward to working with the Department of Justice to identify any problems that need further attention."
Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon said he had appointed an officer to help the Justice Department's investigation. Federal investigators asked for documents Tuesday morning and got them, Napoleon said.
"I welcome the investigation," he said. "If they find something that we didn't find, I will deal with it. We have absolutely nothing to hide."
The Justice Department's previous pattern or practice investigations of police departments have resulted in dozens of convictions overturned in Los Angeles and numerous reforms in other cities since Congress gave the agency the authority to conduct such probes in 1994.
The department's letter also announced that it had begun a number of specific criminal investigations into the fatal shootings. Department officials said there were more than a half-dozen ongoing investigations, including into the conduct of Officer Eugene Brown.
Brown has fatally shot three and wounded a fourth in the past five years on the job. Napoleon said he is waiting for advice from the legal department before deciding whether to promote or discipline Brown, who is eligible for promotion to sergeant.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has twice cleared Brown of wrongdoing.
But incoming Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan recently announced he would transfer oversight of police shootings from the homicide unit to a new unit without ties to the police department.
Tuesday's announcement by the Justice Department comes after months of controversy over shootings by police in the city and how they are handled by the Detroit Police Department.
In Archer's letter to the department in September, he said there was "an immediate need" for a review of the shootings.
"An outside review by the Department of Justice will assist greatly in assuring public confidence," he wrote.
On Tuesday, the department rejected requests by Archer to look into the relationship between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the police department, as well as the relationship between the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and the department.
"At this juncture, we have reached no conclusion as to whether an unlawful pattern or practice exists," says the department's letter, dated Monday, that outlines the investigation.
The Justice Department said it hopes to complete the investigation within 18 months. Napoleon said department officials told him it would be completed within eight months to a year.
Napoleon, who is eligible for retirement, said he has committed to staying with the department until April.
"By the end of April, I'll meet with Mayor Archer and look at my options," Napoleon said.
Justice Department officials held a conference call with Mayor Archer Monday evening to keep him up to date. A draft of the letter has circulated between Washington and Detroit since last Monday.
* The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the Detroit Police Department and its practices, including its fatal force policy and its confinement of prisoners. It is also conducting criminal probes into a half-dozen fatal shootings by officers.
* The federal agency is expected to make recommendations on how the police department can improve. If necessary, the Justice Department can ask a federal court to order reforms. Decisions on criminal charges are months away.