Detroit Police Department’s Troubled Past and Present

By Jamilah King May 20, 2010

Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans may be right about one thing: the probe into 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ death certainly "won’t be pretty." New details are emerging about the officer accused of shooting the girl, the violently chaotic last moments of her life, and the inner workings of a police department that’s been federally sanctioned twice in less than a decade for excessive force and inhumane conditions at the city’s county jail. Accused officer Joseph Weekley, a 14-year veteran who had been a member of the department’s Special Response Team (SRT) since 2004, reportedly told his sergeant moments after the shooting, "A woman inside grabbed my gun. It fired. The bullet hit a child." (See a detailed police account here). Weekley is currently on paid leave pending an investigation into the shooting. Nicknamed "the Brain" by fellow officers, Weekley drove the Special Response Team’s armored personnel carrier and was one of nine Detroit SRT officers featured on the website for the reality A&E cop drama "First 48", which was filming outside of the Jones’ home during the shooting. Weekley’s no stranger to controversy. Assistant police chief Ralph Godbee told the Detroit Free Press that last summer Weekley was involved in a non-fatal shooting of an allegedly barricaded suspect. Godbee didn’t specify Weekley’s involvement but did say that his actions were deemed appropriate by the department. Last year he was also accused in a federal lawsuit of being part of a team that raided a home on the city’s North Side where an officer pointed a pistol at three children — including an infant — and shot two dogs. But this latest shooting isn’t just the story of one rogue officer or a headline-grabbing tragedy. The Detroit police department is currently under two federal consent decrees that stem from lawsuits brought by the U.S. Justice Department in 2003. Federal investigations found that, in addition to violating people’s civil rights through the use of excessive force, officers had imprisoned homicide witnesses and kept unsafe holding cells where many inmates had died. In 2003 U.S. District Judge Julian Cook ordered federal monitoring of the Wayne County Jail. The federal oversight came at an estimated cost of $2 million annually. By 2009 Cook called representatives from the police force back into his courtroom to voice his "extreme displeasure" with the department’s progress. The department had achieved only 39 percent compliance with the orders, leading Cook to lament that the "millions being spent on a federal monitor could better be spent on education and other ways to help the city." The federal court order relating to jails was set to last until 2005, while the order on excessive force was due to expire in 2008. Judge Cook had previously extended both orders to 2011, but had to further extend the deadlines because of the department’s dismal compliance rate. Meanwhile, the department was ordered to comply with short term benchmarks that included installing a new in-car camera system on its police cruisers and a computerized "early warning system" that was supposed to alert department managers of problem officers. Ron Scott, founder of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said in an interview yesterday on Democracy Now that more needs to be done to rapidly change the department’s compliance with its federal mandates:

"This department needs a whole revamping…people were demanding that the mayor, the police chief come there. The people were angry. I don’t want to see any civil disturbance or any other issues like that occur. So it’s really time for the department to be transformed and to do what the federal government has outlined for it to do, very quickly, instead of denying that these issues exist. This policy preceded this tragedy. And we need a change in a policy, because if that doesn’t happen, then we’re going to have more tragedies like this."

In addition to a change in policy, Scott and his organization are calling for Weekley to be prosecuted in Jones’ death.