Advice for Detroit's next police chief: 'Build trust' with community
Detroit — Outgoing police chief James Craig offered a piece of advice to his successor, who will be charged with enforcing the law in one of the most violent big cities in the United States:
“Take care of the cops, but equally as important, build trust with the community," said Craig, who announced his retirement Monday from the Detroit Police Department after eight years.
In Detroit’s case, it's a community with the largest proportion of Black residents of any big city in the U.S., which was marked by frequent protests last summer over allegations of police brutality and bias against African Americans.
Craig is among the law enforcement officials and others who expect more protests this year, after more than 100 days of demonstrations in 2020. He repeatedly has touted how Detroit avoided most of the property damage and violence that plagued other cities after George Floyd was killed in May 2020 by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Some critics have denounced Craig's response to the protests. Groups like Detroit Will Breathe and the National Lawyers Guild brought lawsuits against the city, claiming Detroit officers brutalized them or violated their First Amendment rights at Craig's behest. Craig has denied the claims, as have city attorneys in legal filings.
Craig insisted the next Detroit chief must handle protests by protecting the constitutional rights of demonstrators while maintaining law and order.
“If not, we’ll end up with another autonomous zone like they had in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis, where the protesters took over entire areas of cities," he said. "The people of Detroit don't want that. Assaulting officers and citizens cannot be allowed. Destruction of property cannot be allowed. These are non-negotiable.
"There were outside agitators at last year's protests who don't represent the people of Detroit, who wanted to incite violence," Craig said. "The next chief will have to be resolute in the decision to use the force necessary to combat the force being used against police officers or community members."
In their lawsuits and in other statements, Detroit Will Breathe representatives have claimed Mayor Mike Duggan and Craig ordered officers to violate protesters' rights by any means necessary.
A Detroit Will Breathe federal lawsuit filed in September 2020 claimed: "Duggan and Craig, who authorize and condone the use of unnecessary, unreasonable, and excessive force, have repeatedly responded with violence and brutality."
The suit further claimed officers "tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and otherwise subjected to unconstitutional excessive force, shot with rubber bullets ... put in chokeholds ... and arrested en masse without probable cause."
Craig claimed that a "small group of aggressive protesters" repeatedly hurled projectiles at officers, adding that force was used only when citizens resisted arrest or disobeyed lawful orders to disperse.
Tristan Taylor, an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe who has repeatedly called for Craig to be fired, said the new chief will face just as much scrutiny as Craig did in how protests and other issues are handled.
“Whoever they bring in, we don’t care who they are, what credentials they have,” he said. “From Day One, there’s no honeymoon.”
“We want our resources put into proactive measures to deal with the needs of the community, instead of police officers whose main job is locking up people for minor offenses,” he said.
Taylor said there are ongoing issues with systemic racism and inequality in America and contends one police chief won’t be able to solve the problem alone — “so long as there is a chief of police presiding over police departments whose main goal it is to enforce inequality and exploitation."
“What we want is for the police to stop being funded as an institution of oppression and exploitation,” he said. “They treat Black people like garbage. That’s the type of department Chief Craig presided over.”
The Rev. Maurice "Pastor Mo" Hardwick of Detroit's Power Ministry church, the founder of the Live in Peace Movement, agreed that "systemic issues" must be addressed, but disagreed with Taylor's assessment of Craig and his handling of last year's demonstrations.
"I thought the chief handled the protests fine," Hardwick said. "People have to stop doing things and then complaining when there's a reaction.
"We were given lanes in the street to protest and show solidarity," Hardwick said. "Those who wanted to throw stuff, or stay past the curfew — and I was there; they were asked many times to leave — they obviously wanted to go to jail. If you want to go to jail and you do, don't complain about it."
Hardwick said he hopes Detroit's new chief seeks the advice of citizens before making some decisions.
"We want the new chief to seek community input on things like new recruits, training and use of force policies," Hardwick said. "We want to have input so we can deal with some of the systemic issues that plague our community.
"We also want more young people of color as police cadets, and in positions of decision-making," Hardwick said. "We just need to continue to work with DPD to make the police and community less aggressive, and to get more familiar with each other."
Taylor said Craig and the police department have been more focused on cracking down on protesters than fighting crime.
“I’ve never seen them clean out a neighborhood of drug houses the way they handled the protesters,” he said. “That also indicates what the police see their job as. It’s certainly not to deal with crime.”
Detroit Board of Police Commissioners chairman Willie Bell said the board likely will begin the process of finding a new chief this week. The City Charter mandates that the police board "shall conduct a professional search with a reputable and qualified executive search firm or other equally qualified entity to identify candidates for Chief of Police."
Bell said the board will discuss hiring a search firm at Thursday's meeting.
"When I look at the police department where it's at today, it's not perfect, but we are in a good place," Bell said. "I hope the new chief can work with the board the way Chief Craig did. He showed leadership and engaged the board. It was a good working relationship."
Longtime political consultant and activist Sam Riddle said he wants Craig's replacement to be "open to reform."
"We need a police chief to protect and serve, and all that means, including looking at options to traditional policing, so we don't go blindly into militarization," Riddle said.
The Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, said no matter who Duggan picks to replace Craig, there must be a community connection.
"It's ... important for them to be of Detroit," he said. "I don’t believe Chief Craig’s relationship with the community would have been as strong as it was if he had not had good people around him who have Detroit at heart, who are Detroiters and know how to communicate and relate to Detroiters."
Williams said the department doesn't need a new leader to come and "ride down on Detroit and get these criminals under control."
"Not because I don't want crime under control. But because I don't want an environment where they are more focused on locking people up, putting knees on their necks and putting handcuffs on folks to prove that they are doing policing," he said.
Craig, he added, is surrounded by support staff members who have helped him stay in touch with the community.
"That's one of the things that made him successful and kept us from moving into an extreme space of violence (during the protests)," he said. "Even the little bit of disruption that we had, everyone pretty much agreed it came from people outside the city of Detroit."
During the first three days of the protests, May 30-June 1, Detroit police arrested 244 people, 72 of whom were Detroit residents.
Police commissioner Willie Burton agreed the next chief should "put the community first."
"I thought Chief Craig did an outstanding job, and I hope we get a new chief who will continue being open with the community," Burton said. "We need to keep up that transparency if we're going to continue to build trust between the police and the community."