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Detroit Activist Frank Hammer says activists are outraged that Detroit’s badly needed civilian review board of police – dismantled as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceeding – is not being restored now that the city is out of bankruptcy

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

As protests against police brutality and demanding police be held accountable for abuse continue around the country, we turn to Detroit, a city with a long history of police violence but also a strong movement for police accountability. This included a civilian review board with some significant powers to hold police accountable. The board was dismantled as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, but it’s not being restored now that the city has emerged from bankruptcy.

Well, joining us to discuss this once against again is Frank Hammer. He is joining us from Detroit, Michigan. He’s a retired GM employee, former president and chairman of local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He’s a Detroit labor, community, and environmental activist, as well as a board member for The Real News.

Thank you so much for joining us, Frank.


NOOR: So, Frank, one of the discussions we’ve had at The Real News is about civilian review boards. The one in Baltimore is considered a toothless tiger. It has no power to hold police accountable. Now, through our research and our work, we know that Detroit, it has long history of police violence. It had a consent decree and ten years of federal oversight, which helped decrease violence. And it also had a civilian review board, which had some significant power.

Now, police abuse continues, profiling continues in Detroit, but civilians, the community had some powers to hold police accountable, and that no longer exists. Now that Detroit has been lifted from bankruptcy, what’s happening to regain that civilian review board and restore the power within and to the community?

HAMMER: Yeah. I think it’s important for folks to know something of the background that you’re describing. The city–and I’m talking about the population in this town–decided that the city needed to have a new charter–third time in history that this has happened.

NOOR: And what year was this, Frank?

HAMMER: This was in 2009. And one of the most significant focuses about that charter is that it brought about, in 2012, for example, the election of the City Council by districts. That was a major change in the way of governance of the city of Detroit.

NOOR: So, Frank, before we talk about the latest news with review board, give us some context, give us some history on how this board came into existence.

HAMMER: The city used to have a toothless board. It was a review board, fi ive members on the board of police commissioners appointed by the mayor. The City Charter Commission was set up in 2009 and was entrusted with revising the charter in 2012 after many, many community meetings, revisions, discussions, etc. They came back to the city of Detroit with a new charter. It came up for election. The city of voted for it.

NOOR: And this is in 2012. This is in 2012, you’re saying.

HAMMER: Yeah, in 2012.

NOOR: Okay.

HAMMER: And that new charter, which brought about, for example, the election of the City Council by districts, also beefed up the Board of Police Commissioners. It created 11 commissioners instead of five, seven of whom were to be elected by the city, and they were given a significant number of powers that the previous civilian board did not have. And I actually have a list right here. They have the power to approve the police budget. They had final say on discipline cases. They were to approve promotions, hire a personnel director, and issue an annual report on police activity.

Those powers have now been lost, and they no longer are part of the board of police commissioners. They have been suspended for a year. The head of the Board of Police Commissioners, a guy by the name of Willie Bell, who himself is a policeman for 30 years, went to the City Council saying, we are supposed to be restoring democracy to the city of Detroit, but the powers of the Board of Police Commissioners have not been restored. And the answer he got from the city was: we do not have the power to invest that power back into the Board of Police Commissioners, because of the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceedings. And [incompr.] power has now been suspended. And the fear is that within a year, that there’s going to be a revision of that charter to do away with the civilian oversight over the Police Department.

NOOR: And it’s pretty easy to argue that the Detroit Police Department does need strong oversight. You know, the feds stepped in after the police killed about 50 people in five years, and they’ve settled lawsuits for tens of millions of dollars. So these problems were systemic. But the federal oversight was lifted just a few months ago.

HAMMER: The federal oversight was lifted in August, so it’s right preceding this latest event. And it was the police–the reason they were having that oversight was for all the reasons that we’re seeing in Ferguson, in Staten Island, that the excessive police violence and other matters, like what we’ve seen elsewhere in the country. And so here we have this context of massive protests against the actions of police. We had something here in the City of Detroit that would be beneficial to prevent those things from happening, and they’re doing away with it.

NOOR: So I’m sure many people in the police accountability movement will see this as a step backwards. What is happening on the ground to help restore this power? And is it going to need another mass movement like we’ve witnessed in the past in Detroit?

HAMMER: The mass movement is already–let me put it this way. Organizations that are already very concerned about police powers, including, for example, the Detroit coalition for police against police brutality, the NAACP, and other groups are already taking steps to alert the city of Detroit as to what’s happened and are going to, I’m sure, mobilize over the next weeks and months to overturn this decision and restore the power of the police commissioners to what the charter delegated and as the voice of Detroit voted on. You know?

NOOR: Well, Frank, we’ll certainly keep following this story. Thank you so much for joining us.

HAMMER: I thank you, Jaisal. Thank you very much.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Frank Hammer

Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.