Several months after the city notified the Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners it has been violating the City Charter for years, the BOPC says it will finally do something about it.

The BOPC has dragged its collective feet on hiring for two key staff positions that make effective oversight of the Detroit Police Department possible. 

The City Charter prohibits both the chief investigator and board secretary jobs from being filled by someone who has worked for the City of Detroit in the last three years. Since 2020, the positions have been unlawfully occupied by interim employees who were city employees when they were hired. 

“It’s very difficult to get into the minds of the persons who drafted the charter,” said city Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett. “I do think that the idea probably was that you didn’t want people directly associated with the Police Department to suddenly find themselves in an oversight role answering citizen complaints about police behavior.”

The failure of the BOPC to fill these positions has been raised at commission meetings for almost a year. BOPC Chairman Bryan Ferguson said the city’s Human Resources Department told the board that it’s trying to help with hiring for other boards and positions across the city. Ferguson also said that the committee in charge of working with HR has been stringing the process out.

Late last month, Mallet’s Law Department sent another letter to the board saying the city will fire both interim chief investigator Lawrence Akbar and interim board secretary Melanie White from their interim positions on Dec. 15.

Mallett said his department felt the need to send a stern, public letter to the board after seven months of asking commissioners to act and seeing no progress. 

“The letter had absolutely the desired effect,” Mallett said. “The process suddenly picked up speed.”

The jobs of board secretary, the commission’s most senior position, and chief investigator are the only two jobs with the BOPC that city employees are prohibited from taking. White and Akbar were already working for the BOPC, and therefore ineligible to fill the jobs, when they were promoted to the two positions on a temporary basis. Akbar was the board’s supervising investigator until February 2020 when Polly McCalister resigned from the chief investigator position. White was the board’s policy advisor but became interim board secretary in December 2019 after Gregory Hicks was fired from the position

According to officials at the city’s HR Department, the board has received dozens of applicants for both positions since 2020.

The Personnel & Training Committee is scheduled to interview two more candidates for chief investigator and three for board secretary today. Ferguson said the new goal is to hire people before Dec. 15.

Little movement and limited accountability

Commissioner Willie Bell has been in charge of the hiring process, as chair of the Personnel & Training Committee, since March. Last week, Ferguson announced Bell would be removed from that role and replaced by Commissioner Hernandez. 

Ferguson placed the blame for the personnel troubles at Bell’s feet. He told Outlier Media that job candidates dropped out because the hiring process was taking too long under Bell’s leadership. He gave the example of résumés and applications that were submitted in June were not reviewed until earlier this month.

“I had to make a change because you can’t keep kicking this can down the road,” said Ferguson, who is an ex officio and has sat in on Personnel & Training Committee meetings for Bell’s entire tenure as chair. “I don’t want the board to be sued.” 

Ferguson said he asked Bell and the HR department to increase the frequency of the committee’s meetings to more than once a month, in order to get more interviews in, but that request wasn’t successful until recently. 

But commissioners are no strangers to trading blame. BOPC meetings are marked by outbursts, censures, communication mishaps and bickering. Commissioner Willie Burton was removed from a meeting by police officers in 2019. During last week’s meeting, Commissioner Cedric Banks urged the board to get along and held up a handmade poster board sign saying, “Leaders encourage one another. Leaders make people better.” 

Before his removal as chair, Bell told Outlier the HR Department was to blame for the delays in hiring eligible candidates. He also said he doesn’t think the corporation counsel has the authority to fire White and Akbar.

“I ain’t going to set no deadline,” he said then. “I thought it was totally inappropriate for the deputy corporation counsel to send that type of notice out, especially involving long-term employees.”

Bell will have limited power over the hiring process going forward. He said he will leave the Personnel & Training Committee entirely but will still be a part of the citizen complaint and the budget committees.

“When I got on the board, I took an oath not to violate the charter, and so far, we have been violating the charter,” Ferguson said. 

Mallett said his office is not in a position to assess the capabilities of White and Akbar but that the board is not in compliance with the law with them in these positions.

Akbar and White have been expected to fulfill the obligations of their old positions while in the new interim positions. In 2021 — while filling both positions — White made $113,533, and Akbar made $102,949, according to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. 

Mallett told Outlier Media that once White and Akbar are removed from their interim positions, they will be allowed to return to their previous positions at BOPC. 

“What we’re saying is that you know, an organization as important to the city as the Board of Police Commissioners cannot stand outside of the law and do whatever they feel like,” Mallett said. “These persons had been in interim positions for an abnormally long period of time.”

There’s a current backlog of 438 citizen complaints against Detroit police, with a goal of clearing it by Dec. 31. Commissioner Ricardo Moore asked Akbar during Thursday’s meeting if the goal is still to clear it all by the end of the year.

“Considering the fact that I don’t know how long I’ll be sitting in this seat … we’re doing our best to get them down as low as possible,” Akbar responded.

Correction: The story stated at least two candidates interviewed for the chief investigator position in February were city employees and this showed a lack of proper vetting. This was an error and has been removed. The candidates were interviewed for an investigator position. There is no prohibition against current city employees working as BOPC investigators.

Reach MALAK SILMI, the Report for America Corps Member for Outlier Media, at malak@outliermedia.org or 734-985-0377.