More than 200 mishandled citizen complaint cases were assigned to a Detroit Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) staff member whose role wouldn’t typically include investigative responsibilities and is now on paid leave pending three outside investigations.
Last month, BOPC Chief Investigator Jerome Warfield informed the board of 256 citizen complaint cases that were improperly closed in 2022 and 2023. The cases were never fully investigated and had not been brought to the board to be signed off on.
Detroit Documenters sent the city a Freedom of Information Act request for the spreadsheet of those closed cases and received it last week.
Of the 256 cases listed, the investigator assigned to 224 of them was Melanie White. At the time these cases were closed, White was serving as the interim board secretary — the top executive position at the BOPC. She was not an investigator. (White has been on paid leave since March, and her tenure as interim board secretary violated the City Charter due to her position with the city in the three preceding years.) We reached out to Warfield in search of some answers.
Warfield said “in normal times” the board secretary would not investigate citizen complaints. “In my tenure, I have never known that to be the case,” he said.
Warfield was hired to lead the Office of Chief Investigator (OCI) earlier this year and previously held the position from 2009 to 2013. Warfield said he has no knowledge of board practices during the years he was not at OCI.
OCI is responsible for investigating and resolving citizen complaints about police misconduct. Warfield explained the standard procedure of assigning cases to investigators begins when a citizen complaint report (CCR) is authorized by a supervising investigator. Administrative staff then assign those authorized cases to investigators working in OCI. Warfield told us he doesn’t know who assigned the cases to White. He also said city officials who oversee the “antiquated” case management system told him the system does not track who closed cases.
The vast majority of improperly closed cases were considered “backlogged” and were closed in the last three months of 2022 as the BOPC faced staffing shortages and scrutiny over its large backlog. Backlogged cases are those that have been open for more than 90 days.
Former Interim Chief Investigator Lawrence Akbar, who is also on paid leave pending external investigations, pledged in August 2022 to eliminate the case backlog by the end of that year. White told the board in November that “there has been tremendous progress in regards to decreasing the OCI backlog, and we are working continuously around the clock to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.”
Warfield told Outlier Media he stumbled upon the improperly closed cases by accident. He said in trying to inventory some boxes of backlogged case files, he found several files labeled “not on backlog list.” After realizing they had been closed without being fully investigated or signed off on, Warfield said he took the files to BOPC Secretary Victoria Shah who ran a larger query, finding all 256 cases.
These are not the same as cases labeled “administrative” closures, which under Akbar reached as high as 91% of closed cases in October 2022. In September 2023, only 12% of closed cases were administrative closures.
When asked about the 2022 rate of administrative closures, Warfield said it seemed high but wouldn’t speculate on what happened before he was hired. He said his focus is on making sure OCI currently operates under the narrow definitions of what qualifies for administrative closures.
Cases can be administratively closed for a number of reasons but are always fully investigated and signed off on by a commissioner. The most common situation occurs when an incident is witnessed by a number of people who all file duplicate CCRs. Rather than investigate the same incident multiple times, the investigation follows whichever CCR is received first. The others are notated with links to the investigation before being administratively closed.
Upon request from Warfield, commissioners voted on Sept. 28 to reopen all 256 improperly closed cases. As of Sept. 30, OCI had more than 980 open cases, 498 of which are backlogged. Those numbers do not include the 256 reopened cases.
The latest from the BOPC
At the BOPC’s Thursday meeting, commissioners approved a motion to ask City Council to increase the board’s budget by almost $1 million. The larger budget would be used to add a team of investigators and update the case management system.
BOPC Chair QuanTez Pressley announced commissioners had received a video from the Detroit Police Department of the 2022 police killing of Porter Burks, who was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time. Pressley said the city’s Law Department gave the BOPC a green light to publish the video. The board voted to establish a BOPC webpage to host the Burks video and future incident videos.
Detroit Documenters Alex Klaus, Ashley Williams, Carole Hawke, Elyas Khan and Heather Alder contributed to this report.