Accountability and Transparency Now! How Detroiters Can Leverage Their Right to Civilian Oversight 

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Civilian Oversight in Detroit Today

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) was established in 1974 to provide civilian oversight of the Detroit Police Department. The Office of the Chief Investigator (OCI) is the investigative arm of the BOPC, and addresses complaints against members of DPD. For information on the history, structure, and powers of the BOPC, visit about-bopc-and-civilian-oversight.

In addition, various agencies provide some level of guidance and/or investigative authority over matters involving DPD. These include but are not limited to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Auditor General (AG), the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Michigan Commissioner on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES), City of Detroit Ombudsman, etc.

The City of Detroit Charter, item #5 of the Declaration of Rights states “The City’s police forces are in all cases and at all times in strict subordination to the civil power.That means the people of Detroit have authority over the Detroit Police Department (DPD).

Whether you are looking for better police-community relations, police transparency and accountability, public safety reform and/or abolition, you must understand and utilize your authority over your police department. With authority, you can affect change; and that is the premise of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement has established the following “Thirteen Principles for Effective Oversight.” For details on each principle, visit

Gaps in Detroit Fulfilling the “Thirteen Principles of Effective Oversight”

Thirteen Principles for Effective Oversight Risks or Gaps in Detroit
1. Independence from real or perceived influence from law enforcement, political actors, and other special interests.
  • BOPC is fully funded by the City of Detroit budget, subject to influence and approval by the Mayor and City Council.
  • DPD leadership is included in planning conversations between Board leadership and the Mayor regarding Board budget, processes, resources, staff, etc.
  • DPD is the gatekeeper for Board members and staff receiving building access, equipment, system access, supplies, and gratuities.
  • 4 of the 11 Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor. DPD leadership has assisted, at least administratively, with the appointee candidate selection process.
2. Clearly Defined and Adequate Jurisdiction and Authority to achieve organizational goals and be responsive to communities in the performance of its duties to the greatest degree possible and without limitation.
  • DPD and City officials have signed union agreements that nullify, or give the perception of nullifying, the Board’s final authority in “imposing or reviewing discipline of employees of the department”. In addition, although the Charter does not specify that the authority is limited to sworn members, in practice the Board fails to exercise this authority over DPD civilian members.



3. Unfettered Access to Records and Facilities relevant to an investigation or other matters within the scope of a civilian oversight agency’s authority in a timely manner.
  • Although the Board appoints the DPD Director of Personnel, the Board and its Administrative Staff have no access to personnel records.
  • Although the OCI staff has limited access to some DPD records and video footage, from time-to-time DPD will reduce access levels (i.e.  limit to certain ranks) or remove access to certain records (i.e. video related to a high profile incident).
  • When DPD provides data, it is already aggregated (summarized). This prevents the Board from independently analyzing for accuracy, irregularities/outliers, and trends.
4. Access to Law Enforcement Executives and Internal Affairs Staff who should be required to provide timely, written, and public responses detailing why a particular recommendation was either accepted or rejected.
  • Board requests for information, data, and recommendations are often left not responded to. When the Board (OCI) sustains a complaint allegation, DPD does not advise the Board what or if any action was taken on the individual finding.
5. Full Cooperation should be a condition of employment for all officers and staff within the agency’s jurisdiction.
  • When DPD does not agree with the Board’s requests or approach to oversight, DPD leadership engages in stonewalling tactics against the Board and staff members.
6. Sustained Stakeholder Support from those who value independence, accountability, transparency, and the maintenance of productive relationships, even in times of disagreement.
  • Members of the public are the primary stakeholders, but not enough of the community supports oversight by attending meetings, providing input, and advocating to City Council to remove barriers of oversight.
  • Secondary stakeholders are City decision makers (Mayor, City Council, Law Department) who must stop forgoing the values listed in favor of attempting to protect the reputation of themselves and their appointees.
7. Adequate Funding and Operational Resources to perform thorough, timely, highly competent work by experienced, professional, and regularly trained staff, volunteers, and board/commission members.
  • The Board is not adequately funded to offer competitive salaries to consistently draw and retain a sufficient number of competent staff members to fulfill the functions of the Board.
  • The Charter is structured such that Commissioners are volunteer (unpaid), which limits the pool of candidates who have capacity to do this full time work on a part time volunteer schedule. Law Enforcement Oversight is not a hobby. Detroit deserves better!
  • The combination of the city processes for recruiting and the Board’s processes for appointing make filling positions an excessively long process, losing many candidates in the process.
8. Public Reporting and Transparency that is accessible and easy to understand the agency’s authority, purpose, procedures, accomplishments, operations, patterns and trends in complaints or discipline, the agency’s recommendations, policy reviews, audits, investigations and issues that may be of concern to the public.
  • Because the Board does not have access to DPD records and data, it has very little to report on other than the receipt and findings of Citizen Complaints. Even with that, the Board doesn’t have access to any actions DPD takes on Citizen Complaints. The Board can only pass along to the public reports that DPD analyzed and published.
9. Policy and Patterns in Practice Analysis and recommendations (data-driven, evidence based, and publicly available) to address systemic problems of law enforcement agencies.
  • Because the Board does not have access to DPD records and data, it cannot conduct independent analysis to make data-driven and evidence-based recommendations on policy. The Board can only make recommendations based on the reports that DPD has analyzed and provided to the Board.
10. Community Outreach build awareness of its existence, share reports and findings with the public, build relationships with stakeholders, recruit volunteers, solicit community input and involvement, facilitate learning and greater understanding, broker improved relationships, build coalitions, and develop a greater capacity for problem solving.
  • Due to inadequate funding and operational resources, the Board has not been able to execute a strategy to be in constant communication with the community. In fact, outreach from DPD to the community outpaces outreach from the Board by far; cutting the Board out of the Police-Community relationship and narrative.
11. Community Involvement and input regarding how civilian oversight should function and which accountability issues it should address will result in the creation of a “best fit” oversight system that can meet community needs and expectations.
  • The Board normally limits public comments to 2 minutes instead of demonstrating that it values the Community’s input by offering more roundtable dialog around police policies, public safety strategies, police reform, and the most effective oversight strategies for Detroit.
  • Not enough Community participate in the Board meetings to take advantage of every opportunity to have input.
 12. Confidentiality, Anonymity, and Protection from Retaliation for those involved with or contacting the oversight agency.
  • When staff members have advocated for transparency, filed citizen complaints, and cooperated with investigations, some Commissioners have themselves and/or allowed DPD to establish a workplace of hostility for staff for doing the right thing.
13. Procedural Justice and Legitimacy positively impact the public’s compliance with laws and willingness to assist in crime control efforts; reduces misconduct and corruption; increases endorsement of policing reforms; reduces mistrust and cynicism with the community; increases obedience to supervisors; increases officer well-being; and increased complainant satisfaction.
  • Due to the gaps identified above, the Board has not been able to secure the public’s trust as a legitimate oversight agency that can actually provide procedural justice. Years of dysfunction and corruption has left a backlog of citizen complaints, citizen complaints closed inappropriately; and the actual and/or appearance of lack of scrutiny in the approvals of promotions, DPD budget, and policies.

*Thirteen Principles for Effective Oversight created by The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. For more details on each principle, visit


Strategies and Next Steps to Consider  

Individuals and organizations interested in changing the landscape of Civilian Oversight in Detroit should leverage NACOLE as a resource in your education and efforts. NACOLE and the network of oversight agencies across the country have assisted with reforming and standing up new oversight structures.  Detroit is not alone!

Police Departments are large and complex. Oversight agencies need to grow and diversify to keep pace.  The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is not enough. Other cities, such as Chicago, have multiple oversight agencies to cover various aspects of oversight. Detroit should set up an additional oversight agency to fill the gaps described above; including independent and adequate funding by securing privately funded grants rather than politically controlled municipal budget dollars.

Petition Detroit City Council to adopt an ordinance mandating the timely release of Body Worn Camera footage in all use of force police interactions. See a draft ordinance for Detroit, which is patterned after Chicago’s policy:

Petition City Council to oppose the signing of union contracts (approved by a few) that undermine the City Charter (approved by the people of Detroit). Promote ballot proposals that will clarify and strengthen the authority of the BOPC; and provide it with adequate structure to operate effectively.

Take elections for Police Commissioner seriously. Who sits in those seats matters! Do your research.  Choose competent candidates with a track record for advocating for the people’s voice. Not many candidates in your district? Plan ahead with your local activists and civil rights groups to stand up a candidate you can be proud to support! Then engage! Participate! Elected and appointed officials must be held accountable for the duration of their terms. Casting your ballot is only the beginning!