Police disciplined following internal investigation of videos

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 3, 2013

 The Rev. Tim Pelc, of St. Ambrose Catholic Church, leads a prayer Nov. 27 as Grosse Pointe Park city leaders release details of an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct by some of the city’s public safety officers.

The Rev. Tim Pelc, of St. Ambrose Catholic Church, leads a prayer Nov. 27 as Grosse Pointe Park city leaders release details of an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct by some of the city’s public safety officers.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE PARK — Five Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Department officers identified as being involved in the filming or distribution of inappropriate videos or still images are facing disciplinary action after a weeklong internal investigation.

The videos — two of which had been uncovered as of press time, Park spokesperson Greg Bowens said — feature a Detroit resident said to be mentally challenged being asked to sing. A still image of a black man with a racist caption was also uncovered, according to Bowens. In the wake of media reports about these videos, city leaders have formally apologized to the victim, who is said to be well-known to members of the department.

In front of a crowd of more than a dozen local residents and members of the media, Park Public Safety Chief David Hiller released the results of his department’s internal investigation during a press conference Nov. 27 at The Ark at St. Ambrose Catholic Church. Located across the street from Park City Hall, the church straddles the Park/Detroit border, with portions of its property in both cities.

Hiller — who called the videos “totally unacceptable” — said the five officers involved — one of whom recorded the videos — have all been suspended and lost pay for up to 60 days, and they have been placed on extended probation with the department. The punishment for each officer depends on the extent of his role in this incident, but each received a minimum of a 24-hour suspension, he said. Employment law prevented Hiller from disclosing more details about the punishment faced by the officers involved, but he said, “I can assure you, discipline is being handed out fairly.”

Hiller said some officers shared the photo or videos, or both, while others knew about the incident and failed to report it to a supervisor. The officers weren’t identified, but Hiller said they all worked on the same shift. The images were taken in March 2012, he said. Hiller said he has “no idea” how many people may have received forwarded copies of the videos before news of this scandal broke in mid-November.

“We express our sincere apologies to (the victim) and the community we serve,” Hiller said. “The existence of the videos shows to me we need to do a better job. We need to correct it.”

To that end, he said the department has realigned all of its shifts, including the reassignment of supervisors, splitting up the five officers involved in this. In addition, Hiller said he was bringing in representatives with the Northeast Guidance Center to lead cultural sensitivity and awareness training, including how to properly deal with people who are mentally disabled. Although he said his department has had sensitivity training in the past, budget cutbacks resulted in “a lack of it in recent years.”

Sherry McRill, a Park resident and the vice president of community-based mental health facility the Northeast Guidance Center, said her center has trained more than 1,400 police officers in Detroit and elsewhere in Wayne County. She said their training would include working with dispatchers and officers in the Park.

“We’re happy to be engaged with our officers,” McRill said.

Officers throughout the department will also “receive extensive training” on appropriate social media activity, Hiller said.

City Manager Dale Krajniak said he has known Hiller throughout Krajniak’s more-than 27 years with the Park.

“He is a good man, dedicated and hardworking,” Krajniak said. “He sets a very high standard for his department, and his department reflects those standards. We were very surprised by this incident.”

Krajniak said Hiller and Captain David Loch have done “a thorough, no-nonsense investigation of this matter. They have identified the need to improve and are already implementing steps to do so.”

He said the Park is the most diverse of the five Grosse Pointes.

“The real issue is, we all make mistakes,” Krajniak said. “We learn from our mistakes, and we move forward.”

Hiller said the officers involved have all been “very apologetic for what they did,” but he wouldn’t call this a systemic problem within the department.

“They know they made a mistake,” he said.

As to a question about increasing the diversity of officers on his department, Hiller said they’ve only hired one new officer in the past four years, but added, “That’s certainly an area we would want to address.”

Bowens said 17 percent of the Park’s residents are “people of color,” and he said 40 percent of the city’s businesses are “owned by women or people of color.”

George and Erika Baker, who are black and said they’ve lived in the Park for five years, expressed their support for the city, with George Baker praising “the quality of life, the services, the neighborliness.”

“I’ve never had any negative experiences, so I stand behind the city completely,” Erika Baker said. “I don’t see any systematic problems in Grosse Pointe Park.”

The Rev. Marcia Fairrow, pastor at Higher Ground Ministries UCC in the Park, who is black, also said she was throwing her “full support behind the police department of Grosse Pointe Park.”

“They’re always cordial,” she continued. “They’re also right there when I need them. I have never seen them display (the type of behavior) I heard of (during the video scandal).”

But not everyone was happy with the city’s response. The Rev. Malik Shabazz, a Detroit activist who led a peaceful protest of the incident at Park City Hall following news reports about the videos, said he felt the department needed to take firmer action against the officers involved.

“Someone should be fired, yes,” Shabazz said. “I also want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

He said he’s heard from eastside Detroiters who have told him they’ve been “harassed by the police” for using the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library, which is located next to Park City Hall and near the city’s Detroit border. The department denies inappropriate behavior of this sort.

“I’m very disappointed,” Shabazz said. “I expected stronger action. … The fact of the matter is, a mentally challenged human being was humiliated; an African-American man was humiliated. The officers are wrong.”