After months of hearing pleas for intervention, the U.S. Department of Justice is coming to Dearborn to help the police department handle a growing mistrust of city police officers by minorities in the wake of two deadly shootings by officers in recent months.
In both instances, the victims were African Americans from Detroit. And the city’s Muslim community has increasingly expressed concerns in recent years about Dearborn Police, saying they’re not hiring enough Muslim police officers, mistreating Muslim women who wear hijab after they’re arrested, and not being open with the community.
The shootings prompted civil rights groups to question the Dearborn Police Department, which called on the federal government for help. Several rallies have been held in Dearborn in recent months by African-Americans groups and others calling for justice in the shooting deaths, which are being investigated by Michigan State Police and Detroit Police.
Today, the Department of Justice announced that it will provide technical assistance to the department through its COPS Office — Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Federal law enforcement officials will hold a press conference in Dearborn Thursday to announce the help that will be provided.
“Essentially, we’re responding to a request for assistance from the police department,” said Mary Brandenberger, press secretary for the Department of Justice. “It’s not like we’re the civil rights division coming in with legal mandates or consent decrees … What we do to advance community policing with police reforms is strictly voluntary.”
The DOJ initiative comes in the wake of two deadly shootings, in December of Kevin Matthews and in January of Janet Wilson.
Attorneys and representatives of the families of the two shooting victims praised the DOJ’s decision to come to Dearborn, but said that more needs to be done to bring justice.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the resolution,” said the Rev. Charles Williams, pastor at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit who heads the Michigan branch of the National Action Network and is a representative of the Matthews family. “There is a serious issue with regards to what has happened in Dearborn. We’re looking for justice. … We’re hoping that the culture of the Dearborn Police department will change.”
“The fact that the DOJ is opting to come in means that there is something going on in the police department that is troubling.”
Wilson, 31, of Detroit, was shot dead in her car on Jan. 27 near the Fairlane Town Center.
Vince Colella, an attorney who represents the family of Wilson, said he hopes that the DOJ will improve its training in terms of how police deal with those who are minorities or have mental health issues. In both cases, the shooting victims had mental health issues, were African American, and unarmed, he said.
“The family is still looking for answers,” he said. “They are still very hopeful that (Wayne County Prosecutor) Kym Worthy and the prosecutor’s office will carefully review all of the evidence and bring charges for the officer responsible for Wilson’s death.”
This week, Colella filed a motion in Wayne County Circuit Court asking a judge to compel Dearborn Police to release any audio and video recordings of the Jan. 27 shooting.
Colella had filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit seeking information about the case. Dearborn Police is refusing to release any information about the shooting.
“This is a murder,” Cassie Bass, a niece of Wilson, had said in February at a press conference outside Dearborn Police headquarters. “If I was a murderer, I would be behind bars, underneath the jail.”
Michigan State Police said Wilson drove at police in her vehicle before officers fired at her on Hubbard Drive. Police said that Wilson had driven away from the Fairlane Center after a dispute with security at the shopping mall.
Wilson’s death came one month after Kevin Matthews was killed by multiple gunshots fired by a Dearborn officer.
Police at the time of the Dec. 23 shooting said the officer opened fire on Matthews after he ran and then struggled with the lone officer. They said Matthews was wanted on a probation violation warrant and suspected in a larceny.
But protesters charge that Dearborn police aggressively targeted Matthews, who family members say was on medication for schizophrenia.
“We need changes in policy, in Dearborn and everywhere,” minister Malik Shabazz said following Matthews’ death.
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