DEARBORN — Two weeks ago, in the early hours of Friday morning, Dearborn officers pulled over three young Arab Americans near Ford and Chase Roads. They abrasively searched their vehicle, as AANews reporters, who happened to be near the scene, watched from afar.
Eventually, police let the youths go.
Many Arab American residents are quick to praise Dearborn’s finest. However, with tensions intensifying between police and the communities they serve across the nation, the incident was a reminder of potential misunderstandings between cops and residents.
The ongoing aggressive policing, racial profiling and shootings of unarmed civilians by police officers continue to shake the nation. Last week, the family of Janet Wilson, who was fatally shot by police near Fairlane Mall in January, filed a $10 million lawsuit for her “wrongful death” against the Dearborn Police Department.
Last December, a mentally troubled man was shot in Detroit by a Dearborn police officer.
In light of these events, local civil rights groups are beginning to question the police department’s methods of enforcing the law, saying cops too often harass Arab and African Americans and use inappropriate tactics, and that the department lacks transparency.
Others have taken to social media to support the police against what they believe to be unjust accusations.
Last Wednesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, along with other Department of Justice officials, participated in forums with local organizations and activists to discuss mechanisms to boost community and law enforcement relations.
Amir Makled, a local attorney who represents victims of police abuse, questioned the sincerity and effectiveness of such forums.
He said his office has defended and litigated cases of excessive force, failure to follow protocol and many situations of inappropriate search tactics by Dearborn officers.
Makled said he is noticing a systemic pattern while undertaking the criminal defense cases. During traffic stops, he said officers often seek the result they intend to find, leading to unfounded thorough searches of vehicles, which could end in an arrest.
Another major concern is the underrepresentation of the Arab American community in the department, which employs an insufficient number of Arabs.
The AANews reported in April that four Arab officers quit the department over the past two years. Two officers claimed they’d been harassed by fellow cops.
Makled called for a community policing approach, in which officers engage citizens and could be familiar faces to community members.
“If they know they're gonna be policing a population of immigrants, then they should have proper training and cultural awareness seminars, especially regarding those with mental illness,” he said.
Makled added that the Dearborn Police Department is inadequate in terms of transparency. He urged releasing the officer’s dash cam footage showing Wilson’s death.
Makled said he has also witnessed underlying racism from the department while representing LIV Lounge, a bar that received complaints from neighbors about excessive disturbances and a shooting. The bar was sold while the City Council held hearings to revoke its liquor license.
He reiterated that the investigation was founded on the disfavor toward the large African American customer base the bar attracted.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter (CAIR-MI), said that while the Dearborn Police Department might seem attractive and not explicitly antagonistic on the surface, the force has a history of civil rights abuses and institutionalized racism.
The Dearborn Police Department is regularly involved in outreach programs in concert with federal organizations to counter radicalism and promote dialogue with the Arab and Muslim American communities.
The department attends every Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity (BRIDGES) meeting, a forum established shortly after 9/11 to address security and civil rights grievances between the government and the community.
In January, Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson visited Dearborn to announce strengthened cooperation between law enforcement and Muslim communities, with a focus on the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign and the Countering Violent Extremism program.
Walid said there is nothing explicitly racist in wanting to have those conversations with Muslim communities, but aiming the spotlight solely at Muslims implies an inherent type of profiling.
“Why aren’t there special meetings in churches with White people?” he asked.
He added that local residents and organizations who have a warm relationship with the department often issue a “pass” for the failings of a few officers.
However, Walid said the reality is an issue of patterns of behavior by the police.
In 2014, for example, The Arab American News obtained footage of Dearborn officers tackling and roughing up Ali Baydoun, a mentally challenged man, who was riding his bike home from work in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 2013.
Police said they tried to arrest Baydoun after he failed to tell them what he was doing in the neighborhood, adding that there had been larcenies by bike-riding suspects in the area.
Makled, Baydoun’s lawyer, argued that the police used excessive force and should not have stopped him in the first place.
Walid said the pro-police sentiment among many in Dearborn stems from residents wanting the security of feeling safe from individuals who do not reside in the city – namely African Americans.
He said the racism is reflected in the fact that African Americans make up a considerable number of those stopped by police, while they make up a minority of Dearborn residents.
Walid suggested officers’ behavior will not change unless the department introduces heavier consequences, like charging officers, should misconduct occur.
“It’s not personal”
Although many residents and civil rights organizations have complaints about the Police Department, all individuals interviewed for this article lauded the department’s recent efforts in remedying the situation.
The department participates in an annual National Night Out on Crime event, where residents are encouraged to strengthen partnerships to prevent crime in their neighborhoods. They can also get to know police, fire and SWAT team members, among others.
At this year’s event, held in the department’s parking lot on Aug. 2, a community member accompanied by his child said police officers bear a tough job and are required to approach every situation uniquely.
That’s why he voted for Proposal 1, a millage that was overwhelmingly renewed to provide $11 million for Dearborn’s police and fire departments.
Police Chief Ronald Haddad said the department’s policing methods are designed to keep both officers and citizens safe.
He added that police strive to ensure a return to normalcy in the community as quickly and safely as possible.
Haddad said officers are trained to be patient and deescalate situations, but urged people to do the same.
“When you engage in common sense approaches and stay calm and cooperate, an officer is not gonna get hurt and the citizen is not gonna get hurt," he said.
First Lt. Michael Shaw, a spokesman for the Michigan State Police, said the national discussion about community versus police furthers the problems between the two.
“There is no separation; I am part of the community,” Shaw said.
He acknowledged a bias held by many officers but added that everyone acquires some sort of bias as children. He said the bias that exists against police is perpetuated by TV shows like COPS, in which situations are dramatized and police are seen as overly aggressive.
“When we come up to your car, it’s not personal; it's business,” Shaw said. “We've stopped you for a reason, you've committed some type of violation.”