A quick confession. I don’t know Detroit’s new police chief, Ralph Godbee, aside from what has been reported in the media lately about him and that he is also a minister. I know he appears to be smarter than his former boss, Kwame Kilpatrick, because when confronted with allegations of a sex-text recently, between him and a subordinate officer, Godbee did the right thing by admitting and apologizing to his family and the public right away.
He did not deny the allegations as some arrogant taxpayer-funded officials would do, thinking it would only be a one-day story.
Instead, he removed the sting from the story by admitting it, a cunning way to take away news incentive from reporters.
There may be other things I and other observers of Detroit’s political process don’t know about Godbee. But one thing I know for sure is that Godbee is taking over a police department that has been plagued with so many problems. From an outdated crime lab and poor dealings with residents to the sometimes unresponsiveness to complaints from those seeking help from 1300 Beaubien.
And, of course, the federal consent decree that is costing millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure that the police department becomes not only one of the best professional institutions in the country, but also civil rights conscious when it comes to dealing with citizens.
The police should protect, not instill fear. The men and women in blue should be working to safeguard people’s rights, not infringe upon those rights. They should uphold their obligation to protect.
But I, like many others, am willing to give Godbee the benefit of the doubt and the chance to prove himself at departments in the country.
He has been at the department since 1987 which by any standard of definition is more than enough experience to know how to manage the department. Godbee is not ignorant to the issues — internal as well as external — that are confronting the police department.
Those who support him say he is the best choice to lead right now because he understands the nexus between community policing and law enforcement.
Certainly his elevation to the position of chief of police would not dramatically end the negative perception that some have long held regarding the police department. It won’t all of a sudden reduce the carjacking and burglaries in our neighborhoods.
But if Godbee sees community policing as a tool to improve relations between law enforcement and the community in a way to deter crime, then he is on the right track.
Thomas Brandon, special agent in charge of the ATF, said on my television program that one way for law enforcement officers to effectively tackle crime, and maintain a healthy relationship between themselves and those they are sworn to protect, is by demonstrating respect for all in the community.
Most lawsuits that are filed against the City of Detroit result from police dealings with residents who feel disrespected and violated by officers.
At police commission meetings, commissioners are often greeted with a litany of complaints from citizens concerning how certain officers misbehave on the job, interpreting the law in their own way, instead of what’s in the books.
That does not negate the fact that there are officers — a large majority we believe — in the department who work professionally and tirelessly around the clock to ensure the integrity of law enforcement, and to maintain that essential community relationship.
But for Godbee to make a mark on the department, he will have to assemble an independent team that’s ready to go to work. That team should form the brain trust of the department, ensuring that Detroit taxpayers are getting the most for their investment. The brain trust group will ensure that the city is not ensnared in any kind of police scandal that would distract from the work of fighting crime.
Now that the permanent top cop has been selected, he needs to go to work, and the police department cannot be at the mercy of political expediency and loyalty.
Even though the police chief serves at the discretion of Mayor Bing, Godbee has to have some level of independence if lessons of past administrations are any indication of what can happen otherwise.
Detroit cannot afford another episode of the politicization of the civil service. Officers should not have to feel like they are walking a tightrope where they are caught up between the demands of political favoritism and maintaining the tenets and sanctity of their jobs.
Unfortunately, too often we witness an unsavory connection between police power and political loyalty. The end result is hard- pressed taxpayers footing the bill of something they didn’t approve of and never would.
It is interesting to remember that the problems that brought Detroit the change we now see have been triggered by officers who are mandated to protect.
Gary Brown, Detroit City Council president pro tem who was a deputy chief at the time, was only beginning to investigate misconduct in former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s security detail (officers from the police department). That investigation had a snowball-like effect and the story that came out of it had so many complexities that many were wondering what was really going on with the former administration.
This time around Detroit can be spared the trouble, waste of taxpayer money and time to of another scandal that has its roots in the police department.
Detroit is going through almost a moment of political cleansing and we hope that Godbee, who stands as a key figure in this historic juncture, will learn from what has happened in the past and offer the kind of leadership that puts the community first.
If Ralph Godbee remains focused on the job, he can further restore the integrity of the Detroit Police Department and also improve the city’s image and morale in the process.
Senior editor Bankole Thompson directs the editorial expression of the Michigan Chronicle. He is the author of the upcoming book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” volume one of a trilogy on President Barack Obama which will be launched Oct 22 at a national symposium on Obama’s impact on Blacks at Wayne State University Law School Auditorium. He is the host of “Center Stage With Bankole Thompson” airing every Saturday at 1 p.m. on WADL TV 38 (Comcast Channel 4). This Saturday, Sept. 25, will feature a roundtable about the Congressional Black Caucus 2010 Legislative Conference which recently ended in Washington, DC. You can also listen to his weekly analysis on the Detroit National Public Radio Affiliate, WDET 101.9 FM Thursdays at 11:15 a.m. on the Craig Fahle show.