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Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon said that recent media attention and lawsuits over inmates dying while in precinct lockups may result in reforms in department policy.
"Now that this is brought to our attention we are looking at all the deaths," said Napoleon in an interview with the Metro Times last week. "The lawsuit and the inquiries caused us to re-examine that and, quite frankly, I appreciate you bringing it to our attention."
The Metro Times' article ("Death in Detroit Lockups" Sept. 15-22), which Channel 7 WXYZ-TV followed up on last week, reported that several prisoners held at Detroit Police Department precinct lockups died in their cells because they were denied medical assistance, according to court records. Some prisoners were heroin addicts allegedly suffering from drug withdrawal. Police department policy requires that sick prisoners and those suffering from drug withdrawal be taken to the hospital.
The Metro Times' article also revealed that the police department does not track inmate deaths, which Napoleon said may change. "We track prisoner injuries during police action, police shooting deaths, but (not) specific people who die in cell blocks. I imagine our entire policy will be revised as it relates to that," said Napoleon.
Attorney David Robinson represents the families of two prisoners who died in Detroit jails; lawsuits have been filed on their behalf against the city and several officers. Last year, Robinson requested information regarding all inmates who died in jail between 1992 and 1997. The police department provided him a list of 17 prisoners who died in the five-year period. Robinson, however, suspected that the list was not complete. According to court records the Metro Times obtained last week, his suspicions were correct.
Robert Lee Love died of pneumonia in 1994 at the 5th Precinct after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Love was not among the 17 prisoners listed.
Attorney Gary Jones, who represents Love's family in their lawsuit against the city and several officers, contacted the Metro Times after reading the article about prisoners dying in city jails.
Robinson, a former Detroit police officer, said that if the department wants to prevent similar occurrences in the future, tracking inmate deaths is critical.
"How can (they) straighten out a problem if (they) don't know about it?" asked Robinson, who also represented the families of two female prisoners who died in Detroit jails about three years ago. Those cases together settled for $500,000. "That is the purpose of having risk management, of keeping records, otherwise these cases will fall through the cracks."
Napoleon said that omitting Love's name from the list may be due to not tracking these prisoner deaths.
"That could be the explanation because it is not what we normally keep," he said. "But I don't know if that is the explanation." Napoleon also said that he is investigating why Love's name was absent from the list.
Robinson said that the police department's failure to track these deaths shows that it is indifferent to them. "Their lives are not important enough to make a record of," he said.
Asked whether he was pleased that the lawsuits may bring about change in police department policy, Robinson said that he is cautiously hopeful.
"I look at it with guarded optimism," he said, "because you don't cash a check till the money's in the bank."