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Wait, wait - don't shoot!

Film crew detained and insulted by Detroit police; no word yet from Bing on snafu

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Published 6/9/2010

Wait, wait — don't shoot!

The video is harrowing. Shot last November, the event was captured by a film crew shooting a movie in Detroit.

They were making a movie titled Vigilante, about militant activist Hayward Brown, who became a controversial cause celébre when he beat assault and murder charges in the aftermath of three shootouts with Detroit police. The first two shootouts rocked Detroit, triggering a massive, heavy-handed manhunt — and a massive backlash in Detroit's targeted black community. Brown's two alleged accomplices died in a shootout with cops in Atlanta before he was apprehended in Detroit.

With his case being handled by prominent lawyer and later Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel Sr. (the father of the current councilman Ken Cockrel Jr.), Brown was able to win acquittal only to be killed in Detroit several years later in a crime that was never solved.

On Nov. 5, B.U.P. Films, a local indie outfit owned by Detroiter Sean Brown (a cousin of Hayward) was shooting a scene outside a home in northwest Detroit. A group of actors were playing police about to conduct a raid, weapons drawn, when real police showed up, weapons drawn.

It wasn't a polite encounter.

"Don't fucking move!" shouted the real cops, as the actors, with movie lights set up around them and a camera man filming, found themselves on the ground, hands cuffed behind their backs.

The camera, now on the ground, kept rolling, not capturing much of visual interest but recording dialogue between cops and filmmakers, who were trying to tell police that they'd received clearance from the city's film office, formally known as the Mayor's Office of Special Events and Film (MOSEF).

"Shut the fuck up," screamed one of the cops, obviously unaware the camera continued to roll.

Later, one of the members of the film crew, most of whom were forced to lay on the ground still handcuffed long after it became perfectly obvious that these were only actors carrying fake guns, tried to explain that this wasn't some rogue operation.

They talked of working with the Mayor Dave Bing's office, and MOSEF, and even Councilman Cockrel.

"Forget Ken Cockrel," snarls one of the cops. "Forget the fucking mayor and everybody else. They're not going to pay for your funeral when you get killed, I guarantee that."

That is one of the things that impressed News Hits most about this whole incident — the way Detroit's finest comported themselves, and the restrained respect in the way they showed not only the suspects but also their city's highest elected official.

"Forget the fucking mayor ..."

Nice.

Four members of the crew were charged with brandishing facsimile weapons, a misdemeanor city ordinance violation.

Now, common sense might dictate that those charges would have been dropped, given the circumstances. But, common sense isn't always the hallmark of Prosecutor Kym Worthy's office, which wasted taxpayer money pursuing this loser of a case until a District Court judge dismissed all charges in April.

So, why are we writing about all this now?

Last week, Mark Fancher, a Michigan ACLU attorney involved with the organization's Racial Justice Project, sent a letter to the mayor urging him to clean up whatever problems there are with the MOSEF that led to what could have been a tragic incident.

Sean Brown tells us that his film company was told over the phone that permission to film had been granted. But the film office never informed the Police Department.

Luckily, no one was killed because of the bureaucratic snafu, but, in the view of the ACLU, something clearly needs to be done to assure there aren't problems in the future.

And, who knows, maybe something has been done. After all, it has been seven months since the incident, and, with a former businessman as mayor, this is an administration that swept into office promising to run government with the efficiency of a private sector enterprise. (Sure, the mayor's former company has had to declare bankruptcy, but no one's perfect, are they?)

But, in any event, at this point, we can't say what, if anything, has been done.

"For its part, B.U.P. Films regards this encounter with police as the end result of administrative deficiencies that must be corrected if future occurrences of this kind are to be avoided," wrote Fancher.

Is the film office "fatally" understaffed, as Fancher asked, or terminally inefficient?

Have the problems of "non-communication and miscommunication" that led to this fiasco been addressed?

And, most importantly, are procedures in place and being followed that will ensure commanders in police precincts are officially notified when a film crew is at work in one of the city's neighborhoods?

It would be nice to have answers to these questions, but the Mayor's Office, as of Tuesday, had yet to respond. Neither did it respond to an e-mail requesting information.

And a promised meeting between administration officials and B.U.P.'s Brown has yet to take place, the filmmaker tells News Hits.

Now, we may be wrong about this, but isn't the state, with its massive tax breaks, trying to help attract filmmakers in an attempt to help the state develop the industry here? And wouldn't you think that, pulling guns on a group of actors, forcing them to the ground and making them lay there handcuffed, and then taking them to court for essentially doing nothing wrong might be just a bit counterproductive?

Far be it from us lowly News Hitters to have the temerity to think we know more than a wealthy entrepreneur like Dave Bing about matters of communication, but it would seem that getting out the message that the problems have been fixed would be a good thing.

But, who knows, maybe failing to answer questions and blowing off meetings is a kind of high-level strategy we don't know about, and the problems have all been fixed, but the need to communicate that to filmmakers is seen as superfluous.

The thing is, no matter what the administration says when it does decide to talk, this is a story that's not yet over. And we're not talking just talking about the premiere of Vigilante scheduled for September.

According to Brown, a lawyer has been retained and a civil suit against the city is likely. So, once again, the city is likely to be hauled into court as a defendant. And that is a scene Detroiters have viewed way too many times.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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