In 2019, a Detroit narcotics squad caught an eight-time felon with more than 200 grams of cocaine, 125 grams of heroin, $3,000, and a gun. Without explanation, officers let him walk "pending further investigation."
It was one of more than 300 occasions between 2017 and 2019 that the Detroit Police Department's Major Violators Unit released suspects in possession of drugs and weapons back onto the streets without any follow-up prosecution.
A 210-page internal report recently made public by the department portrays a corrupt unit that let major dopers walk free, collected bogus overtime, falsified information for search warrants and stole informant money — all to a “costly impact on public safety” in one of America’s most violent cities.
The Detroit findings echo abuses by a gun-tracing police task force in Baltimore, depicted in a book and HBO Max miniseries called "We Own This City."
Officers claimed they released suspects with the idea they could be “flipped” to supply valuable information to disrupt the drug pipeline. But the report by the Detroit police-led Operation Clean Sweep Task Force found that in most cases, they were let go without further action or evidence they'd led to the arrest of bigger dealers. Instead, as officers were directed to larger quantities of drugs and cash, they were accused of stealing, with at least 16 suspected drug traffickers alleging theft ranging from hundreds to several thousands of dollars.
The cycle of flipping and not arresting, the report found, “undermines the criminal justice system” by rendering police officers “the sole arbiter of who (is) arrested, charged and ultimately convicted.” One confessed dealer found with marijuana, cocaine and two handguns between 2017 and 2019 was, for example, released in exchange for information on someone higher up the drug distribution chain. But when a subsequent raid turned up nearly a pound of cocaine, heroin, and thousands of dollars in cash, that suspected dealer was set free too.
It’s just one of a number of ways up to 15 officers within the now-notorious unit committed misconduct and profited from the city's drug trade. The findings of the two-year investigation were broadly summarized by the Detroit Police Department last fall, but details of how the unit operated were not available until last week's public release of the task force report. Previously, the report had only been submitted to the Board of Police Commissioners.
Misconduct uncovered included:
• Use of a fund to pay informants as “an open checkbook.” Nine officers were discovered with 39 mostly blank payment vouchers they could fill out “with any amount of money, and essentially pocket the money with no one being the wiser.” Some informants also said they were never given large bonuses they were recorded as having received. The fund paid out more than $1.3 million over 20 years.
• Systemic overtime fraud, with unit officers logging approximately 450 hours they did not work in 2019 alone. Cell phone tower data showed the officers were often at home in the suburbs when they claimed to be surveilling a location or in court. At least seven officers were involved in overtime fraud, with one bilking the city of more than $20,000 over five years.
• Allegedly skimming off forfeited money, according to suspects who signed forfeiture forms that suggested officers turned in less cash than was confiscated.
• Lying to obtain search warrants by submitting false tips. Officers claimed tips were supplied by informants who in some cases no longer worked for the department, or from a hotline, and described informants as more credible than they actually were.
Some charges against suspected dealers were dropped as a result. In 2018, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office dropped three cases after a series of searches found kilograms of cocaine, nearly $100,000, and a weapon. The officer who obtained the warrants, it was determined, had never even made contact with purported informant said to have tipped police to the activity. Separately, a Michigan Department of Corrections prisoner sentenced to at least eight years after being found with heroin, marijuana, and a weapon in 2019, was released after it was determined ex-police officer Michael Mosley lied that a “very reliable” informant led him to the drug house by providing a suspect name. The unit, however, had never before used the informant, who only supplied an address. Another officer submitted affidavits that contained surveillance observations from days he was on scheduled leave.
The fraud was likely more widespread than could be proven, the report indicates. Mosley’s affidavits, for example, frequently relied on “cookiecutter” language used to bolster confidential informants’ histories, with some reports apparent copy-and-paste jobs that included the same typo.
The review completed in late November began after Mosley, a 19-year veteran of the department, in 2019 took $15,000 in bribes from a dealer with a rap sheet that included assault with intent to murder in exchange for the promise that he would avoid prosecution. The ex-officer was last year sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
Craig opened the investigation after he was informed of the bribe solicitation by the FBI. The task force examined narcotics investigations from 2009 through 2019 and included federal agents, Michigan State Police, and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
Twelve officers have left the department since the unit came under investigation in 2019. One was federally charged with two counts of bribery and three others are awaiting possible criminal charges, with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office saying it has requested additional information from the department.
At the heart of the problem was a lack of oversight that provided “fertile ground” for a culture of corruption, said the report.
The Major Violators Unit, the investigation found, operated with a culture of relaxed supervision, entitlement, and vague documentation. In addition to the fraud, members failed to keep their body cameras activated during raids, shielding their misdeeds from discovery.
The unit's members "operated as if certain rules did not apply and supervision turned a blind eye and ignored certain policy violations, allowing MVU officers to operate as if they were entitled or had privilege to department perks, such as extra time or money,” the report said. “Exacerbating the entitlement attitude was the fact that there seemed to be a lack of disciplinary action taken against MVU members. This investigation found numerous examples of policy and department violations, but there was sparse documentation of … any corrective action.”
The unit was able to operate largely free from scrutiny despite a track record of abuse that included a previous federal corruption investigation in 2014. Though former Chief James Craig in response disbanded what was then known as the Narcotics Unit to create the current Major Violators Unit, 16 of 37 members who were initially reassigned returned to the drug unit within two years. Six of those officers were the focus of the task force’s probe.
Additional efforts to circumvent abuse were also unsuccessful. In 2015, a command officer temporarily halted the practice of allowing police to unilaterally attempt to flip dealers, saying it was not being handled properly and could lead to problems. Though Craig and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office agreed and implemented a rule that prosecutors, not officers, would work out such deals, the change was never put in writing and the practice resumed in 2016.
The department has outlined stronger oversights for the unit moving forward. They include a ban on releasing and flipping felony drug and weapons offenders, requiring search warrant affidavits be approved by a deputy chief, and having officers announce when they’re clocking in and out on their body cameras.
In a statement, the department said the effort to root out corruption in the unit "serves as a sterling example of a department that takes officer misconduct seriously and deals with it transparently."
"Regardless of the prosecutor's final decision on whether officers should be charged criminally, the DPD firmly believes that its efforts during Operation Clean Sweep should serve as an example for other agencies that find themselves in similar circumstances."
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