Washtenaw Sheriff Jerry Clayton's firing of deputies a tough but necessary decision
It took three years and the election of a new sheriff, but the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department finally has demonstrated that it’s capable of policing itself.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton has fired two deputies based on an internal investigation into their use of force during a struggle in Ypsilanti Township that left one man dead and another injured.
Public dissatisfaction with former Sheriff Dan Minzey’s handling of the incident contributed to him being voted out of office last year in favor of Clayton, who campaigned on a pledge of transparency and accountability.
Clayton has been making good on his pledges. Earlier this year, he agreed to release police videos of the incident, which occurred in the West Willow neighborhood on June 1, 2006. What the videos showed of the behavior of deputies that night was shocking, and underscored the urgency of an unflinching internal investigation.
Clayton fired Deputy Joseph Eberle for violating department policies and procedures based on the findings of that internal review.
Clayton also has fired Deputy Eric Kelly, who pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the civil rights of Bruce Lee by kicking Lee in the head while Lee was handcuffed and secured on the ground.
Deputies had arrested Lee and his brother, Clifton Lee Jr., after the pair tried to interfere with a traffic stop involving their nephew. Clifton Lee became involved in a struggle with deputies and died of suffocation after several officers piled on top of him and Eberle knelt on his neck. Eberle was acquitted last year in a federal jury trial on a charge of using unreasonable force against Clifton Lee.
While the federal court addressed the question of whether the actions of Eberle and Kelly were criminal, it was up to Clayton to oversee an internal probe and to take strong action when that probe determined that the two deputies acted contrary to the department’s policies and procedures.
Clayton has said other deputies remain under investigation for their actions that night.
This has been an emotional issue in the community, and the deputies have had their supporters, as well as their detractors. Some have been quick to suggest that the Lee brothers were hardly model citizens, but that’s never been the issue here.
Law officers face dangerous situations and belligerent people on a daily basis. We respect and appreciate what they do. But part of their responsibility is to use their training and follow proper procedures to bring a situation or suspect under control without undue force.
The behavior of the deputies in this case as seen on the videos and as laid out in trial testimony cannot be rationalized or justified. The new sheriff’s decisive action is not only appropriate, but also necessary to restore the reputation of the department and public confidence.
The costs of this incident, both human and financial, have been severe. The county recently agreed to pay Bruce Lee $1.375 million in damages, and earlier settled with the estate of Clifton Lee for $4 million.
It took far too long for the department to hold its own deputies accountable. But Sheriff Clayton has demonstrated that standards of proper conduct do exist and will be enforced, and that’s the only good outcome left in this disturbing, tragic case.
This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the AnnArbor.com editorial board.