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Posted on Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 6:54 a.m.

Washtenaw Sheriff Jerry Clayton's firing of deputies a tough but necessary decision

By Tony Dearing

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.

Clinfton Lee video.png

This still image from the police video shows Clifton Lee Jr. on the ground during his fatal struggle with deputies.

The 2006 incident had left an ugly blot on the Sheriff’s Department, not just for the conduct of the deputies involved but also for the department’s slowness in investigating its own and meting out discipline.

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 editorial board.


Michael Schils

Thu, Oct 22, 2009 : 10:45 a.m.

Well it has been nearly a week, Sweet Baby, since I requested a clarification from you regarding some of your statements, but you have not responded. So until I see something that changes my mind, I'm going to assume that you are either a cop or you have ties to Law Enforcement. Only someone extremely sympathetic to the charged officers would express something like "there wasn't much to the charges". An unbiased review of the released videos would quickly dispel such a belief. I'm curious as to how you would know that the investigation turned up "nothing of substance". The mere fact that the internal investigation continues to this day would seem to belie this statement. I find your implication that Clifton Lee, Jr. brought on his fate to be the most disturbing. But of course, pushing such a belief is necessary for your attempt at defending the actions of the accused officers. Since you seem so certain that nobody wanted to harm Clifton and you seem to have access to information many of us are not privy to, please explain what was on Deputy Joseph Eberle's mind when he sprayed the chemical agent into Clifton's mouth and held his hand over it.......... I'm really curious to hear that.

virginia simon

Fri, Oct 16, 2009 : 11:10 a.m.

Bravo, Sheriff Clayton! I have noticed that the police often abuse their authority and power. Personally, I have been manhandled by an officer who put his hands on me for no good reason. When I complained to the police department, they defended the officer's behavior. I commend Sheriff Clayton for investigating police conduct.

Michael Schils

Thu, Oct 15, 2009 : 10:46 p.m.

Sweet Baby, the acts you describe were not on the three videos that were released to the public. So are you referring to a video (or videos) that was shown to the jury but has not yet been released to the public? Please explain the specifics of this tape you refer to. Did you actually see a video of Bruce trying to kick the window out? You also say Clifton "resisted arrest mightily". Again, are you talking about what you saw on a video or are you simply drawing the conclusion from the large number of officers involved, that he must have resisted "mightily"? And what exactly did Clifton do that you believe would have gotten him shot by other officers? Do you believe he could have been shot because he didn't take his hands out of his pockets fast enough? Because he walked/ran away? Or was it because he said he was going to return with others?

Sweet Baby

Thu, Oct 15, 2009 : 12:08 a.m.

While many things went wrong on this but I'll start with the easy and impersonal first.. In terms of costs, it is important to know that the county has insurance to cover for damages in civil cases such as the one brought by Clifton Lee's estate. Consequently, an insurance company paid a large portion of the money awarded to the Lee family. This is not meant to imply that the county plans for such occurences, but rather that they are prepared. While that means something significantly less than $4 million will come out of county funds, there are other substantial costs that should be considered. The cost of the Attorneys is a non- issue to me as the incident undoutedly required lawyers. The cost of salaries and benefits for the officers on leave, the cost to backfill for the suspended officers (generally OT and therefore more expensive), as well as the cost of the special investgator hired specifically to handle this issue should also be considered. The incredible and necessary expenditure (as a result of the incredible length of the investigation) is just one of the many examples of how clumsily this case was handled. The vast sea of Administrative / Political Blunders: ONE of the deputies admitted wrong doing almost immediately, while all others have steadfastly maintained their innocence. The deputies that claimed their actions were acceptable more than 3 years ago were not convicted of any crime after a complete federal investigation. Yet 4 deputies were placed on leave for over 3 years. It appears Minzey washed his hands of the incident and walked away because it was a mess that he saw no potential for a desireable outcome.. One man died and another was beaten. Someone had to be held responsible, but who? The investigators encountered nothing of substance beyond the confession of guilt they had received in the first week, but clearly someone in a position of influence decided there needed to be others held responsible and they pushed harder to find something.... Anything. The not so easy and more personal: If you believe in your fellow citizens that sat on the jury and acquitted the deputies of all charges, then you must agree that only one deputy took actions unwarranted by the situation. The trials were pretty quick becuase there wasn't much to the charges. Even while cases such as these have a relatively low burden of proof, the results were quick and decisive. Not Guilty. It you had watched the tape you would see Bruce attemtping to kick out the back window of the squad car that he had been placed in. You would see him spit in an officer's face. You would see plenty more as well. I highlight Bruce's actions not because I am picking sides, but because the actions of the deputies are already well documented. Know that mistakes were made on both sides before you spend too much time painting the picture of the victim while ignoring his poor judgement and decision making. Most people don't approach a traffic stop. If they end up in the back of a police car they usually don't try to kick out the window and spit on an officer - or anyone for that matter. Again, if you had watched that video you would see Clifton repeatedly ignore the order to leave the scene, but rather continue to approach the scene. Clifton makes no mention of moving the car to a more desirable parking spot. He does not immediately remove his hands from his pockets as repeatedly ordered to do. Before he walks / runs away he indicates that he will return shortly with many others. He clearly tried to intimidate and did threaten the deputies. Because of his actions, many officers would have shot Clifton before he had the chance to walk away. While certainly tragic, the action would have been easily defensible in court. Be he was not shot. He was simply going to be arrested. Clifton resisted arrest mightily. Many officers were required to subdue him. In the struggle something went very wrong. I can't imagine anyone had any desire for Clifton to pass. Deputies wanted to do their job. Citizens wanted to go home and be with family and friends and enjoy an early summer evening. Again, mistakes were made on both sides. No one deserved to die. It is a sad situation for all involved. One that was clearly avoidable. It started as a harmless traffic stop and resulted in a tragedy that refuses to yield many positives. While none of the particpants from that night deserves whatever results they now live with, these tragic events will continue to plague those that choose to live in a manner that continually tests boundries of acceptability. The paticipants routinely operated in an environment most of us don't know, and will never know. That night their behavior once again pushed the limits. Poor decisions were pushed too far. It is unreasonable to expect to routinely push the boundries of acceptability while simultaneously avoiding tragedy.


Mon, Oct 12, 2009 : 8:37 p.m.

The incident was a tragedy for the community, as well as an embarrassment to law enforcement officers who display fitness for duty and carry out their mission with integrity, honor, and compassion. Police who engage in criminal behavior including assault and battery and abuse of civil rights should never be allowed to wear the badge again and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Michael Schils

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 : 11:51 a.m.

Several statements in the article need to be corrected/clarified. The article states that the Lee brothers "tried to interfere with a traffic stop involving their nephew". First, it should be noted that neither Clifton nor Bruce were in a position to interfere with police at the time the officers attacked them. Bruce was handcuffed in the back of a squad car, while (unarmed) Clifton was walking/running away from the officers, toward his home. Regarding their initial reason for approaching the scene of their nephew being pulled over, my understanding is that the Lee brothers merely wanted to ask the officers if they could move their nephew's car off the street to avoid the cost of having it towed. Such an innocent inquiry is certainly not against the law and calling it an attempt to "interfere" is not accurate and seems to be part of the narrative put forth by the officers' defense counsel. The article also states "Clifton Lee became involved in a struggle with deputies...". Again, Clifton had obeyed the officers' command to leave the scene and was actually walking/running to his home when he was chased down and attacked, so he did not become "involved" through any choice of his own. These clarifications are important to dispel the belief by the uninformed that the Lee brothers brought on the assaults by their own actions.

Michael Schils

Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 2:24 p.m.

I appreciate that you are weighing in on this and I agree that the officers had to go and that it shouldn't have taken this long. I will have more comments when time allows. (Arbor Update has a discussion, from several months ago, regarding the West Willow incident with some recent comments regarding the firings. )