A black police chief finds his way in the era of Black Lives Matter

William T. Riley III was recruited from Selma, Ala., to reform the Inkster, Mich., Police Department last year after a racially charged police brutality case.
(Jaweed Kaleem / Los Angeles Times)

On his first day as police chief 10 months ago, William T. Riley III summoned his 22 officers to a bare conference room at headquarters to issue a warning.

“It would not bother me one iota if I had to fire every one of you,” Riley, without introduction, told his underlings. “I don’t owe you nothing. So don’t screw up.”

The chief had reason to be stern.

The city had just settled a $1.38-million lawsuit with a black man who was brutally beaten by a white officer after a traffic stop. Protesters in the majority-black city were demanding reforms to its majority-white police force. They said the cops were racist, that the beating was part of a pattern. The white police chief had recently resigned. The accused officer was fired, tried and found guilty of assault and misconduct. City officials grappled with a tarnished image and a depleted budget.

Their solution was to hire Riley, who is black, from his post as police chief of Selma, Ala. In the age of Black Lives Matter, body cameras and broad scrutiny over how police interact with minorities, Inkster officials are looking to Riley, 54, to mend a broken force. They’re hoping to rebuild a trust that was long lost. They’re experimenting with how much race in this city of 25,000 people — of the police, of the chief — matters.

In places across the country at the center of an uproar over fatal police shootings or where racial tensions have long simmered, police departments have rapidly hired and promoted black chiefs. They include Ferguson, Mo.; Chicago; Forth Worth; Charlottesville, Va.; Dublin, Ga.; Durham, N.C.; Portsmouth, Va.; Houma, La.; and San Francisco. Many are the first local black chiefs; others, like Riley, aren’t but face similar pressures.

For Riley, one has nothing to do with policing. He’s living hundreds of miles from his wife, daughter and son. He’s lonely. He’s burned out.

 “Fixing this all isn’t going to be easy,” Riley says with a sigh at his office, where the walls are covered with pictures of him with black luminaries: President Obama, former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Oprah Winfrey. A framed copy of a letter from Martin Luther King Jr. is on a shelf beside family photos. By the door is a motto that came to Riley in his dreams: “When you give voice to ignorance and intolerance you soon will become deaf to reason and reality.”

It’s Tuesday. He’s been at work since 8 a.m. after getting into town at midnight from a police seminar in central Michigan. On the agenda for the day: a county police chiefs’ roundtable, a meeting with the city attorney on personnel, training the new secretary and, in a department with a reputation for roughhousing and racism, keeping a watchful eye on his staff.

Inkster police made national news after they arrested and beat Floyd Dent on Jan. 28, 2015.

Inkster was founded in the early 20th century by black autoworkers banned from living in other suburbs close to the Ford automotive plant in Dearborn. Seventy-three percent of residents are black, and 37% live under the federal poverty line. More than 80% of the police force is white. All but one of its officers live elsewhere.

Streets are sprinkled with vacant lots and boarded homes. The city is under state management and schools have been shuttered; kids attend neighboring districts. With dwindling services — the Police Department was cut by two-thirds before Riley’s arrival and state troopers and volunteer officers fill the gaps — many residents have left.

But Riley sees potential. There’s a new charter school, and an African American mosque has plans to start a business incubator. A gay bar opened last year near a fish-fry restaurant. The city’s second medical marijuana dispensary just opened. Along Michigan Avenue, kids gather at Dairy Queen for chocolate-dipped cones.

Riley has been policing for 31 years, from his start in Newport News, Va., to his first chief post in Selma and now Inkster. Like many black Americans, he’s been racially profiled by cops, and had bouts of distaste for his profession. But he’s steadfast. “Never have I met a cop who said they wanted to target black people or do anything other than serve,” he says.

He’s speaking from a booth at the Applewood Coney Island, a local diner where he’s come for lunch. Residents in Inkster say they’ve known cops for their sirens, cuffs and tickets. Riley’s now known for the chicken noodle soup and a simple salad with banana peppers that he orders a few days a week at the diner. He goes to meet people.

“In a city where nobody liked the police, my job is to make friends,” he says.

He finishes his soup as the mosque’s imam, Izak-El Mu’eed Pasha, walks in.

“How’s the new building?” Riley asks. The imam, a former New York Police Department chaplain, is raising money to cover police academy tuition for black recruits from Inkster who can’t afford the fees. The chief wants to know how soon he can start hiring them. He also wants to know if he’s doing his job right.

“You’ve got the right attitude for a place that’s rebounding,” Pasha says. “You’ve got to break down that divide between the police and the community.”

Later, a man having lunch stops Riley on his way out. “Hey, you the new chief?” he asks. “It’s good to see you.” Riley sees it as a simple gift.

But hurdles remain. “It’s embarrassing to say good things about the cops,” says the man, who didn’t want his name published for that reason.

Riley eats at Applewood Coney Island, a local diner, with Lt. Jeff Twardzik, who oversees patrol operations in Inkster. (Jaweed Kaleem / Los Angeles Times)

Riley knows it’s hard to change adult minds. But kids are more impressionable.

On Fridays, he and Sgt. Bill Ratliff, a white veteran officer who lives in Inkster, drive around neighborhoods. They’ll stop outside the Lemoyne Gardens public housing complex where teens play basketball to recruit them for a nascent Police Athletic League. Initially, some kids would scurry away, but “now they know our names,” the chief says.

After decades of few after-school options in the city, police now cosponsor 29 Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts with St. Clement’s Episcopal Church.

“There is a lot of soul-searching in all of Inkster,” says the Rev. Ellis Clifton Jr. Once he called the chief about a black church volunteer who kept getting stopped by state troopers while driving members home in his van. To Clifton’s surprise, the chief followed up. The culprit: the car’s tinted windows.

Crystal Linton, an activist who led protests last year, is warming to Riley but sees the problem as bigger than one person.

“Sure, you got a black police chief. But he doesn’t always know what’s going on when he’s gone,” Linton says.

Riley doesn’t contest that.

The policing tactics that have quickly become routine in big cities are novel in Inkster. Officers are getting body cameras. Police are hiring their first community relations officer. The department recently held implicit bias training.

Omar Neal, a black former Alabama officer, opened training with the police creed. It says officers should “maintain courageous calm” and lack prejudice. “You have a gun and a badge and the ability to take a life,” he told officers. “Should you?”

During a session on force, a white officer admitted she unholsters her gun during traffic stops in Inkster but never did it before working there. Neal asked her for the race of those she dealt with before Inkster. The answer: white.

“When you approach a person, you make a subconscious decision,” he said. “You place a halo on their head or you place a horn.”

Riley experienced that when he was a 30-year-old homicide detective in Newport News. It was Father’s Day and he was at the grocery store with his stepdad and brother.

“A white state trooper pulled up to our car as we were about to get out and said, ‘What are y’all boys doing?’” The word stuck with him: boys. A woman pointed the officer elsewhere. “Y’all boys need to get out of here,” the officer said.

Riley reported him. A year later, he ran into Riley in court and apologized. “You can’t say certain things” to black people, Riley told the trooper, who heeded the advice.

Small turnarounds like that give the chief faith. Still, he worries.

Inkster police get 40 calls a day about domestic violence, noise violations, drugs and theft. There hasn’t been another major misconduct incident. But Riley knows one could happen.

“You do not want to get the call like Trayvon’s mama,” he says, referring to Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was fatally shot in Florida in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Whenever there’s a police shooting in the news, Riley can’t sleep. He stays up thinking of his kids.

Malcolm, 23, just graduated from Texas Southern University. “I told him, if you get stopped by the police, you give everything they ask for and you don’t talk back,” Riley says. “And I told him if you do get one who is about to do something crazy, you stop, you look at him, and you say, ‘My daddy is a police chief.’”

Amani, his 16-year-old daughter, lives in Virginia, where she stayed behind with her mother for better schools. “I don’t want anybody to tell her she can’t do something” because of “how she looks,” Riley says.

Riley lives in Dearborn Heights, about an 11-minute drive from police headquarters in Inkster. (Jaweed Kaleem / Los Angeles Times)

Riley had never heard of Inkster before a headhunter called him, saying the city “had some problems.” The move would put him closer to extended family. He hoped his daughter would apply to college in Michigan. At $88,000 annually, he’d get a small raise.

He couldn’t find an Inkster rental in time for the move, so he’s next door in Dearborn Heights, where he keeps two empty rooms for his children. On days off, he takes his blue Jeep Liberty on Michigan back roads through lakeside towns. He’s developed a taste for coneys, Detroit’s ubiquitous hot dogs topped with beanless chili, onions and mustard. He misses sweet tea.

At home, an enlarged framed print of a Selma police badge rests against a wall. A pocket-sized Bible is on the coffee table, next to a “Michigan Police Chiefs” coaster. He eats a lot of Thai takeout and Boston Market rotisserie chicken, and sometimes sleeps with his cat Goody at the foot of his bed. In a few weeks, Amani will move here with his wife.

The chief’s not sure how long he’ll be in Michigan. He’s also not sure how much one man can do to fix the problems of policing or racism in America.

On a dresser by his bed, Riley keeps a yellow pad to jot down thoughts. In moments of doubt, he looks at one he wrote on a recent early morning: “God does not make mistakes. Everything is for a reason. Everyone has a destiny.”

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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