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Fact-checking Dave Coulter's record on policing in Ferndale
Dave Coulter declares his intention to run for Oakland County executive in 2020 at a Ferndale metal-working factory. (Bill Laitner/Detroit Free Press) Dave Coulter declares his intention to run for Oakland County executive in 2020 at a Ferndale metal-working factory. (Bill Laitner/Detroit Free Press)

Dave Coulter declares his intention to run for Oakland County executive in 2020 at a Ferndale metal-working factory. (Bill Laitner/Detroit Free Press)

Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson August 3, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • An attack ad from Voters for Better Communities Now, a 501(c)4 based out of the Huntington Woods law office of an Andy Meisner donor, claims that when Dave Coulter served as Ferndale’s mayor, he failed to take action after an officer used excessive force on a teenager.
     
  • The ad is misleading and leaves out important information regarding Coulter’s actions as mayor.

In the race for Oakland County executive, incumbent Dave Coulter is facing off against Andy Meisner, the current county treasurer, in the Democratic primary. Dark money ads are trying to tarnish Coulter based on his policing record while he served as Ferndale’s mayor.

Oakland County was long governed by Republican county executives until August 2019 when L. Brooks Patterson — known for his disdain for Detroit — passed away. That month, the county’s Board of commissioners narrowly voted to appoint Coulter to the office.

The Democratic primary will give voters the opportunity to decide whether Coulter or Meisner is best suited to go up against a Republican challenger in November. An ad from Voters for Better Communities Now, a 501(c)4 based out of the Huntington Woods law office of a Meisner donor, is trying to persuade voters that Coulter is the wrong choice. It says that when Coulter served as Ferndale’s mayor, he "failed to act when he had the opportunity to truly stand up for Black people."

The ad doesn’t tell the full story on Coulter’s record as mayor from 2011 to 2019. Here’s how its multiple claims stack up.

"A white Ferndale officer was caught on video brutally beating a Black teenager in handcuffs... When it came time for the city to pay, Coulter blamed the victim and forced him to meet re-education requirements before he could even get the money."

We found no evidence that Coulter blamed the victim, though news reports indicate Coulter was glad the victim's family would use the settlement money to fund the teen's education. While a news report published after the city approved the settlement agreement indicated the educational component was required, the actual settlement didn’t list any requirements.

Here’s what happened: In 2016, Ferndale police officer Jason White repeatedly hit and threw to the ground a handcuffed 17-year-old boy under arrest on suspicion of larceny. The officer was convicted of assault, and the city was sued. The city ultimately reached a settlement with the teenager’s father who represented the minor in the lawsuit.

Following the city council’s approval of the agreement, Coulter said the city "appreciated the part of the settlement that requires [the teen] to complete specific educational requirements in order to receive any funds," according to Woodward Talk. Coulter said this would help the teen "stay out of the kind of situations that he got into with Officer White in the first place" but stated that the officer’s actions were not justified. 

During negotiations, the grandmother of the teen said that the settlement funds were intended for educational purposes. Coulter’s campaign clarified that this was what Coulter was referring to in the quote. The city did not impose any restrictions on the teen to access the money, according to a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by PolitiFact Michigan.

"In a critical year that followed, Ferndale didn’t have a single Black police officer."

This is accurate. In March 2019, Ferndale had no Black police officers. That’s still the case today.

"Ferndale got caught unfairly targeting Black motorists giving them 60% of the tickets even though Blacks are less than 10% of the population." 

This claim is accurate. While Coulter was mayor, an ACLU analysis of traffic stop data from the Ferndale Police Department found that during an 18-month period in 2013 and 2014, 60% of traffic citations issued by the department ticketed Black motorists even though Blacks make up less than 10% of Ferndale residents.

The ACLU met with the city’s police chief and city manager to discuss this racial disparity. The ACLU made no mention of Coulter’s involvement in this discussion, and its effort predates the 2016 incident and the major police department reforms that followed. 

"The white police chief who oversaw all this? Coulter praised him saying he served with honor. With a record like that, can we believe Dave Coulter when he says Black lives matter?"

This claim is misleading as it leaves out crucial facts and context that might leave a different impression of Coulter’s record on policing while he served as Ferndale’s mayor.

After the 2016 incident, Coulter and the city’s police chief launched an effort to adopt community policing practices. Among the reforms made, all Ferndale police officers now have to wear body cameras.

A couple of years later, Ferndale’s police chief announced he would retire following reports that he did not ticket the mother of a police officer who was stopped for drunken driving and that in a separate incident an officer who had been on the job for years had violated department regulations. Coulter condemned the officer’s behavior and announced his support for an independent review of the department.

When the police chief retired in 2018, Coulter posted on Facebook that he served "with honor." In a statement, Coulter said the police chief "has always put his department and the city first." But following the retirement of the police chief, the department underwent an independent review of its policies and procedures, and Coulter said "that new leadership during this review would be more effective."

In his final State of the City Address in 2019, Coulter noted a number of reforms that arose from the review, including the implementation of a department advisory council that includes members of the community and an open data portal that contains information on the racial demographic breakdown of the department and where its officers live. In 2017, the department also began requiring officers to attend "implicit bias" training and regularly reviews every officer’s interactions with the public to ensure officers meet standards of fair and impartial policing.

Who’s behind the ad?

Voters for Better Communities Now spent more than $5,500 on ad buys on at least four different hip hop and R&B radio stations in the area. The officer of the group is Michael Linardos, a longtime donor to Meisner’s campaign who has given over $500 to Meisner’s campaign for county executive so far. When PolitiFact Michigan spoke with Linardos, he said he could not answer questions about the ad and Voters for Better Communities Now.

Andy Meisner’s campaign manager, Emilie Rohrbach, said the campaign is not aware of who is behind the ad and is not affiliated with Voters for Better Communities Now. 

Taken off the airwaves

Coulter’s campaign sent a cease and desist letter asking several radio stations to take the ad off the airwaves because it contains false information. Several stations followed suit.

The ads may be off the airwaves but Ferndale’s current mayor, Melanie Piana, said the ads have already inflicted their damage. "The Metro Detroit region is one of the most segregated in the nation," Piana said. "The City of Ferndale acknowledges these dynamics and seeks to continue to change and repair its culture" but ads like these, "devastatingly undermine a local government and its police department’s efforts in this important space," Piana wrote.

Piana said she had planned to remain neutral in the race, but the Voters for Better Communities Now ads led her to endorse Coulter. 

Coulter’s response, fact-checked

The cease and desist letter itself contains some inaccurate information. In its effort to fact-check the ad’s claim that "Coulter blamed the victim" of the 2016 incident, the letter notes a statement Coulter made in 2018 when he said he was "deeply disappointed by this officer’s behavior," and noted that "incidents like these have the potential to affect the community trust that is so critical to effective law enforcement." Coulter was not commenting on the Ferndale officer's excessive force against the teen in 2016, he was responding to revelations that another officer had violated department regulations. 

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Our Sources

Royal Oak Tribune, "Ferndale police chief retires in department shakeup," April 10, 2018

David Coulter, Facebook post, July 13, 2018

The Conversation, "Is hiring more black officers the key to reducing police violence?," February 4, 2020

The New Yorker, "Drop Dead, Detroit!," January 20, 2014

Woodward Talk, "Ferndale Police Department closing in on accreditation," February 4, 2020

U.S. Census Bureau, Ferndale city, American Community Survey demographic and housing estimates, 2013

U.S. Census Bureau, Ferndale city, American Community Survey demographic and housing estimates, 2018

ACLU of Michigan, Legal Docket, Fall 2015

The Detroit Free Press, "Democrat Dave Coulter, mayor of Ferndale, named Oakland County executive," August 16, 2019

Michigan Department of State, Andy Meisner for Oakland County's Future, campaign filing statement covering 1/1/20-7/17/20

The Detroit Free Press, "Republican and Patterson's hold on Oakland County may be at an end," November 8, 2018

Voters for Better Communities Now, website, accessed July 27, 2020

Voters for Better Communities Now, Facebook post, July 16, 2020

The Detroit Free Press, "Lawsuit: Ex-Ferndale police chief didn't want black successor," March 14, 2019

Michigan Department of State, Andy Meisner for Oakland County's Future, campaign filing statement covering 1/21/19-7/20/19

The Detroit Free Press, "Ex-Ferndale cop charged with assault of larceny suspect," June 29, 2016

WXYZ, "Ferndale cop convicted of assault back on patrol in Hazel Park," February 21, 2018

Woodward Talk, "Ferndale settles with victim of excessive force," September 21, 2016

ClickOnDetroit, "Ferndale police officer fired, chief retires after Local 4 Defenders investigation," April 10, 2018

ClickOnDetroit, "Ferndale police chief defends decision to let officer's mother go after she blew twice legal limit," February 25, 2018

Oakland County Times, "Ferndale Mayor and Police Chief Announce New Community Policing," July 27, 2016

Woodward Talk, "Ferndale police to wear body cameras beginning in January," October 17, 2017

Woodward Talk, "Ferndale council chooses firm to review police policies, procedures," May 23, 2018

Oakland County Times, "Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter Gives Last State of the City Address," April 16, 2019

Michigan Campaign Finance Searchable Database

Michigan Department of State, Andy Meisner for County Treasurer, campaign filing statement covering 8/26/08-10/19/08

Michigan Department of State, Andy Meisner for Country Treasurer, campaign filing statement covering 1/1/12-7/22/12

Michigan Department of State, Andy Meisner for Oakland County's Future, campaign filing statement 10/21/19-12/31/19

ACLU Michigan, "Racially Disproportionate Traffic Stops in Ferndale"

FCC public inspection files, WDMK

FCC public inspection files, WFPR

FCC public inspection files, WJLB

FCC public inspection files, WMGC

TJ Bucholz, Dave Coulter campaign spokesperson, email, July 21, 2020

TJ Bucholz, Dave Coulter campaign spokesperson, email, July 22, 2020

TJ Bucholz, Dave Coulter campaign spokesperson, email, July 27, 2020

TJ Bucholz, Dave Coulter campaign spokesperson, email, July 28, 2020

Marne McGrath, Ferndale City Clerk, email, July 27, 2020

C&G Newspapers, "Dave Coulter appointed as new Ferndale mayor," January 25, 2011

Oakland County Elections Division, election results, November 2011

Oakland County Elections Division, election results, November 2013

Oakland County Elections Division, election results, November 2015

Oakland County Elections Division, election results, November 2017

Ferndale Police Department, phone call, July 27, 2020

City of Ferndale, Ferndale Police Officer Demographics, access July 28, 2020

City of Ferndale, Ferndale Police Department Annual Report, 2019

Emily Rohrbach, Andy Meisner campaign manager, phone call, July 28, 2020

Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, Voters for Better Communities Now, accessed July 28, 2020

Michael Linardos, officer, Voters for Better Communities Now, phone call, July 28, 2020 

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