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Hail to the chief

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Whether or not Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver decided to resign on his own isn’t important. What may be more interesting is why he decided to commit job suicide.

Even Forrest Gump would have had enough brains not to put a loaded weapon in his airport luggage in our post-9/11 world. Excuses about policemen finding it second nature to always pack their heat aren’t credible. What this seemed to be was a deliberately self-destructive, rather than absentminded, act. The gun wasn’t registered, he didn’t declare it, and he didn’t have a concealed weapons permit.

Try that these days if you aren’t a police chief, gals and pals, and you may find your orifices being probed prior to your all-expenses paid trip to Camp X-Ray. (He was formally charged on Monday with possessing an unlicensed handgun, a misdemeanor.) For Jerry O, it meant one, two, three strikes and he was as out as the Chicago Cubs.

When he dragged himself before the cameras, an embarrassed-looking Kwame Kilpatrick hulking at his side, he took the traditional high-minded and statesmanlike road, and blamed the media for all his self-inflicted wounds. The mayor praised his work, praised his wife, family, pet hamster, etc., and did everything except ask him to stay on.

Which was no surprise. The mayor was evidently the last in an extended line of those who had long since figured out that Oliver, here barely a year and a half, was a bizarre character whose day of reckoning was coming.

Some eyebrows had been up since it was learned he had been married five times, and that one of these wives and a sixth woman (!) had accused him of beating them up.

For me, Oliver’s credibility went down the drain after he fired Deputy Chief Gary Brown, the man Oliver himself had chosen to head the internal affairs division. Brown was broomed for doing his job and investigating allegations (as in, The Infamous Party That “Never Happened”) against the mayor and his inner circle.

What is less clear is whether the chief did a good job. Originally, he was billed as a tough and fair outsider who would shake up and clean up what was billed as an inbred, cronyism-riddled police department. He won praise for doing some of that. The howling from the hacks in the ranks made me feel that he was doing something right.

But I really don’t know, and I doubt that you do either, dear reader. Frankly, I doubt most Detroiters have any idea what he did or should have done, or how the police department works, or even how the police department should work.

Forgive me for sounding like a sensitivity group leader, but this crisis may be the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves what this police department should be.

Seriously. We have a city with enormous crises and poverty and problems, 925,000 people or so and, yes, crime. The city has about 4,000 police officers to deal with all of this. So why not have a vast reexamination and re-evaluation?

What should this police department do? Given tight money and the vast difficulties the city faces, how should we use it?

How does it best address public safety given present realities? Do we want to devote many officers to hassling hookers who flit consumptively between abandoned buildings? Do too many policemen surround the mayor, making sure he gets safely to basketball games in the suburbs or to the clubs and back in the wee hours?

Somebody needs to know. Somebody needs to have a vast vision for what it actually should do, a vision they can sell to the officers on the street and to the public at large.

Everybody knows about bad cops and featherbedding and the petty sadists. Yet if you think about it, the worst nightmare would be a world where there are no police, or where in a moment of desperation you cannot call the police and have them come.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail: Howard Dean made a healthy mistake the other day. Barnstorming in Iowa, emphasizing his folksiness, he said, in an obvious attempt to broaden his support, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Immediately, the politically correct gasped and piled on.

Everybody sanctimoniously agreed with Al Sharpton that they were “surprised and disturbed.” John Kerry accused him of pandering to “lovers of the Confederate flag.” Dick Gephardt was the most shameless: “I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags,” he said.

Dig that talkin’ tough Dickie!

Okay, now. Here’s what really happened. Democrats lost the pickup trucks-with-decals voters during the civil rights wars of the ’60s. Every four years, they take a shot at luring some of them back, mainly to no avail. Howard Dean, apparently glibly unaware that any favorable or even neutral reference to the Stars ’n’ Bars might sound racist, bit.

Which is a good thing, because he learned something from a mistake he made at a time when few were paying attention. This may need a disclaimer, but Democrats are beginning to quietly resign themselves to the idea of Howard Dean as their nominee.

He is holding a lead he grabbed last summer, and nobody else is going anywhere in the polls. His shrewd strategy of milking the Internet for campaign contributions and “meet-ups” has paid off, as did his bitter public opposition to the war. And he is what many rank-and-file Democrats secretly craved most: A new face.

However, we know very little about Howard Dean, including why he wants to be president, how he would put us on the right track, or how he handles pressure. The nomination will be decided by mid-March at the latest; over the next few months, expect — and hope — to find out a lot more.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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