DETROIT, Mich. (WXYZ) — Detroit Police Sgt. William Zeolla is the kind of cop you don’t forget.
On the force for 25 years, Zeolla was promoted just last year to sergeant despite the fact that no officer on the force today has received more complaints from citizens than him: 93 and counting.
“He was the most aggressive,” recalls Cass Burchfield, who encountered Zeolla in May 2016. “He was like a pit bull with a muzzle.”
Among the dozens of complaints filed against Zeolla and his partners are recurring allegations, including improper searches, unnecessary force and harassment.
Stanley Perkins says he’s been pulled over by Zeolla one four separate occasions. The first time was in 2015, just as he was leaving work.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Do you got any drugs or guns on you?’" Perkins recalled. "And I was like, ‘I’m just getting off work.'"
The situation escalated quickly, Perkins said, when Zeolla pulled him from the car.
"(He) snatched my door open, pulled me out the vehicle, walked me to the back, cuffed me (and) put me in the back of the scout car," he said.
Perkins said Zeolla searched his entire SUV without finding anything. He said he was rude and aggressive throughout the stop.
“He called me a b****. Back and forth, different kind of names,” Perkins said.
Perkins said Zeolla never told him why he stopped him in the first place, but believes it’s because he was profiled.
“I’m a black man in a BMW,” he said.
Perkins was let go, but would see Zeolla again when, six months later, he was pulled over again. This time, he says the officer claimed it was over a bad headlight.
This stop felt just like the first, he said.
“Snatched my door open, pulls me out the car again,” Perkains recalled. “I’m like, here we go.”
Another search of his car, just as before, yielded nothing.
Perkins was neither arrested nor charged, but after both run-ins he filed complaints against Zeolla alleging he was harassed. In one case, he said he waited hours at a precinct to lodge the complaint.
Both were closed without any discipline.
“I think he thought I was a drug dealer,” Perkins said. “I’m a businessman so I like nice cars, I buy nice cars because I work hard for it. It doesn’t mean I’m a drug dealer because I got a nice car.”
Cass Burchfield was driving with a friend in Detroit when he says he was pulled over by Zeolla and his partners, who had their guns drawn.
The reason for the stop, he claims: a broken windshield.
“Once the door was open, he got one cuff on and literally just pulled me by the handcuff,” Burchfield said. “When I got home, I had cuts on my wrists from the cuffs.”
The most aggressive of the officers, he said, was Zeolla. The officer searched his car, but came up with nothing.
Burchfield was ticketed for a broken windshield. His complaint against Zeolla did not result in discipline.
“I will never forget that, just because of the treatment of that officer,” Burchfield said, adding later: “That’s not how you treat someone on a traffic stop.”
Zeolla hasn’t just been on the receiving end of complaints. Along with his partners, he has been sued at least twelve times throughout his career.
One of those cases involved Keenan Ellsberry, who says he was driving to his ex-wife’s home in the early hours of May 2, 2011 when a team of Detroit police. The officers would later claim Ellsberry failed to use his turn signal.
“They handcuffed me, choking me, kneeing me,” Ellsberry told us when we first interviewed him in 2015. “They were asking where are the drugs and guns, where are the drugs and guns?”
Police said Ellsberry attacked them; one said he grabbed for an officer’s gun. He was charged with four felonies, including assaulting an officer.
But that all changed when one of the cops on the scene came forward, alleging Ellsberry was a victim of police brutality. He said while he was handcuffed, officers kicked and punched him and that Zeolla stepped on his face, then called him a name.
The charges against Ellsberry were dropped, and the city settled his lawsuit against DPD for $285,000 without admitting any fault.
Detroit taxpayers have shelled out at least $752,500 to settle lawsuits where Zeolla is a defendant. In each case, the department admitted no wrongdoing.
“Something’s wrong, something is definitely wrong,” said Detroit Police Commissioner Willie Bell. “Obviously, there’s no scrutiny of his behavior. He’s been getting away with it.”
Zeolla declined an on-camera interview. Reached by phone, said he’s received so many complaints because he investigates more citizens than a typical officer.
He said his primary job is to find drugs and guns on the streets, and says citizens file complaints to discourage officers from pursuing them.
Zeolla added that settled lawsuits are not an admission of guilt, and that he was not disciplined over the allegations made in the Ellsberry case because they were not true.
But Zeolla is hardly the only Detroit officer we’ve found with significant allegations of misconduct still on the force.
Records obtained by 7 Action News show 113 officers on the force have tallied at least 30 citizen complaints. 58 have been sued at least five times, with one cop—Tyrone Gray—named a defendant in 16 lawsuits.
93 officers have been disciplined at least 10 times, with one racking up 85 punishments alone.
The city would not release his or her name, saying they were exempt because they work in an undercover or plain clothes capacity.
As a result of 7 Action News' ongoing investigation into officers with substantial histories of alleged and documented misconduct, Detroit Police Chief James White announced the creation of a risk assessment unit.
The new unit will scrutinize unsustained allegations of civilian complaints and lawsuits against officers, looking for patterns of misbehavior. While the goal is to rehabilitate officers, White says he is prepared to terminate officers whose behavior is egregious.
The new unit will be a subject of an investigative report airing Thursday on 7 Action News at 6.
“I appreciate your investigative reporting,” Bell said. “When people see this on TV, they just shake their head. What is going on?"
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466. Maren Machles contributed to the data analysis in this report.