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Ella Bully-Cummings Biography


Police chief

Bully-Cummings, Ella, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Detroit Police Department veteran Ella Bully-Cummings became the first woman to serve as chief of police in her city, long known for its high crime rate. Bully-Cummings was named to the post in November of 2003 after a spate of recent troubles on the force, and immediately won high marks from civic leaders for her efforts to clean up a problem-plagued department.

Bully-Cummings is of mixed ancestry: her mother is Japanese, and married Daniel Lee Bully, an African American, when he was stationed in Japan with the U.S. military. Born in Japan in the late 1950s, Bully-Cummings barely remembers living in that country, for she was not quite two years old when the family moved to Detroit. She was the second child in a family of eight, and credits her strict disciplinarian father for instilling in her the no-nonsense attitude that helped earn her the post of top cop in her city years later.

Bully-Cummings's family struggled, and at one point, when they numbered seven, shared a one-bedroom apartment. She grew up on Detroit's near-west side, near the intersection of Rosa Parks and West Grand Boulevard. "I never had a room of my own," she told ABC News. "When you sat down for dinner, you had to make sure you were there so that you had food. When you wanted to say something you had to be loud so that everyone could hear you over the other children. But it was also a time of closeness for me."

As a teen, Bully-Cummings went to work to help out her family. She was 16 and working at a local movie theater when she saw a female police officer for the first time. Women cops were still a relative rarity in the early 1970s, before federal courts ordered large cities like Detroit to integrate their public-safety ranks with both more minority and more women members. After graduating from the city's top academic high school, Cass Tech, Bully-Cummings sold real estate for a time and worked in the office of another high school. She entered the Detroit Police Department (DPD) academy in 1977.

After making it through the rigorous training, Bully-Cummings was sworn in as a police officer and spent the next ten years as a beat cop. Her first arrest came during a drunk-driving stop, and she and her partner began to put the cuffs on a man of immense size who kicked her partner in the groin and knocked him down. "This guy had one cuff on him, and the only thing I could think of is, let me jump on his back…so he wouldn't hit me," she recalled in an interview with Detroit Free Press writers Suzette Hackney and Ben Schmitt.

Despite such bravery, Bully-Cummings and her fellow female rookies often encountered hostility from their male colleagues. It was a macho profession, and some tradition-bound DPD veterans resented having to work with women, since the job was an admittedly dangerous one. Some balked at sharing a patrol shift with a woman officer, and would call in sick to avoid duty. Others radioed for backup in the event of a problem, as if a female officer was unqualified to handle a situation. "But I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to let these folks break me," she recalled in the Detroit Free Press interview.

Bully-Cummings made sergeant in 1987 and, after helping pay the college tuition of some of her younger siblings, decided to earn her degree as well while still on the job. She took part-time classes at Detroit's Madonna University for a number of years, and earned her degree in public administration in 1993. Five years later, she earned her law degree from the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University. That same year, after having held several successively higher ranks within the DPD, she was made a precinct commanding officer. Her precinct was a troubled one, however, and Bully-Cummings's tough approach alienated some there. The tires of her car were even slashed. "I came in and I laid down the law, and I don't think they liked it," she told the Detroit Free Press.

In 1999, after just a year as the precinct commanding officer, Bully-Cummings decided to retire in order to practice law full-time. She worked for two firms in Detroit, one of them a large, prestigious one, and specialized in labor law for the next three years. By then, rumors of rampant corruption and abuse within the DPD had aroused the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, and an official investigation was underway. A new chief of police had been brought in from out of state, with the hope that an outsider would be able to fix the internal problems. The new boss, Jerry Oliver, personally asked Bully-Cummings to return to the force. She was made assistant chief in May of 2002, becoming the first woman to hold the office in DPD history.

The Department of Justice investigation found administrative errors, cover-ups, and various civil-rights violations in the handling of detainees, as well as the questionable use of force in arresting suspects. Because of those findings, the DPD came under official monitoring by federal officials, and was obligated to reform itself by implementing new lethal force policies, witness detention procedures, and prisoner care guidelines. But the black mark on the DPD worsened one day in October of 2003, when Chief Oliver tried to board a flight at Detroit Metro Airport with a loaded gun in his luggage. The scandal was a serious one, and Oliver left the job. Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick named Bully-Cummings to serve as interim chief on November 4, and then made the appointment permanent a month later.

At a Glance …

Born Ella Mae Bully, c. 1957, in Japan; daughter of Daniel Lee Bully (a television repair technician); married William Cummings (a police commander). Education: Earned degree from Madonna University, Detroit, 1993; Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University, J.D. (cum laude), 1998.

Career: Detroit Police Department, police officer, 1977-87, sergeant, 1987-93, lieutenant, 1993-95, inspector, 1995-98; commander, 1998-99, assistant chief, 2002-03, chief of police, 2003–; Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone PLC, associate attorney, and Foley & Lardner, associate attorney, 1999-2002.

Memberships: National Bar Association; Wolverine Bar Association; State Bar of Michigan; International Association of Chiefs of Police; National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Addresses: Office—Detroit Police Department, Chief of Police, 1300 Beaubien St., Detroit, MI 48226.

Bully-Cummings became head of the tenth largest police force in the United States. But her first year on the job was a tough one: two rookie officers were slain by a single suspect, regular spates of shootings made headlines over the winter and spring, and in June of 2004 several innocent bystanders were shot at the city's annual fireworks festival. But Bully-Cummings won high marks for her visibility and handling of the tragedies under the media spotlight. At the DPD's downtown headquarters, she oversees 4,700 sworn officers and civilian employees, and works with federal monitors to meet compliance standards. "We don't need police officers who are not in control," she told Hackney and Schmitt. "Because they are the only people I know of who can legally take a person's life, and that's a lot of power to put in someone's hands."



Detroit Free Press, November 8, 2003; November 12, 2003, p. 1A; July 11, 2004, p. 1J.


"Detroit's Top Cop Sets Out to Fix Ailing Department," CNN, www.cnn.com/2003/US/Midwest/11/07/detroit.newchief.ap (September 20, 2004).

"Ella Bully-Cummings, Esq.," City of Detroit Police Department, www.ci.detroit.mi.us/police/dept/chief/cop.htm (September 20, 2004).

Leinwand, Donna, "Lawsuits of '70s Shape Current Police Leadership," USA Today, www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-04-25-female-police_x.htm (September 20, 2004).

"Person of the Week: Ella Bully-Cummings," ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/PersonOfWeek/story?id=131845&page=1 (September 20, 2004).

—Carol Brennan

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