In 1967, Detroit began its rebellion against poverty, institutional racism and repressive police actions at 12th and Clairmont on the city’s west side, according to the Kerner Commission report, constituted by President Lyndon Johnson. (Detroit Free Press photo)

BridgeDetroit Project Executive Stephen Henderson interviews reporter Bryce Huffman about the relationship between community and police in Detroit. Listen here:

Over the past week, Detroiters have watched video of and participated in various protests around the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. 

Protests erupted across the country after the Memorial Day incident that left Floyd dead.

With pictures and videos showing Detroit police officers wearing riot gear to combat peaceful protesters, Detroit Police Department Chief James Craig has said the relationship between community and police is strong and that it is built on trust. 

“Community policing is a continuous work in progress, it’s not something you can do only when bad things happen,” Craig said. “Bad things are going to happen, you’re going to have bad actors in any police department, but the real question is how you handle it.”

Craig says both the community and officers within the department agree that DPD handles the so-called bad actors the right way most of the time. 

But is that true? Right now, maybe, but historically speaking, not really. 

Former Detroit Police Chief Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon says that, for a long time, things were very contentious between police and the community, specifically, the city’s Black residents. 

“There was always disfair treatment of Blacks by the police department,” McKinnon said. “Police beatings and name-calling were more than common.” 

McKinnon, who is a Black man, spoke about an instance in the 1950s when police arrested more than 1,000 Black men in one weekend after a white nurse was raped and murdered. 

Many of the men were not allowed to call anyone. Some were beaten during interrogation. All of them would wind up having an arrest for suspicion of rape on their record. 

Another infamous incident was the race riot of June 20-22,1943, which resulted in white Detroit police officers killing several unarmed Black people.

McKinnon says these types of issues were prevalent in the department for decades. 

“Occasionally, there’d be people who would get shot [by a police officer], and nothing would ever happen in terms of the police,” he said. 

It was actually a negative experience with a white police officer that made McKinnon want to join the force. After visiting his old junior high on his first day as a high schooler in 1957, he says four white officers approached him. 

“I was grabbed and pulled onto the car by a group called ‘The Big Four.’ They were a group of four very large white police officers and they proceeded to beat me up,” he said. 

McKinnon and other Black officers learned, however, that being a police officer wouldn’t save them from the racism within their own department. 

Other than hearing racial slurs and not being treated with respect from white officers, McKinnon said he was once almost killed by his fellow officers. 

In 1967, two years after he joined the force, McKinnon says he was shot at by two white officers while he was wearing his police uniform. 

“The older officer had a buzz cut with silver-gray hair, and he said, ‘Tonight you’re gonna die, nigger.’ And I saw him getting ready to pull the trigger, so I dove back into my car, and with my left hand I grabbed the steering wheel, and my right hand worked the pedal. I drove away as they were shooting at me,” he said. 

In 1971, the department launched the S.T.R.E.S.S unit, an acronym for “Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets.” The unit was launched with the goal of targeting Black men at a time when the city’s crime rate soared. 

A documentary called “Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S.” details the controversial unit that was responsible for arresting people without cause and killing at least 22 Black men over the course of three years. 

Even though this unit was ended by the city’s first Black mayor — Coleman A. Young — in 1974, tensions between Black residents and the department endured. 

LaVern Mack

Former Detroit Police Officer LaVern Mack, another Black officer, also has witnessed racism within the department. 

Mack, who joined the force in 1978 at the age of 19, didn’t share any stories as tense as McKinnon’s, but he said he too was moved to join the force after being beaten up by white police officers. 

While walking home from school, a squad car with two white officers pulled Mack over and said he fit a description of a robbery suspect. Mack says they asked him to get in their cruiser so they could talk to him.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Why are you smiling?’ I told them I had never been in a police car before, and I was just looking around. Then they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust your f——  teeth out of your head if you smile again,’ and from there it went bad,” Mack said. 

Mack says he wasn’t really “beat up” by the officers, but they smacked him and pushed him around for a while before they put him out of the car. 

This experience and a chat with a neighbor who was a Black officer in the department made Mack determined to change things from the inside. 

Community activist Omari Barksdale, who was still in elementary school when Mack joined the department, says the fear of police still exists for him.

By the time Barksdale was old enough to walk, stories of the Big Four brutalizing Black men and raping Black women had already painted a cynical image of Detroit police in his mind.  

Omari Barksdale

“When I was little, I lived in fear of the Big Four,” Barksdale said. 

But he says the department was aware of this fear, so it tried to counteract that with a group of officers called the Blue Pigs. 

The Blue Pigs was a musical band that would go around to different Detroit schools to play songs for students and engage with them before they had any negative police encounters. 

Detroit News reporter Charles Ramirez said the group was “arguably the Detroit Police Department’s most popular community relations outreach effort.”

By this time, officers like McKinnon and Mack were starting to become the new normal for Detroit police officers. 

Young’s time as mayor saw the department become more racially integrated, and more women were becoming officers. Thanks to Young and others, most officers lived in the communities they policed. 

By the time McKinnon left the force for the first time in 1984, he said the department was split evenly between Black and white officers, with some Latino officers, as well. 

McKinnon was gone from the department for 10 years, before coming back to become chief of police and setting out to implement changes that he always wanted to make. 

When I came back … I told all my command officers that the things that happened to me in ‘67 and the things that had happened to other Black people, all of that has to change. We’re going to change the reality and the perception of police officers in this community,” McKinnon said. 

McKinnon made sure to fire officers who didn’t play ball. He says the first two officers he fired turned out to be Black. 

This desire to correct past mistakes paired with two decades of work to bring more Black and brown officers onto the force helped to improve the department’s relationship with the community. 

That is until Detroit police officers had the chance to move out. 

In 1999, the state banned residency laws that required city employees to live in Detroit. Many officers moved out, meaning they were less ingrained in the community thus eroding  the relationship between community and police. 

In fact, MLive reported in 2018 that 75 percent of the city’s 2,411 sworn, active police officers live outside of city limits. The following year, The Detroit News reported that more than half of the officers in the department — or 56.3% —  are Black, while 37.4% are white, 5.1% are LatinX, and 1.2% are classified as “other.”

Barksdale says Detroit police should live in the city. He says, economically speaking, keeping Detroit officers here means tax dollars stay local. Beyond that, it gives the officers a bigger role and stake in the communities they police, he says. 

Mack, on the other hand, believes it’s not necessary for officers to stay in the city. He says officers need to do what’s best for their families, and according to him, living in Detroit isn’t what’s best for everyone. 

So, where do Chief Craig’s remarks about having trust between the community and the police department land for Detroiters? 

McKinnon, Mack and Barksdale agree that things are much better than they used to be, but how good are they? 

Well, that’s up to you to answer. 

Please send us your thoughts about the relationship between the Detroit Police Department and community residents to bhuffman@bridgedetroit.com.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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