Police and the License to Kill
Detroit police killed hundreds of unarmed Blacks in response to the civil rights movement. Their ability to get away with it reveals why most of today’s proposals to make police more accountable are bound to fail, and how we can do better.
April 29, 2021
Apr 29, 2021
28 Min read time
Detroit police killed hundreds of unarmed Blacks in response to the civil rights movement. Their ability to get away with it reveals why most of today’s proposals to make police more accountable are bound to fail, and how we can do better.
Clifford “Chucky” Howell, a thirteen-year-old Black male, was walking home from playing at a friend’s house when a white Detroit police officer shot him near his own backyard on the evening of Sept. 13, 1969. The patrol team did not summon medical assistance for at least forty minutes, and Chucky died later at the hospital. Officers on the scene claimed that he had been fleeing the burglary of a white family’s home, a felony, and that it was therefore appropriate to shoot him. Numerous eyewitness accounts, however, insisted Chucky had been an oblivious bystander. His parents and local Black organizations protested, but law enforcement agencies refused their requests to examine the evidence. Through a secretive internal investigative process, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office found that “all facts and circumstances indicate justifiable action” in the officer’s use of fatal force.
Racially targeted police violence continues to be excused by deliberate, and deliberately secretive, internal processes under which law enforcement agencies self-investigate and cover their tracks.
Chucky was one of more than a hundred unarmed people killed by Detroit law enforcement officers between 1967 and 1973, the majority of whom were young Black males allegedly fleeing property crimes or robberies, all declared justifiable homicides by Wayne County prosecutor William Cahalan. At the time, the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) use of firearms policy empowered officers to prevent the escape of “fleeing felons” with deadly force and located this power in officers’ own “sound discretion,” which effectively provided a license to kill insulated from legal consequences. This policy facilitated an extraordinary degree of police impunity, which the DPD used to commit violence against Black youth alleged to have committed low-level property crimes. It also provided an advance script for law enforcement officers to self-exonerate any murders or otherwise wrongful shootings they committed by framing the victims: all they had to do was say that they knew that the person had committed a burglary and that—in their split-second judgment—opening fire was necessary to apprehend the suspect.
Still, the degree to which the DPD availed themselves of this license to kill is astounding. Fatal force against unarmed and fleeing Black teenagers and young adults represented the largest category of law enforcement homicides in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the DPD was the deadliest police department per capita in the nation. Civil rights and Black Power groups in the city organized sustained protests against this policy, and many other urban police departments nationwide began banning use of firearms in the unarmed “fleeing felon” scenario during the 1970s, especially against juveniles. In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that state laws authorizing law enforcement to use deadly force against unarmed and fleeing suspects who posed no direct threat were unconstitutional.
However, while Tennessee v. Garner significantly reduced the number of fatal force incidents in such circumstances nationwide, the pattern of questionable police homicides just shifted to other situations still dubiously permissible under state and local laws and police regulations: home invasions during drug raids, armed responses to mental health crises, and, most common of all, escalation of low-level traffic stops based on racial profiling. This is largely thanks to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, Graham v. Connor, which effectively insulated these and other scenarios from legal accountability. The case established a subjective use-of-force standard based on the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene” and made it almost impossible to second-guess “split-second decisions” that resulted in fatal shootings by law enforcement.
Yet the history of police violence in Detroit shows that this problem cannot be solved simply by tightening use-of-force regulations or prosecuting individual officers whose actions most clearly violate the laws. Despite decades of trying to end police killings through precisely such reforms, there remains a fundamental continuity between the 1960s and ’70s and our current moment: racially targeted and discretionary policing continues to be excused by deliberate, and deliberately secretive, internal processes under which law enforcement agencies self-investigate their own violence and cover their tracks.
• • •
Having a full account of how the state has historically devised ways of excusing its own violence against Black people is a crucial step in demanding accountability and change.
Anyone seeking to give a complete accounting of the history of Detroit police violence faces significant hurdles. We know that DPD officers killed at least 219 civilians between 1957 and 1973, but this is definitely an undercount. The real number is unknown and ultimately unknowable. There is not even an official public tally of killings by on-duty officers, and the identities of their victims can only be uncovered through fortunate discoveries in non-police archives, including newspapers.
In the present day and nationally, we do not do much better. The federal government does not publish the names or even thoroughly track the number of people killed annually by police officers. Scholars of state violence estimate that the thousand or so police homicides reported per year since Congress mandated recordkeeping in the early 2000s represent only about half of the actual total.
To correct for this absence of complete documentation, projects by the Guardian and the Washington Post have painstakingly mined publicly available records, especially newspaper reports, to create (admittedly still incomplete) archives of individuals killed since 2015. And activist groups and crowdsourced websites have gone back still further: Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters, for example, have conducted their own investigations to chronicle the lack of accountability and racial bias in police killings going back a couple decades. But because they rely mainly on online public records, they have not been able to extend their scope prior to the year 2000.
The challenges involved in documenting police violence and fatal-force incidents—and of critically assessing official law enforcement accounts—are formidable even when considering events from recent decades. They are harder still for the more distant past. Newspaper archives are incomplete and usually behind paywalls in digital databases not easily accessed by the most impacted communities. Moreover, coverage is almost always biased in favor of the police. Other archives, such as those that document contemporary investigations by civil rights groups, are full of their own silences. Most have yet to be digitized, are time-consuming to navigate, offer few aids to nonprofessional researchers, and often have limited hours and none outside of the normal workweek. A massive amount of evidence is held in the sealed records of police departments and prosecutors, subject to expensive, protracted, and often insurmountable Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) obstacles.
Making the content of these archives, including closed state archives, available to the general public is essential to proving continuities in how and why the police deploy racialized violence and then evade accountability. Having a full account of how the state has historically devised ways of excusing its own violence against Black people is a crucial step in demanding accountability and change.
Revisiting the civil rights era in the urban North is a good place to start because activists went to extraordinary lengths to document police violence and to demand community control over the systems designed to disguise and justify it. Toward that end, the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan, which I direct, has identified 151 homicides by on-duty Detroit police officers between 1957 and 1973, plus an additional 18 fatal shootings by off-duty DPD officers and 19 more by other law enforcement agencies operating in the city. Between 2018 and 2020, a 22-person research team consisting largely of undergraduates documented these police killings through extensive research in multiple archives, laborious searching of newspaper databases, and targeted FOIA requests. The results are presented through a book-length multimedia exhibit, Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era, and a five-part map series, Detroit Under Fire: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1957–1973).
Detroit Under Fire provides the most comprehensive accounting of fatal-force incidents by law enforcement that currently exists for any U.S. city during the civil rights era and during the twentieth century more broadly. The start and end dates of the project were selected to coincide on the one end with the emergence of an organized NAACP campaign against police brutality in the late 1950s; and on the other end with the election of the city’s first African American mayor. In addition to killings, the website documents and maps more than 400 nonfatal police brutality and misconduct complaints, primarily filed by African American citizens. This data represents only the tip of the iceberg, because the vast majority of police brutality encounters never resulted in official complaints, and the relevant law enforcement archives remain closed.
A majority of the 188 Detroit law enforcement homicides we identified represented excessive and unnecessary force, and at least 25 percent involved police department or prosecutorial coverups and likely met the legal standard for murder or manslaughter.
Our research reveals a clear pattern: around 80 percent of police homicides during the civil rights era involved African American victims; at least two-thirds, and probably more, were of unarmed people who posed no direct threat to police or anyone else. The largest category of fatalities is of unarmed Black males shot in the back while allegedly fleeing the scene of low-level property crimes. A fifth of police homicides were of teenagers and preteens; almost all were African American, and more than 90 percent were unarmed.
These trends escalated dramatically after the 1967 Detroit Uprising, when the DPD made its use-of-firearms policy more permissive in order to insulate police officers from legal culpability by locating the justification to use deadly force in officers’ own “sound discretion.” The DPD hierarchy encouraged and even rewarded officers for killing unarmed “suspects” during the notorious STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) era of the early 1970s, when the police department was the most deadly per capita in the nation, prompting mass protests by Black community groups that demanded civilian control.
The DPD Homicide Bureau and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office exonerated police officers in almost every fatal shooting regardless of the circumstances. The closed nature of law enforcement archives poses a difficult challenge in assessing these decisions, but our research team still uncovered a wealth of countervailing evidence from the independent investigations of civil rights groups and agencies (and occasionally of newspapers), civil litigation filed by families of the victims, correspondences and affidavits from witnesses to police violence, and internal law enforcement records provided to Detroit mayors after community protests. Through FOIA requests, our project also obtained the investigative files of three of the most controversial exonerations during this era: the fatal shootings of Cynthia Scott in 1963 and of teenagers Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell in 1971.
Based on these archival discoveries, our project concludes that a substantial majority of the 188 identified law enforcement homicides represented excessive and unnecessary force (a civil litigation standard), even if technically “justifiable” under the discretionary guidelines, and that at least 25 percent involved police department and/or prosecutorial coverups and likely met the legal standard for murder or manslaughter charges. Such unaccountable and systemic police violence in Detroit and other northern cities during the civil rights era was—as in the Jim Crow South—part of a political and legal system of racial criminalization and segregationist state violence, not crime control itself.
The silences in the archive are systemic and deliberate, but the evidence that is available makes a powerful case that the general public and impacted communities should have the right to know about all brutality and misconduct complaints filed against police officers and law enforcement agencies, as well as the right to examine all internal investigative files by police departments and prosecutors. This is particularly true for police-involved homicides, where all of the evidence should be in the public domain, both historically and contemporaneously.
In recent years, Black Lives Matter protests have led to the passage of “right to know” legislation in states such as California and New York, unsealing some records of police violence and internal disciplinary procedures and marking a partial and important first step in this historical reckoning. The submerged history of police violence excavated in Detroit Under Fire demonstrates why even stronger open-records and full public accountability measures are urgent and essential, both in the state of Michigan and as a new national policy.
In what follows, I offer a brief narrative accounting of some of the project’s most crucial discoveries and how, placed together, they tell a story of escalating violence and systematic coverup by the DPD.
• • •
Around 80 percent of Detroit police homicides during the civil rights era involved African American victims; at least two-thirds were of unarmed people who posed no direct threat. The largest category of fatalities is of unarmed Black males shot in the back while allegedly fleeing.
The history of police violence in civil rights era Detroit unfolds in two stages, with the deadly 1967 Uprising as the hinge.
During the decade prior, white officers in the DPD routinely brutalized Black citizens without fear of any consequences, but the department only fatally shot an average of six civilians per year. Between 1957 and 1966, around two-fifths of those killed by police were definitely or probably armed, and white males engaged in serious criminal activity made up most of this total. The DPD and the prosecutor exonerated all officers who fatally shot unarmed and/or fleeing suspects, often through pro forma investigations, but the police department did not actively promote this policy as a crime control strategy.
Between 1967 and 1973, law enforcement officers in Detroit killed at least 171 people, an average of almost 25 per year, as the DPD liberalized its use of firearms policies and openly encouraged fatal force against unarmed and fleeing suspects. This escalation represented a political response to the demographic growth of the city’s African American population, the demands for tough-on-crime crackdowns by white residents seeking to defend their segregated neighborhoods, a revanchist challenge to civil rights and Black Power organizations, and the national war on “street crime” advanced by the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the DPD was an openly segregationist, 96 percent white institution in a Jim Crow northern city. The DPD policed and upheld the color line through the systematic racial profiling and harassment of African American pedestrians and motorists when they ventured downtown or beyond defined Black areas. More than a third of all non-traffic arrests were illegal “investigative” detentions without probable cause, allegedly of crime “suspects” and primarily of Black residents, leaving many innocent people with formal police records.
Arthur Johnson, head of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, labeled police brutality and racist abuse during such encounters an urgent civil rights issue and called police officers “willing instrumentalities in the racial segregation aims of the dominant white community.” The NAACP and the ACLU launched a campaign for a civilian review board with investigative and disciplinary powers over the police department in response to high-profile incidents involving prominent Black citizens.
In 1957 two white police officers brutally beat Robert Mitchell, an African American business owner, because he asked not to be searched on the street without cause. The DPD’s internal investigation ignored the testimony of multiple Black witnesses and exonerated the officers based on their claim that the victim had attacked them. The DPD denied that any racial discrimination at all existed in law enforcement and adamantly opposed the civil rights campaign for civilian review board oversight—a position shared by every white Detroit mayor, whether conservative or liberal, throughout the civil rights era.
Police violence occurred inside precinct stations as well as out on the street. In the “crash” crackdown of December 1960 through January 1961, the DPD illegally arrested 1,500 African American men on suspicion of murder after the downtown slayings of two white women. An affidavit from a thirty-one-year-old Black man described harrowing scenes of torture in precinct lockup, where the police held hundreds of “suspects” for days at a time. During the manhunt, a white officer shot a twenty-one-year-old Black male in the back on suspicion of misdemeanor theft from a parked car, and the prosecutor ruled the homicide to be justified after a cursory investigation that involved taking the officer’s statement. The outraged Black community responded to the crackdown by electing a white liberal mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, who refused to endorse a civilian review board but promised reform through human relations training, hiring more Black officers, and the approach now called “community policing.”
In 1962 Cavanagh’s promise of “color-blind law enforcement” faced a major test after two white officers shot David Carson, an unarmed fourteen-year-old Black male, in the back of the head during a car chase for a traffic violation. The killing violated the new, and slightly more restrictive, use-of-force policy implemented by the liberal administration, which stated that officers should not fire on fleeing suspects unless there was objectively no other way to capture a “known felon.” The NAACP demanded criminal charges, but the Wayne County prosecutor exonerated the officers based on their claim that they thought the boy was a “dangerous adult felon.” George Edwards, the liberal white police commissioner selected to implement the mayor’s reform agenda, expressed regret but also cleared the officers in the internal investigation by stating that the youth was guilty of “felonious” reckless driving, justifying his death.
Radical Black organizations moved to the forefront of the anti-police brutality movement in 1963, after a white officer shot and killed Cynthia Scott, a twenty-four-year-old Black woman, as she walked away after refusing to submit to an illegal arrest. The prosecutor and the liberal police commissioner exonerated the officer, who fabricated a story that Scott attacked him and his partner with a knife. The Homicide Bureau file obtained by our project through a FOIA request includes sworn statements from six African American witnesses who saw the officer shoot the unarmed woman without justification and then plant a knife on her body. These internal DPD records also reveal an undeniable coverup: the Homicide Bureau coached the officers on the scene to amend their accounts to reconcile contradictions with each other and with the forensic evidence. The Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild found prosecutor Samuel Olsen to have conducted a “biased investigation” designed “to obtain an exoneration from the very outset.” Thousands of working-class Black citizens protested in the streets, led by radical groups that rejected the NAACP’s middle-class reform strategy of cooperation with the white liberal administration. Cynthia Scott’s mother filed a civil lawsuit, and the city responded by enacting an ordinance shielding officers from personal liability in “good faith performance of their official duties”—a key reason that fatal force incidents escalated in subsequent years.
Unaccountable and systemic police violence in Detroit and other northern cities during the civil rights era was—as in the Jim Crow South—part of a political and legal system of racial criminalization and segregationist state violence, not crime control itself.
A coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal complaint in 1965 with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission charging Prosecutor Olsen with a pattern of racial discrimination against the Black population of Detroit based on the automatic exoneration of all police officers who killed African American citizens. In addition to the Scott coverup, the complaint cited the fatal shootings of Clifton Allen, an unarmed seventeen-year-old male, and Nathaniel Williams, an unarmed fifteen-year-old male. Both were shot in the back while fleeing from minor alleged burglaries—Allen had been reported to the police for stealing $1.83 from a store. The civil rights coalition demanded a new policy banning use of firearms against unarmed and fleeing suspects, to no avail. Civil rights groups also protested the murder of James Sabra, a fifty-three-year-old Black male, in his own backyard by a white officer who shot the unarmed man, unprovoked, in front of a large group of witnesses. The prosecutor declared the shooting “justifiable” after the policemen on the scene concocted a cover story that Sabra had attacked the officer with a knife.
DPD violence was often politically motivated, especially against groups and individuals who protested police brutality. In 1965 the Cavanagh administration created the militarized Tactical Mobile Unit with a mission to crack down on Black “street crime” and to control “demonstrations of various types,” meaning civil rights protests. The white liberal regime also resolved the problem of the DPD’s longstanding policy of making illegal investigative arrests by passing an anti-loitering law, giving police the discretion to arrest anyone in public for any reason, and proposing a “stop and frisk” ordinance to codify that common police practice as well (this was enacted over civil rights opposition in 1968). During the mid-1960s, the Tactical Mobile Unit and other DPD officers used the anti-loitering law to launch a campaign of harassment and wrongful arrests against members of the city’s leading anti–police brutality organization, the Adult Community Movement for Equality/Afro-American Youth Movement. In 1966 the DPD and Wayne County Prosecutor joined forces to crush this organization on false charges of inciting a riot and advocating violence, which at least one and possibly several undercover FBI–DPD agents provocateurs had actually instigated.
• • •
The transitional event in this story of escalation came in July 1967, when DPD officers shot and killed at least twenty-two African Americans during the Detroit Uprising that started with protests against police brutality. The deadliest event during the so-called Long, Hot Summer, the Uprising began when police arrested everyone in attendance at a party celebrating the homecoming of Black GIs. In an attempt to prevent the arrests, community members blocked police transport and then began looting nearby stores. By its end, the Uprising had claimed at least forty-three lives. Fifteen were unarmed males classified by police as “looters,” with most shot in the back for what was at most a low-level property offense. The circumstances of many of these killings are murky, and at least seven were clearly suspicious based on witness testimony and forensic evidence that contradicted the DPD version of events. In three of these cases—Ronald Evans, William Jones, and William Dalton—multiple witnesses accused DPD officers of executing unarmed youth who were already in custody by forcing them to flee at gunpoint and then shooting them from behind. The DPD Homicide Bureau and the new county prosecutor, William Cahalan, found all shootings of people classified as “looters” to be justified, regardless of the actual evidence, based on the provision in state law allowing fatal force against a “fleeing felon.” Three white DPD officers did face criminal charges after their coverup of the murders of three Black teenagers at the Algiers Motel unraveled. None was convicted.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office also exonerated white members of the Michigan National Guard in the fatal shootings of eleven civilians during the Uprising. Based on the evidence available in multiple archives, most of the National Guard killings were unjustified and involved coverups and framing of the victims. In one case, a guardsman fired without cause on George Talbert, a twenty-year-old Black male, as he walked down the street and then fabricated a scenario in which Talbert had threatened to kill him. The prosecutor ignored multiple witness accounts and exonerated the guardsman “because of the tenseness and the situation.” A guardsman also shot Albert Robinson, a thirty-eight-year-old Black male, as he lay on the ground in custody, and the DPD Homicide Bureau participated in covering up the damning autopsy report. In a third case, the prosecutor blamed alleged sniper fire in exonerating a National Guard tank gunner who fired wildly into a residential building and killed Tonia Blanding, a four-year-old African American girl, in the middle of the night.
After the 1967 Uprising, the DPD Homicide Bureau and the county prosecutor found all shootings of people classified as “looters” to be justified, regardless of evidence, based on the provision in state law allowing fatal force against a “fleeing felon.”
Racialized violence and use of fatal force by the DPD escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the Uprising, including at least forty-two civilians killed by police officers between 1968 and 1970 and then the stunning official total of ninety-four homicides between 1971 and 1973. (Again, these are undercounts: the numbers only include police-involved fatalities as determined by the Homicide Bureau and do not capture killings where the coverup prevented an investigation.)
The DPD relaxed its “Use of Firearms in Police Action” policy in September 1967 in recognition that many of the fatal shootings of “looters” during the Uprising violated the previous, already quite lax standard that disallowed firing at a fleeing person “upon mere suspicion” or if “any other means” of apprehension was possible. The new policy allowed fatal force to prevent the escape of a felony suspect based on the subjective standard of the officer’s “sound discretion,” part of the nationwide trend during this era to insulate law enforcement from oversight by locating legal authority in the “reasonable” discretion of the individual cop on the street.
The exponential increase in police violence was part of a broader political confrontation between the DPD and the Black community during the racially polarized era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The DPD and the city government came under the control of a reactionary white leadership that, in combination with the increasingly powerful Detroit Police Officers Association union, engaged in the full-scale repression of Black Power and left-wing organizations, obstructing all attempts by civil rights agencies to investigate brutality, misconduct, and unconstitutional law enforcement activities. Large groups of white DPD officers brutally and illegally assaulted and harassed Black Power activists in high schools, Black teenagers in racially transitional neighborhoods, Black youth at a church dance, nonviolent marchers from the Poor People’s Campaign, a Black church hosting a Black nationalist conference, the local chapter of the Black Panther Party, and also white New Left activists and countercultural youth. The DPD hierarchy and the police union stonewalled all investigations by the city and state civil rights agencies into these events.
The DPD also systematically whitewashed internal investigations into the everyday misconduct complaints filed by Black citizens, and although most of these records are sealed, an internal assessment acknowledged that no police officer was fired for brutality against a civilian during the 1960s. Very few were ever disciplined, much less prosecuted. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission repeatedly accused the DPD of an official policy of covering up brutality and misconduct by its officers through the “Blue Curtain” of collective silence. The commission also found that DPD officers illegally arrested and violently retaliated against numerous civilians who filed brutality complaints (a longstanding practice documented by the NAACP in the 1950s as well). In one 1972 incident, between fifteen and twenty white officers beat three wrongfully arrested Black males inside a precinct parking garage and then assaulted two Black officers who tried to stop the attack. The DPD denied that the incident had occurred, sought to discipline the Black officers for interfering with police operations, and forced the resignation of a white officer who violated the Blue Curtain to report the assault.
An internal assessment acknowledged that no police officer was fired for brutality against a civilian during the 1960s.
Almost half of the fatal police shootings documented in Detroit Under Fire during 1968–73 involved unarmed Black males in their teens and twenties shot while fleeing from the scene of an alleged burglary or robbery. These police homicides were disproportionately located in major commercial corridors or in transitional zones between Black and white neighborhoods, indicating a DPD deployment policy to protect white-owned businesses and residences through fatal force—not an intensified crackdown in the poorest and most segregated, allegedly “high-crime” areas of the city. Prosecutor Cahalan found every on-duty police homicide during this period to be justified except for a young white man shot in a rage incident by a white officer (the grand jury declined to indict, and the DPD cleared him) and a Black officer charged with manslaughter for a shooting linked to narcotics corruption (which was extensive in the DPD, and also usually covered up by the hierarchy).
• • •
The formation of the DPD STRESS initiative in the spring of 1971 accelerated fatal police shootings in Detroit to a per capita level unsurpassed by any large urban department during the era and probably ever since. STRESS focused on decoy operations (in which an undercover officer poses as an easy crime target), with the aim of surprising would-be muggers with fatal force. Its commander opined that “what is at stake here is whether we can effectively police the black community.” STRESS officers shot and killed at least twenty-two people in under three years, including fourteen during decoy operations. One white officer, Raymond Peterson, fired his weapon in at least nine homicides and was hailed by the DPD as a crime-fighting hero until forensic evidence proved he planted a knife on a dead Black male in 1973 (Peterson was acquitted of second-degree murder by a mostly white jury). The archival evidence—unusually extensive because activists filed a civil lawsuit against the DPD and Wayne County Prosecutor for conspiracy to cover up STRESS murders—reveals that most if not all of the decoy shootings were unjustified, that a majority of those killed were not muggers or engaged in any other criminal activity, and that white officers routinely planted knives on the victims whom they shot without cause.
Most if not all STRESS shootings were unjustified, a majority of those killed were not muggers or engaged in any criminal activity, and white officers routinely planted knives on the victims whom they shot without cause.
The fatal shootings of fifteen-year-old Ricardo Buck and sixteen-year-old Craig Mitchell in September 1971 was the turning point in the STRESS operation and inaugurated a two-year campaign by civil rights, Black Power, and left organizations for abolition of the unit and full community control of the DPD. The Homicide Bureau investigative file of the Buck and Mitchell fatalities, which our project obtained through a FOIA request, reveals a broad-based coverup to support the police story that an undercover white decoy officer shot the two Black teenagers as they fled after attacking him with a weapon. The Homicide Bureau and the Wayne County prosecutor discounted the eyewitness accounts of other Black youth on the scene, were complicit in obvious collusion with the officers present, ignored the forensic evidence and autopsy report making clear that the shootings could not have happened as claimed, and then criminalized the dead youth as dangerous felons terrorizing the streets of Detroit. Five years later, the city settled a civil lawsuit filed by the Buck and Mitchell families in recognition that the STRESS team had used excessive force and then covered up evidence.
How many similar stories would emerge if the DPD and the prosecutor’s office had to make all police homicide files available to researchers and impacted communities? At least seven other STRESS fatalities led to wrongful death civil litigation judgments or settlements. The partial archival trail accessible to our project team indicates that more than a quarter of the eighty-four police-involved fatalities during 1971–73 were likely murder or manslaughter scenarios covered up by law enforcement agencies, including at least fourteen by the STRESS unit.
• • •
The protest movement against STRESS, and changing demographics as Detroit became a majority-Black city, led to the election of an African American mayor in 1973. Coleman Young abolished STRESS soon after taking office, but his “community policing” reforms did not fundamentally change the patterns of police violence and brutality in Detroit, especially because he simultaneously launched a get-tough crackdown on crime, drugs, and gangs. The city adopted affirmative action policies to integrate the police force and established a mayor-appointed board of police commissioners that lacked real oversight authority. The police union also fought efforts to hold individual officers accountable, in the rare cases when the DPD and the Young administration actually tried. Radical groups continued to demand demilitarization of the police, an elected civilian board, and full community control over the DPD—never-enacted policies that Detroit Black Lives Matter activists continue to fight for to this day.
The systems of concealment, unaccountability, and preemptive authorization of discretionary deadly force, put in place in response to civil rights activism of the 1960s and ’70s, are the foundation of the policing systems that continue to operate to this day.
Police violence and brutality against African Americans is a fundamental feature of U.S. urban governance and racial control of segregated neighborhoods. The findings of Detroit Under Fire reinforce the overwhelming scholarly and activist consensus that the problem of police violence is not caused by a few “bad apples” or by individual racism, and therefore the solution cannot be found in prosecuting and convicting officers in the most egregious videotaped incidents. Nonetheless, both to inform our current debate about how to address police violence and transform law enforcement—and to seek accountability and justice—it is long past time for all of these law enforcement records to be open to public scrutiny.
The systems of concealment, unaccountability, and preemptive authorization of discretionary deadly force, put in place in response to civil rights activism of the 1960s and ’70s, are the foundation of the policing systems that continue to operate to this day. While the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is a start, more far-reaching Black Lives Matter proposals such as the BREATHE Act recognize that the only comprehensive solution requires defunding and disarming law enforcement, in combination with nonpunitive community-based approaches to public health and reinvestment in our most marginalized, heavily policed communities. As part of any justice-informed transformation, it is also essential to bring about community control of public safety agencies and end the inherently corrupt processes through which police departments and prosecutors investigate and exonerate themselves.
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April 29, 2021
28 Min read time