July 20, 2007 at 10:02 am

Fears of police harassment linger

Brutality worries ease, but Metro drivers complain of racial profiling

In his role as a registered guardian for the mentally impaired, Michael Young fights for victims' rights, yet he also feels victimized -- when driving.

"There's always going to be that off chance that you're going to be stopped or followed (in the suburbs)," said Young, a black man who lives in Detroit. "I've been stopped several times to be asked where I'm going. It makes me feel like a victim sometimes and it frustrates me."

In Canton Township, one of at least two Metro Detroit communities that keep records by race, African-Americans accounted for 14 percent of all 2005 traffic stops in a community that's 5 percent black.

Today, 40 years after Detroit unrest was sparked by a police raid, fears of brutality are less widespread, by most accounts, but concern about harassment and profiling extends into virtually every community.

"Black youths are being killed by black officers. I'm so fed up I want to cry," said Sandra Hines of the Coalition Against Police Brutality, a Detroit-based citizens watchdog group. "We are afraid. When a police car drives by we slow down from 35 to 25. We are scared of brutality for no reason. Police don't bring comfort; we are deathly afraid of the police."

Feds swooped in

Perhaps the most significant evidence of the continuing concerns was Detroit's agreement with federal Justice Department authorities in July 2003 to make significant changes in the Police Department in the wake of civil rights complaints. The agreement, in the form of two consent decrees, followed a 30-month federal investigation into shootings by Detroit police and how they were handled. It came amid complaints that the city routinely violated the rights of suspects, prisoners and witnesses to crimes.

In a five-year-period leading up to the investigation, the city had paid a total of $8.6 million to settle six lawsuits in which the department cleared officers who shot residents between 1995 and 2000. During that time frame, Detroit police fatally shot 40 people and 35 officers were exonerated. Four officers were charged with misdemeanors. The other was convicted and is in prison.

The latest report from a federal monitor overseeing the decrees says there has been little progress in meeting the mandates.

To many Detroiters, however, there has been much progress compared with 1967.

In the 1960s, the "Big Four" were elite four-man police units that were known to black Detroiters as instigators of brutality and harassment, especially in the heavily African-American communities in and around the 12th Street neighborhood where the 1967 unrest began. The squads often staged bar raids and rounded up prostitutes.

"They'd hassle you for just standing there, for walking down the street, for being on a corner, anything," said Wayne Morrow, 48, a Brightmoor resident who lived on Vancourt on the west side during the 1960s. "They wanted you aggravated so they could come out and use a stick on you."

Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings said an 18 percent rise in complaints against officers since 2006 shows residents know the department is serious about targeting rogue officers.

"We fight every single day to stop the bloodshed in Detroit," she said at a recent police commission meeting. "The increase is a result of transparency of this department and the fact that filing a complaint is a lot easier."

'Driving while black'

According to a 2002 study at Oakland University, black drivers in almost all-white neighborhoods are three times as likely to be profiled and later stopped in comparison to white drivers, although they are no more likely to have a criminal record.

David Harris, a leading scholar on racial profiling at the University of Toledo, said the practice of harassing blacks is more subtle now through racial profiling, commonly known as "driving while black."

"This is an institutional problem," Harris said. "These things are not the same for black and white citizens."

The Michigan State Police no longer collects race information when officers stop motorists. Canton Township and Dearborn collect that information, but statistics were not available for Dearborn.

Despite statistics that are higher than the population rate, Canton Township gets few profiling complaints from African-Americans who are pulled over in traffic stops, said Deputy Chief Alex Wilson. In fact, there were less than 10 last year, he said. Department policy also prohibits traffic stops and arrests solely on race, he said.

"It's something we're cognizant of that there is a perception out there shared by a portion of the community," Wilson said. "We try to . . . be sensitive to it."

Whatever the statistics, the perception of profiling continues.

On a recent June afternoon in traffic court in Southfield, which has a 54 percent black population, 17-year-old Cleveland Cunningham alleged he was followed, stopped and ticketed by a black officer for no reason. He was ticketed for running a red light. The Detroiter also said the officer called him a racial slur. The white magistrate didn't buy it.

"To me, it seems like no matter what you do, it's like they are trying to find something on you," Cunningham said.

You can reach Darren A. Nichols at (734) 462-2190 or ddnichols@detnews.com">ddnichols@detnews.com and Amy Lee at (313) 222-2548 or alee@detnews.com">alee@detnews.com.

Ron Scott, left, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police ... (Jessica Williams-Carson / Special to The Detroit N)