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Amid a national debate about the relationship between African-American communities and mostly white police departments, Detroit is in a better position than most when it comes to having a diverse police force.

The city worked through prickly issues for decades, and those who lived through it said the changes didn't come easy.

The national debate about relations between police and African-Americans has been at the forefront since the August shooting of black robbery suspect Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, which sparked a national outcry about the under-representation of blacks in many police forces.

The controversy ramped up last week, when the U.S. Justice Department cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing, but criticized the Ferguson police for discriminatory practices. According to the Associated Press, only four of the city's 54 officers are black, which, the report said, undermined trust in a community that's about two-thirds African American.

Detroit's department in the past has had rocky relations with black residents. Aggressive police units such as STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), an anti-robbery squad; and the Big Four, which was charged with searching for dangerous felons, often were at the center of conflicts. Both randomly stopped and harassed black citizens, and experts say the units fueled much of the racial tension during the 1960s and 1970s.

But after nearly five decades of sometimes hotly contested changes, the majority of Detroit's police officers are now African-American. Sixty-one percent of the 2,306-member force is black in a city that's 83 percent African-American. The lag, department officials say, is due in part to a dearth of minority candidates.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said racial tension between police and citizens is no longer a problem.

"Detroit isn't Ferguson," he said. "We have a good relationship with the community, and I don't think race is a core issue here."

Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and Peace Zones for Life, said there are still problems between Detroit's black community and police, although he agreed race isn't the focal point. He pointed out that Eugene Brown, the Detroit officer who shot nine people and was in large part responsible for the police department entering into three federal consent decrees in 2003, was black.

"Now, you have people alienated for different reasons than race," said Scott, who was a member of the Black Panthers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. "A lot of it is socioeconomic. A lot of times, you'll have black officers who gain power, and they end up engaging in the same kind of abusive behavior that white officers used to do."

Still, Scott said having police departments with similar racial makeups as their communities can boost their credibility with residents.

Craig disagreed. "I've been in this business 38 years, and I've worked with good white officers and good black officers," he said. "The way you treat citizens and respond to calls for service is the way you build trust, regardless of the officer's race."

History of strife

Racial tension in the 1800s helped to create the Detroit Police Department.

One of Detroit's first race riots erupted in March 1863 after a black man, William Faulkner, was falsely accused of raping a white woman. She later recanted. The difficulty in mustering troops from Fort Wayne to end the riot prompted the City Council to expedite establishing the police department in 1865.

For the next century, the relationship between the department and Detroit's black citizens was often rocky.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, tens of thousands of African-Americans joined the Great Migration of southerners who flocked to Detroit for jobs in the city's auto factories. The influx brought racial tension between the community and the police department, with historians saying the force was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s.

In the first eight months of 1925, Detroit police officers shot 55 black citizens. The Detroit Independent, an African-American newspaper, wrote that more black men had been "shot down in the streets (of Detroit) without a reasonable excuse than (had) been lynched in the entire South, during the same period."

The long-stewing racial tensions flared again in 1942, with clashes that erupted after black residents moved into the Sojourner Truth housing project in a predominantly Polish northside neighborhood.

A year later, 25 blacks and nine whites died in a three-day race riot that started on Belle Isle. Police killed 17 of the African-Americans.

In the 1950s, with many white Detroiters beginning to move to the suburbs, the police department created the "Big Four," a unit consisting of a uniformed officer riding with three plainclothes officers in black unmarked cars. Although charged with searching for felons, it quickly gained a reputation for harassing black citizens.

"When the Big Four came riding up the street, people scattered," said Bill Welborne, an 80-year-old African-American who grew up on the city's west side. "As soon as you saw that car, you were gone."

From the ashes

By 1967, more than a third of the city's population was black, but the police force was 95 percent white.

"The problems had been building up for years," said Willie Bell, 70, a longtime Detroit Police officer and current chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners who grew up near Gratiot and Van Dyke on the city's east side.

On July 23, 1967, a Saturday night police raid on an illegal after-hours bar touched off the deadliest and most destructive riot in U.S. history.

When the smoke cleared after five days, 43 people were dead, 33 of them black, and 473 injured. Damages and looting was estimated between $40 million to $80 million..

In the wake of the riot, Detroit police officials created the STRESS unit.

"They had a reputation as an anti-black unit," said Bell, who joined the police force in 1971.

In 1973, after Coleman Young was elected mayor, he made good on his promise to overhaul the police department. Disbanding STRESS was one of his first moves.

"That went a long way toward showing people he was serious," said Bell, who helped form Concerned Police Officers for Equal Justice in the early 1970s, and served as chairman of the National Black Police Officers Association.

Young appointed William Hart as the city's first African-American police chief, and began hiring more black officers, which fueled tensions among cops that lasted years.

Craig said he witnessed it his first day on the job in 1977.

"My welcome to DPD was, I got into the car with a 25-year veteran white officer, and his first words to me were: 'I don't want you here, so just sit there, shut up and be black.' "

Bob Slivatz, a white officer who joined the force in 1972 after serving in Vietnam, said he was targeted because he befriended a black officer. "Oh, there was definitely racial division," he said.

Malice Green beating

The November 1992 beating death of Malice Green by white officers Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers stirred emotions among the city's black residents. Young publicly called the officers murderers before they were even tried.

Rampant problems, including questionable investigations into police shootings, illegal detentions and deplorable jail conditions forced the city to enter into three federal consent judgments in 2003. But race wasn't a central issue, said Assistant Chief James White, who led efforts to comply with the federal decrees, which ended last year.

"We have had cultural sensitivity training, but that wasn't mandated (as part of the consent decree) because that was never identified by the Department of Justice as a problem for our agency," he said.

Bell said it wasn't easy making the Detroit Police Department reflective of the community. "But now, we have that, and I can say I'm proud of the hard work so many of us did to make that change happen."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

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