Future chief faced racism head-on in 1967

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon was in full uniform after a 16-hour shift during 1967’s uprising when he was stopped by a pair of white officers on his way home and threatened with death.

“I said ‘police officer. I’m a police officer,’ ” McKinnon recalled yelling out as he was ordered from his 1965 convertible Mustang on the Lodge Freeway near Chicago.

“They had their guns out. I remember one officer so vividly. He was probably in his late 40s. He had brush-cut, silver hair. He said ‘today, you gonna die (racial slur).’ ”

It was as if things were unfolding in slow motion, McKinnon said, as he watched his fellow officer pull the trigger. He dove back into his car.

“With my right hand, I pushed the accelerator, my left hand I steered my Mustang, and they were shooting at me as I drove off,” he said.

McKinnon escaped uninjured, drove home and reported the shooting to a sergeant. It was never investigated.

That was McKinnon’s first brush with death during those tense July days, but he said it wasn’t his last.

“It was as if God was saying, ‘I’m going to give you this test, Ike, and let you see how bad people can be, but I’m going to let you live through that,’ ” said McKinnon, who returned to work the next day. “I was never so afraid as those days in July during the riots.”

McKinnon would later become Detroit’s chief of police in the 1990s as well as more recently deputy mayor under Mayor Mike Duggan.

McKinnon, like so many in Detroit who lived through the tumultuous time, is retelling his experiences as the summer of 1967 comes back into focus 50 years later.

The 74-year-old recounted the looting, chaos and a confrontation in which he and other officers were pummeled with bricks and bottles by a rowdy crowd.

The police department was “woefully unprepared” to handle the situation on its own and was forced to call in the Michigan Army National Guard, he said.

“I don’t think the city or anyone saw it coming. But I think the contributing factors were this horrible discrimination, segregation that occurred for years,” he said. “It was an open gate.”

One night, McKinnon was patrolling with the National Guard at Joy and Linwood near the former Detroit Bank and Trust. Shots rang out and bullets began skipping along Joy. The source of the gunfire wasn’t clear.

“I dove off the vehicle and did a cartwheel, did another cartwheel and I ended up against the wall (of the bank) and I tried to mold myself into the wall because of the bullets that were coming out,” McKinnon said.

‘They saved my life’

McKinnon retired last year as deputy mayor of Detroit, where he served for two and a half years. He retired from the police department in 1998 after serving as chief. He’s now working as a professor of education at University of Detroit Mercy.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘You’ve got to move on. The riot was almost 50 years ago.’ I say, ‘hold on a minute. I almost died,’ ” he said. “I will never forget what happened in 1967. I don’t think people should.”

The following year, as racial tensions remained high in the wake of the fatal shooting of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., McKinnon experienced another near-death encounter in the city’s streets.

In 1968, McKinnon chased a passenger from a stolen car into an apartment and was confronted by three men armed with automatic weapons.

He’d been patrolling on Dexter near Richton and saw a white Mustang that he recognized as stolen from the “hot sheet,” a daily list officers carried with them of all the stolen vehicles reported in Detroit.

The passenger, a tall black man, jumped out and started running. McKinnon jumped out of the patrol car and took off after him.

The suspect ducked into an apartment building. McKinnon followed. He assumed his partners were close behind, but they weren’t. Once inside, he became locked in a standoff with three armed men as he continued his pursuit of the suspect.

“My voice went up two or three octaves and I said ‘freeze, you are under arrest,’ ” he said. “The lead bad guy, he said ‘Let him go. Let him go’ ” (of the suspect). “I said, ‘No, no he’s coming back with me.’ ”

“They had their guns trained on me. I knew I was going to die. But they had to get him out of the way so they could shoot me,” McKinnon said. “So I had my arm around his neck, and I remember as I was backing him out of the apartment building, I’m thinking to myself, ‘God, what’s my mother going to say when I’m dead?’ ”

McKinnon backed the suspect down the steps. The men followed, guns still aimed at him, until they reach the middle of the street.

Then, McKinnon said, he heard someone yell: “Let him go .... you let officer Ike go. He’s a good guy.”

The men took off running and McKinnon was still hanging on to the suspect. The people in the community, he said, told him “we couldn’t let anything happen to you.”

“I had been in that community and talked with people and treated them fairly,” McKinnon said of the reputation he’d gained with residents. “And they saved my life.”

McKinnon moved to Detroit from Montgomery, Ala., when he was nine with his parents and five siblings.

He graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1961 and served four years in the U.S. Air Force, spending his last in Vietnam. He was discharged in 1965. That August, he joined the Detroit Police Department.

McKinnon earlier decided at age 14 that he’d become an officer after being beaten by a group of white Detroit police officers who were part of a unit known as the “Big Four.”

The unit, created in the 1950s as many white Detroiters began moving to the suburbs, consisted of a uniformed officer riding with three plainclothes officers in unmarked cars. The group was assigned to search for felons, but quickly gained a reputation for harassing black citizens.

In McKinnon’s case, the officers jumped out of the patrol car and grabbed him as he was leaving Garfield Junior High. McKinnon said he went to visit his favorite teacher and let him know he’d been accepted into Cass.

“They threw me up against the car. They beat me up. I kept asking ‘why?’ There was no reason,” he said. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then they told me to get my ass out of there. I ran home. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone.”

Interactive: Five deadly days in Detroit in the summer of 1967

‘The officers laughed’

In the 1950s, McKinnon said, it was rare to see a black police officer in Detroit. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups pushed for integration, but it led to pushback from officers.

When he joined in 1965, there was an extreme shortage of black officers in Detroit. The department had roughly 4,000 officers — only about 40 were black, he said.

And the attitudes of many white officers didn’t make it easy on him.

On his first night, he was the only officer of color among 25 to 30 officers at roll call. A white officer he’d graduated from high school with declined to acknowledge him and then made derogatory comments when the two were assigned to patrol together.

“So this is my indoctrination. My welcome to the Detroit Police Department,” he said. “The officers laughed. The supervisors said nothing about this.”

McKinnon said some nights on patrol he rode around in silence with white partners who refused to acknowledge him. But he learned other white officers, including long-time colleague Frank Mitchell, could be accepting of black officers.

When Mitchell joined the force in 1963, just two black officers were in his academy class.

“The makeup of the department never crossed my mind until I got there,” said Mitchell, 80, who grew up on the city’s east side. “It wasn’t what I expected. It was a time when the changes were starting to be made, but they were very minute changes in the treatment of black officers as they were coming on.”

Mitchell said black officers were excluded from shooting pool, playing cards or table tennis at the station, and many were assigned to parking ticket duty. Some quit based on the poor assignments and treatment, he recalled.

Things “got bad,” he recalled, when the department began integrating black officers into scout cars. He recalled one white officer putting cardboard between himself and a black partner. Another, he said, sprayed down the inside of the car after a black officer had been working in it.

“I just didn’t understand it,” he said. “It didn’t make sense.”

‘Ike calmed it all down’

Mitchell said he and McKinnon became fast friends. He spent most of his 35 years in the department working around McKinnon, including an assignment in the internal affairs division, prosecuting police officers for misconduct.

The pair worked and studied together for lieutenant and sergeant and both went on to make inspector, he said. Once McKinnon was appointed police chief by former mayor Dennis Archer in 1994, he added Mitchell to the leadership team.

“Ike was very good for the department. Ike calmed it all down and got it all straight. He did an excellent job,” said Mitchell, who was promoted to commander and then deputy chief under McKinnon. “With all of the things that he went through and the experiences he had, it all played a part in what he did when he got a chance to make improvements. He did it the way it should be.”

Archer said he was first directed to link up with McKinnon as he geared up for his bid for office, talking with others about the city and its future.

Ultimately, he called on McKinnon to assemble a volunteer security team to accompany him while campaigning. He admired McKinnon’s ideas and later asked him to become Detroit’s top cop. Archer said he called on him to help boost the department’s image and its relationships with other law enforcement agencies.

“I was pleased with the work that he did,” he said. “I was pleased with the people that he brought around him.”

Nearly 20 years after leaving the department, McKinnon is still able to recite the first paragraph of the code of conduct from memory:

“As a law enforcement officer my fundamental duty is to serve the community, to safeguard lives and property, to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”

“I tried to live by that,” he said.