50 years after Detroit uprising, police, community work to build trust
Detroit has had a few close calls to uprisings since 1967, but the city has enjoyed five decades without a riot, rebellion or mass violence, thanks to what police and citizens say are strong police-community ties.
Although Baltimore, Los Angeles and Chicago endure some of the same issues that plague Detroit — such as high crime and poverty — the Motor City has avoided the kind of violent incidents other cities have endured in recent years.
There have been situations in Detroit over the last 50 years that teetered on eruption, but city leaders were able to quell them. Detroit Police Chief James Craig credited preemptive efforts to build trust by police and community leaders.
“Detroit is not Baltimore or Ferguson,” said Craig, referring to Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014 rioting erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, which was deemed justified after a Department of Justice investigation.
“The time to establish relationships with the community is not after something happens,” Craig said. “You have to build those relationships up front.”
Craig said hosting community events including block parties, deploying neighborhood police officers, holding officers found of wrongdoing accountable have all helped strengthen the relationship with residents.
The Rev. Horace Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Baptist Church and a longtime Detroit civil rights activist, also credited police-community relations, and the fact the city’s power structure has largely been African-American for more than 40 years.
“In 1967, the police were like an occupying army of white officers whose primary function seemed to be keeping black folks in place,” said Sheffield, whose father of the same name was also a well-known community activist.
“My dad and others tried to address these issues (before 1967), and they were told nobody was interested in meeting with them,” Sheffield said. “That all changed with the ascendency of Coleman Young.
“Whereas before, we were oppressed and were not in charge of anything, there was a rise in black power in Detroit after Coleman Young was elected mayor. We have a police force that’s reflective of the community, and people of color presiding over trials.”
Kenneth Reed, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, agreed the atmosphere has improved in Detroit over the past 50 years but cautioned conditions are ripe for a return to violence.
“We’re one serious incident away from having another rebellion,” Reed said. “We’re still not in the clear. Some of the same conditions that existed in 1967 are still here: housing, educational and economic opportunities. People are fighting to survive. Their water is getting shut off.
“If something serious happens, we could end up right back where we were in 1967.”
On edge of violence
When Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon joined the city’s police department in 1965, there was a shortage of black officers in Detroit. The department had roughly 4,000 officers — only about 40 were black, he said.
Today, the police department employs a much smaller force of 2,434, and more than half are black. The department is made up of 1,409 black, 891 white, 112 Hispanic, 19 Asian and three Native American employees, according to July 7 figures.
The force is also maintaining law and order in a city with a much smaller population than roughly 50 years ago — Detroit’s population was 672,795 as of last summer compared with the 1,514,063 living in the city 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
McKinnon, who would eventually run the department as chief in the 1990s and more recently serve as deputy mayor, said he doesn’t worry about another uprising because he believes it would do no good. The police department today, he said, is better prepared and trained.
“Detroit is doing a tremendous job of working with the community,” he said. “Anything could spark, but you want to have people who are preparing to go out and speak for the city and police department and do everything they can to stem the tide of something occurring again.
“But you never say never. Anything could spark something. But I don’t think anything could be of the magnitude of 1967.”
But some say several incidents over the years could have exploded into widespread violence if Detroit had a different dynamic between its black citizens and the city’s power structure:
■Against the backdrop of rioting in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who were videotaped beating motorist Rodney King, two Detroit cops on Nov. 5, 1992, severely beat Malice Green, who later died from his injuries.
Young incited controversy when he said on national television that Green had been “literally murdered by police” before an investigation had been launched. Detroit police ordered more than $200,000 in riot gear in the wake of the incident, although officials insisted it was a coincidence, and that police were not preparing for an uprising.
Officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn were later convicted of second-degree murder in connection with Green’s death. Two other officers charged in the incident, Sgt. Freddy Douglas and Officer Robert Lessnau, were acquitted.
Advocates for Nevers and Budzyn insist they didn’t get a fair trial because they said Young tainted the jury pool by prematurely calling them murderers. Others say the verdict was just and showed residents things had changed in Detroit since 1967.
“The guilty verdict went a long way toward getting people to trust the criminal justice system in Detroit,” said Detroit Police Commissioner Willie Bell, a former Detroit cop who was instrumental in getting more blacks on the city’s police force in the years following the violence of 1967.
■On Aug. 29, 2000, Officer David Krupinski was dispatched to the home of 39-year-old Errol Shaw, a deaf man who was reportedly chasing his children with a knife, although the 911 caller later admitted she made that up to ensure a quick police response.
When Krupinski arrived at the scene, he said Shaw lunged at him with a steel rake. The officer fired two shots, killing Shaw.
Krupinski was acquitted of wrongdoing, although the incident gave fuel to those demanding federal oversight of Detroit’s police department, which happened in 2003, when the city agreed to a consent decree to avoid a lawsuit alleging excessive force and deplorable conditions of confinement.
Bell said the changes brought by the consent decree, which ended last year, have helped build trust with the community.
“The Justice Department scrutiny forced the department to put a better system in place to track problem officers,” he said.
■The 2010 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Je’Rean Blake prompted the Detroit Police Special Response Team to raid a flat on Detroit’s east side in search of the killer.
After the raid team threw a “flash bang” grenade into the home and kicked in the front door, Officer Joseph Weekley fatally shot 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was sleeping on a living room sofa with her grandmother, Mertilla Jones.
The May 16, 2010, shooting prompted protests covered by the national media, and drew the attention of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy at Aiyana’s funeral.
Weekley, who contended the grandmother struck his rifle, causing it to fire, was twice tried on involuntary manslaughter charges. Both trials ended in hung juries. After the second mistrial, Wayne Circuit Judge Cynthia Gray-Hathaway dismissed the manslaughter charge.
“I think the Aiyana case, as tragic as it was, showed there is a relationship between Detroit and the community,” former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said. “As angry as people were, there was no civil unrest.”
Godbee, who was assistant chief when Aiyana was killed, added: “Detroit just doesn’t have the same bitter animus with the police department as other cities. That goes back to the seed that were planted during the Young administration, and having civilian oversight (with the Board of Police Commissioners).
“Detroit doesn’t have a perfect police department, but the community relations is a model for the rest of the country.”
In addition to fostering community relations, Craig said it’s important for police officials to release as much information as possible about controversial incidents without tainting the investigations. He cited as an example the April 27, 2015, fatal shooting of 20-year-old Terrance Kellom by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
The agent, Mitchell Quinn, was part of a joint fugitive task force serving an arrest warrant for Kellom, who was wanted for armed robbery. Immediately after the shooting, an irate crowd jostled and harassed former Assistant Chief Steve Dolunt.
Craig arrived on the scene and told residents Kellom had reportedly attacked the ICE agent with a hammer, and promised he would hold a community meeting within a week. The meeting was held, residents and police aired out their concerns, and further violence was avoided.
Wayne County Prosecutors later cleared Quinn of wrongdoing. Kellom’s family in April filed a civil suit against Quinn. The case is pending in federal court.
“If you hunker down and say nothing, you’re allowing the street to control the narrative, which is always a mistake,” Craig said.
“Look at the Michael Brown incident: The narrative was that he was shot in the back with his hands up, which was proven to be false. But the police in Ferguson didn’t say anything, allowing that narrative to take hold.”
Sheffield, meanwhile, said the city has come a long way since 1967 but insisted there’s still work to do.
“We still have our problems, but by and large, the community and police have worked together well,” Sheffield said. “I give it an A-minus — but I’d like to see that become an A-plus.”