Chief: Detroit police prevented 'Seattle zone of lawlessness'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Officers used force to prevent protesters from setting up a "Seattle zone of lawlessness" during demonstrations that turned violent Saturday, the city's police chief said Monday.

Detroit police chief James Craig made the comment while there are multiple internal investigations to determine whether any officers acted improperly during the skirmishes.

"I am not going to let any group set up a Seattle zone of lawlessness here in the city of Detroit," Craig said. "That is non-negotiable."

In Seattle, authorities allowed protesters to occupy several blocks for about two weeks until clearing the area in late June. There were at least two people killed and a sexual assault in the zone.

Craig said officers made 44 arrests Saturday after the group Detroit Will Breathe blocked the intersection of John R and Woodward and refused to leave following at least eight warnings. The police officers told the crowd to disperse because the gathering in the middle of the street constituted an illegal assembly, he said.

Sixteen of those arrested were Detroiters, Craig said. The others came from the Metro Detroit suburbs and Ann Arbor. One man who was arrested is from California. All but one were released as of Monday, the chief said.

Police chief James Craig

The police response has been criticized by some on social media who posted videos claiming to show wrongdoing by officers, although Craig said much of the information being put out is a "false narrative."

In one video, it was claimed that officers hit a man with a baton while his hands were tethered behind his back with a zip-tie. Craig said a review found that no baton was used.

In another video, an officer is seen spraying a man who was being held down by other cops.

Craig said the incidents are being investigated, although he stressed, "If a person is restrained by a zip tie and he’s still actively resisting, it could be proper to take him to the ground.

"I've never seen a use of force that looks good," Craig said. "But when we tried to effect arrests, the officers were met with resistance. Was force used? Absolutely. But there’s a difference between force being used and a determination if the force was excessive."

The police department's Professional Standards Section has launched at least three internal investigations into whether officers acted properly Saturday, although Craig said he didn't see any violations in the material he's reviewed.

"If we find wrongdoing, we'll take action," Craig said,

Tristan Taylor, a spokesman for Detroit Will Breathe, did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment. But he made a statement on Sunday.

“We were standing in the middle of the street and they arrested us," Taylor told a crowd of about 50 people. "The issue isn’t that they arrested us. The issue is the brutality. When you do something to get arrested, you expect arrest, but not brutally beaten. We weren’t doing anything to get brutally beaten.”

The goal of people who blocked the Woodward intersection Saturday appeared to be to set up a Seattle-type zone, Craig said, vowing during a press conference at Public Safety Headquarters that he would prevent that from happening.

Craig said an effort last month to block East Grand Blvd. and create a "cop-free zone" was quelled within an hour.

"The bottom line is, we're not going to have a Seattle here," Craig said.

Detroit Will Breathe's Saturday gathering was to protest Operation Legend, a local-federal task force that aims to combat violence in the city. Craig and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who was in Detroit last week to review the initiative, insist the federal agents working with the task force will have nothing to do with protests.

The group on Saturday posted a social media message announcing: "Detroit Will Breathe is occupying the intersection of Woodward and John R. to demand the immediate end to Operation Legend and the withdrawal of federal agents sent to Detroit by the Trump administration to criminalize and terrorize black and brown communities. We aren't leaving until the feds leave."

Craig said as officers tried to move the protesters from the intersection, someone in the crowd pointed a green laser at his officers and a police helicopter pilot.

"It was not pointed at (the pilot's) eyes, or we'd be talking about a tragedy," he said. 

The chief said police were unable to locate whoever pointed the laser. One of the men arrested, an Ann Arbor resident, was still in custody Monday. Craig said the man had an asp, a small telescoping baton, and that he wore body armor, which is illegal to wear during the commission of an alleged felony.

"He's a regular," Craig said of the protester, whom he identified as Ethan Lucas. "I was told he was trying to incite a riot, although that doesn't mean he'll be charged with that."

Although Craig said no projectiles were thrown at officers Saturday, as happened in previous protests, he said police spotted a red "supply vehicle, which has been an MO ... they follow and equip protesters with projectiles. But the only thing that was deployed (Saturday) was some gas the protesters were in possession of."

During Monday's press conference, Craig chided some reporters for "never acknowledging that there are times where protesters are very aggressive, armed with wooden sticks ... and hammers ... throwing boulders and other projectiles at officers.

"Let's not take light the dangers our men and women face every day," he said. "I'm proud of the job they're doing."

Deputy Chief Todd Bettison said he spoke with several local activists Saturday, who told him they don't support Detroit Will Breathe's tactics.

"To Detroit Will Breathe: You're not welcome," Bettison said. "Go. It's just not working."

Detroit activist the Rev. W.J. Rideout of the group Defenders of Truth & Justice echoed Bettison's remarks.

"Detroit Will Breathe does not represent us," Rideout said. "The way they protest, throwing things at the police and fighting with them, does not represent how the people in Detroit feel. I have tried to bring peace between Detroit Will Breathe and DPD, but Detroit Will Breathe has a political agenda, and they're not interested in solutions.

"This is not a city where the police are going around shooting people of color," Rideout said. "I have protested suburban police departments where there is racism, but I've not seen Detroit Will Breathe at any of those protests, which tells me they're not trying to fight racism — they have another agenda."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN