Black drivers feel targeted by police in Detroit suburbs
Correction: In 2019, 39% of traffic stop tickets Livonia police issued were to Black men and women. An earlier version of this story incorrectly calculated that percentage.
It was around 2 p.m. on June 10 when Marcus Thatcher pulled into Chemical Bank near Holbrook Avenue in Hamtramck.
Thatcher had just deposited checks for his job as an assistant commissioner for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference when a police vehicle's flashing blue and red lights turned on behind him. Thatcher, believing the police were going to pull someone else over, continued to turn the corner in his car.
According to Thatcher, the police vehicle sped past to cut him off. Another police car pulled up behind him. In less than two minutes, he said, two officers were standing outside their cars, pointing their guns at him, yelling for Thatcher to get out of his car.
"It just blows my mind that police can just say, OK, well, we have a Black guy in a blue shirt, we can pull him out at gunpoint now and traumatize him," said Thatcher, 28, of Detroit.
Other Black motorists in Metro Detroit have had similar encounters with police. While not all have reached the point of being held at gunpoint, it's not uncommon for Black motorists to avoid driving through the suburbs because they fear being racially profiled during traffic stops.
Police drew their guns at Thatcher and handcuffed him at the scene, he said, because they said he fit a description of an armed robber who had stolen prescriptions from the CVS across the street in Hamtramck, a racially diverse city where 13.5% of residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Thatcher, a light-skinned Black man, was wearing a light blue pullover. The suspect shown in security cameras was a dark-skinned, heavy-set Black man, wearing a dark blue jacket.
Police let Thatcher go after they received a call saying the suspect had driven a white Cadillac. Thatcher was driving a red Dodge.
"They told me it was regular policing ... but I do believe I was racially profiled, I mean in my mind, I don't know how I couldn't be," he said.
Thatcher said he met with the Hamtramck chief of police, Anne Moise, to voice his complaints. Moise, who did not respond to messages from The Detroit News for comment, sent Thatcher a letter in response to his complaint.
"Our practice is to make sure that officers are treating everyone fair and with respect and we will continue to do so ... we will always make sure that our officers are highly trained and react appropriately and professionally in all situations," Moise wrote in the letter, dated June 17.
Thatcher thought his life could have ended in the hands of those officers, and a 2019 study by the University of Michigan and two other schools found some evidence to back up that fear.
The study, which included Rutgers University and Washington University, found police use-of-force is the sixth-leading cause of death for young Black men, behind only accidents (the No. 1 cause), suicide, other homicides, heart disease and cancer.
The study clarifies that police use-of-force includes asphyxiation, beating, a chemical agent, a medical emergency, a Taser or a gunshot. The study also says that Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
Hilary Smith of Livonia said she fears for her Black fiance's life every day.
"We've actually moved to using the Life 360 app, so that I know where he is, and if he does get stopped, it'll send me an alert," said Smith, 31. "I just can't sleep if I don't know where he is ... know that he's safe."
Smith and Noah Ramirez began dating three years ago. Ramirez lived in Howell and would drive from there to Livonia for their dates.
The nearly 40-minute drive always ended up taking Ramirez around an hour and a half to complete. When Smith asked why he was always late, Ramirez said it was because he consistently got pulled over during the drives.
The couple can't remember how many times Ramirez has been pulled over by police, but they say the reason is almost always because the police say he fits a description of a suspect on the loose.
"Anytime you look at a cop car pulled over in Livonia, it's typically with a Black person ... there's just a lot of history for police and racial profiling in Livonia," said Ashlee Ciaramitaro, a Livonia resident who is white.
While Livonia police chief Curtis Caid told The Detroit News his department does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, Caid was seen in a live video posted on Facebook saying, "Livonia has a reputation of being a racist community."
"We do not target individuals for enforcement action based on their gender, race, religion, any ethnicity at all," Caid said. "I know that there's some that have accused, whether it's the city of being a racist community or the police department of profiling, and that is completely inaccurate. As a police chief, I will not tolerate any of our officers participating in any kind of discriminatory action or racist actions."
Ciaramitaro took it upon herself to find out if her suspicions that police were targeting Black people were true, by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Livonia Police Department to release the demographics of its traffic stops from the past year.
"I just feel like I was woken up from a very strange, complacent slumber until everything happened with George Floyd," said Ciaramitaro, 33.
In her June request, Ciaramitaro asked for the race, sex, age, reason for stop, and more during traffic stops.
More than a week later, the department's central records division sent her thousands of pages that included the day, location, and the officer who made the traffic stop. None of the files included information about the driver's race or the reason for the stop, she said.
The police department told Ciaramitaro that her request was not within their "scope of search ability."
Ciaramitaro created a petition, which has more than 700 signatures, for Livonia Police Department to release several files, including the demographics of traffic stops and its full use-of-force policy.
On July 11, Livonia police released a website called Police and Community Together (PACT) that details data and demographics for citations and arrests, the department's use-of-force policy and more.
In 2019, 39% of traffic stop tickets Livonia police issued were to Black men and women, and 44% of citations were given to Blacks, according to the site.
The citations included traffic violations and civil infractions in Livonia, where the Black population is 4.4% of the city's total, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Smith along with another Livonia resident, Delisha Upshaw, started a fundraiser to buy billboard space for four weeks to spread awareness of racial profiling in the suburb. The electronic billboard, which went live on Telegraph Road near the I-96 interchange on July 6, read: "Driving while Black? Racial profiling up ahead. Welcome to Livonia."
Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan called the message aimed at motorists unhelpful.
"This billboard is counterproductive to ... efforts we are taking to ensure Livonia is ‘a welcoming place for all’," she said in a statement. "This billboard will not help advance the progress of diversity in our community, something to which I am committed."
Smith and the other fundraiser organizers received death threats and threats of vandalism the same day the billboard went up in Livonia.
Officials in other Metro Detroit suburbs say they're aware of concerns about racial profiling.
In the past two months in Troy, the police department ticketed 106 Black people during traffic stops and 292 white people, said Sgt. Meghan Lehman. However, Lehman added that a majority of traffic stops in Troy end without citations or tickets being given.
Troy's population is 3.8% Black, according to U.S. Census data.
"Obviously people have had some bad experiences that's being communicated throughout the community ... and if this is a problem, we want to address it," Lehman said. "The idea that people feel unsafe coming to Troy, we feel terrible about it."
In Warren, where 18.5% of residents are Black, police Commissioner William Dwyer said traffic stops aren't related to race.
"The issue in traffic stops is that when an officer makes a stop based on a violation, he or she has no idea of the color of the skin of the person they're stopping, whether during the day or at night," he said.
As a Black woman, Jasmyne Brisker feels a different way.
Brisker said she moved to Westland, which is 18.8% Black, to be closer to her manager job at Wendy's, only to be continually pulled over. In her hometown of Detroit, which is 78.6% Black, she said she's never been stopped by police.
In one incident, Brisker said she was leaving work and was pulled over. The officer told her the reason for the stop was that her car was making sounds that were too loud. The officer then asked Brisker if she had any drugs or weapons in her car, she said.
After a series of questions and 30 minutes later, the officer let Brisker go with a warning.
"We all know what it's like as a Black person to be racially profiled," said Brisker, 24. "They look for something to pull you over for, and that's why I don't drive through the suburbs a lot."
Mark Fancher, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the organization receives countless complaints of racial profiling by police, there isn't much that can be done about it legally.
"It's very common for people to suspect that they've been racially targeted," he said. "It's very rare for anybody to be able to successfully establish that to the satisfaction of the court. The usual method of establishing that there's racial profiling going on is by using records to demonstrate some type of a pattern."
In 2017, six Black people who were pulled over by Michigan State troopers reported to ACLU that they felt they were racially profiled. Fancher said the six had never met one another, but their accounts were almost identical.
That prompted the ACLU to put pressure on Michigan State Police to record the demographics of its traffic stops and assess if the data showed any biases toward Black drivers.
The agency released data on the racial makeup of its traffic stops in 2017, compared with Michigan's population. The data showed that Black people made up 16.9% of troopers' stops, while making up 14.2% of Michigan's population.
Fancher said comparing the racial demographics of traffic stops with the state-wide population provided a false narrative.
"My response to them was that's ridiculous ... you've got vast stretches of Michigan where there are few if any people of color, parts of the state where there are heavy concentrations. ... It has to be more localized and specific," he said.
For Brisker, change would start with police departments taking more steps to confirm if someone fits the description of a suspect.
"I would like to see them actually take into consideration what the suspect says and not just act off instinct," Brisker said. "Black people exist everywhere, and we all don't look alike. They need to be more sensitive to the fact that we don't all ... fit the description because we're Black."