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Did Detroit's police force learn anything from the summer of ’67?

In the growing rhapsody of theories surrounding how and why Detroit's 1967 riot erupted, the general consensus is police overreach is to blame. Fifty years later, our boys (and girls) in blue are determined now more than ever to continue keeping the peace.

Since the New Year, there has been a lot of reflection on one of the biggest events in Detroit history – the 1967 riots. To mark the 50th anniversary, newspapers, civic groups, museums and even Hollywood are all marking the occasion with a look back and asking: What were the consequences of those fateful days – bad and good? What does it all mean today – five decades later? And, perhaps most important, could history repeat itself?

To assess that last question you have to ask another question: Why did it happen?

There is no simple answer. A mix of many variables led Detroit and more than 100 other American cities to break out in revolt that summer of ’67. Unemployment, schools struggling with integration, substandard housing, racial injustices, lack of opportunity and feelings of hopelessness were the kindling. But the spark was the dangerous dynamic between the city’s black residents and its police department.

It was, after all, the police raid of a “blind pig” drinking and gambling club that set the multi-day riot in motion. And of everything that happened during the rebellion, the saddest, most notorious event was when police shot three black teenagers at point-blank range. Only one of those officers went to trial for that action. The result? You can guess… an acquittal from an all-white jury.

Fifty years may have passed, but cops shooting blacks and getting away with it is still an issue in this country. Now, in response, we have the Black Lives Matter movement, protests, and, sure, some riots. But so far, nothing on the scale and duration of the ’67 Detroit Riots.

Police departments throughout the country are clearly still figuring out how to “protect and defend” while  treating its citizens with equality, dignity and restraint, but is Detroit – with its history – ahead of the curve? How have our boys – and girls – in blue changed over the past 50 years? Did our police force learn anything from the summer of ’67?

Your ‘friendly’ neighborhood cop

The Detroit Police Department was founded in 1865 through the state legislator. Many believe it was in direct response to a riot during the Civil War, explains Jeff Lemaux, a retired officer and curator at the Detroit Police Museum & Gift Shop inside Detroit Public Safety Headquarters located at 1301 Third St., Detroit.

The force started with 40 officers, policing the city's streets with batons. “It was very political and the people that were supposed to be in charge of the department were just as bad as the hoodlums that they were trying to police," he explains. Most of the officers were Civil War veterans, trained for combat, and a policing manual didn't show up until 1875.

Through DPD’s peaks, valleys and cronyism in the years since the 1967 riot, Lemaux says the major determiner of crime and mistrust in the police force was the lack of neighborhood policing.

"The problem was that through the years we've lost so many policemen that there aren’t enough policemen to go around and do that like there used to be," he says. “So designating officers (for community policing) has helped a lot in bringing the citizens closer to the police department."

The U.S. Justice Department, under the Obama Administration, investigated “21st Century Policing,” and made recommendations on how to help police departments prevent deaths like those of Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Michael Brown of Ferguson and Tamir Rice of Cleveland. Among those recommendations was the need for more neighborhood policing and positive interactions with the communities officers are charged with protecting.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig says that the city didn’t immediately learn the importance of this and other lessons of the 1967 riot.

Anatomy of unrest

Civil unrest doesn't happen in a flash. There is a formula to its conditions, Chief Craig explains, and it’s less of a spark and more of a slow burn. He learned this after working at the Los Angeles Police Department during the riots over the beating of Rodney King in 1991, joining the Cincinnati department after the 2001 riots fueled by the police shooting the 19-year-old Timothy Thomas and from growing up in Detroit.

“I remember the poor relationship between the African American community and the then mostly white police department. I remember it vividly because my dad was a Detroit police reserve officer and during the civil unrest he went to work,” Craig says.

Craig joined the Detroit Police Department at the age of 19, 10 years after the 1967 riot, when then Mayor Coleman A. Young was heavily recruiting black cadets to make sure the department looked like the community it serves.

“Fast forward, at some point the relationship between the community and the Detroit Police Department eroded. And it didn't erode because we didn't have enough African-America officers,” says Craig. When he took over as chief in 2013, morale was down and crime was high. “There was a looming bankruptcy, pay had been taken from officers substantially, leadership of the police department fluctuated from a new chief every year to every six months. So there was no stability.”

On top of everything, Detroit's communities had lost its trust in the department. "Clearing homicides then, the percentage was embarrassingly low, about 11 percent," he says. "So Detroit was ripe then probably for an uprising, just because there was no confidence. But this pre-dates the Black Lives Matter movement. It pre-dates Ferguson, Missouri. So it wasn't a national issue then.

"When you talk about what the Detroit Police Department now does differently, it all comes down to one simple thing: trust,” Chief Craig says. “And the only way that you can build trust is if you have a relationship with the people you are serving.”

In the 50 years since Detroit's 1967 riot, Craig says Detroit has made strides, then major leaps, to improve the racial and ethnic makeup of its police department to prevent history from repeating itself. From reestablishing its neighborhood policing units to increasing the department's overall visibility through neighborhood engagement, the department is doubling down on its investment in community relationships. And according to Chief Craig, “It's paid big dividends.”

Residual effects

In the years since Chief Craig's arrival to the Detroit Police Force, he's eliminated officers having to work 12-hour shifts, stabilized pay, reopened stations and focused on policing that works.

“So as that relationship began to improve, there was a lot of other byproduct from that,” he says. “Officers felt good about their job once again and the community felt good about the police department.”

Better relations with the community has paved the way to the cadet summits with the city's youth, strengthened its Detroit Police Athletic League (Detroit PAL), which helps bridge the gap between youth and our policing community, and newer initiatives like the Children in Trauma Intervention Camp, which is focuses on middle school kids who have suffered trauma.

“We recognize that that age group has suffered from trauma, call it PTSD, from growing up in neighborhoods or homes, plagued with violence. And that has an impact on our youth,” he says. It’s an initiative he helped start in L.A. and has taken with him to every police department since. “We also have a very robust citizens police academy. Many of these attendees go on and become volunteers and work closely with DPD officers. Some of them join radio patrol, which is very active here.”

There is also the department’s effort to reach out to marginalized communities. After recently creating its first LGBT liaison position in as part of the Chief Neighborhood Liaison Unit, other police departments in the state reached out for advice on how to follow suit.

“I've been as far west as Holland, Michigan to give LGBT sensitivity awareness training,” says LGBT Liaison Officer Dani Woods. “We are community policing on a large scale.”

When she first started on the force, Woods says she “never in a million years” thought there would be a position like hers in the department. But the change has been a welcomed addition to the community, she says. “We are trying to make sure that we are a proactive department and not a reactive department.”

Policing in practice

In a report released by the Justice Department after a probe of the Cleveland Police Department following the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, various failings in police practices were exposed, such as frequent "excessive" and "unreasonable" force used by the department's officers.

"I can speak to why they did what they did," says First Lieutenant Robert Hendrix of the Michigan State Police. "I just know that our troopers have extensive training in knowing when to use what weapon."

Part of that includes yearly updates on training in firearms, first aid, defensive tactics, handling hazardous materials, provision driving and, most important, impartial policing.

"The fair and impartial policing training is realizing that everyone based on how they are raised and their community have certain biases that are natural to them. Being able to recognize those biases and not use that when you engage," he says.

The state police work closely with local departments like DPD in order to keep their officers in the neighborhood and not strictly chasing criminals.

"We work very closely with the DPD on different task forces and traffic initiatives, working together to combat violent crime. We are careful not to step on their toes so to speak," says Hendrix, a Detroit native who worked in the Detroit Police Department for years before moving to Michigan State Police. "We try our best to assist them with violent criminals. This helps free DPD to do neighborhood policing."

In order to get as close to the real thing, officers are generally trained under stressful situations at state and local levels. "It's very intense. You are placed in situations where your stress level is very high and you have to think logically within a moment’s notice about what you can do and what you can't do."

Often though, the driving force behind aggressive policing is aggressive laws, says Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, a native Detroiter and historian in the departments of Afro-American and African Studies, History, and Residential College at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In the book, "Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City," she connects the 1967 riot to the city's moves to solve social problems with more policing.

"Because Detroit's leadership was not able to sufficiently deal with the real crisis of police community relations in the 1960s, the city explodes," she says. "And unfortunately over the years that is the one Achilles heal of every major city."

At the root of the ongoing problem of aggressive policing is the need to reevaluate the dynamic between the government and the people it serves, says Thompson. "The most important thing is to stop imagining that the police should be the first line of interaction between the citizens and the government."

DPD Live

Today, Chief Craig reports that crime is still steadily on the decline in Detroit. "But the fact is, when cities like L.A. and New York had high volumes of crime, they didn't make that turn over night," he says. Craig uses any opportunity he can to tell residents that "Detroit is changing."

"The only way you build good community relations is to tell people what you are doing," he says. Regularly appearing on TV and giving interviews and statements has earned him his nickname as the Hollywood Chief. But it works, he says. "Instead of saying ‘no comment’ and waiting months for what happened, we very quickly will come out with a statement. And that's garnered a lot of trust."

That trust extends to building a new relationship with a younger generation through social media. Last year, the department launched DPD TV, a series of Facebook live chats where the chief and other officers visit various neighborhoods to spark conversation. The first episode, Real Talk with Chief Craig received over 5,000 views. 

"We believe that outreach has been very effective in once again continuing to sustain the trust that we've established in the community," he says. "So when you look at all those things as far as the youth and city camps, the LGBT liaison, DPD TV, those things I think have made a big difference."

After a series of fatal shootings of black men in 2015 and 2016 that included Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott, many Detroiters took to the streets in protests. Craig believes these protests haven’t escalated, though, because of the Detroit Police Department’s strengthened relationship with the community. “And that’s the difference between what we do here and what you see in other places.” 

–Emell Derra Adolphus is former Senior Editor for BLAC and frequent contributor. 

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