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Exhibit looks at police brutality in Detroit during the Civil Rights era

Courtesy of Detroit Under Fire

Digital tools, which allow people to show one another what’s going on in their lives in real time, have shifted how Americans talk about police brutality and other police misconduct. Members of the public can now record and share law enforcement abuses more often than they could back before the advent of smartphones.

But the pattern of police violence toward Black Americans existed long before the digital age, and now, a new exhibition called Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era documents a portion of that history in an online setting, cataloging Detroit Police Department abuses from 1957 to 1973.

Matt Lassiter, a University of Michigan history professor, is the founder and director of the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab and the lead author and editor of Detroit Under Fire. He says he and a team of undergraduate researchers began the project after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

“We decided to ... try to figure out the answers to a question that has been deliberately kept silent, which is how many people did the Detroit Police Department kill during the civil rights era?” Lassiter says. “Who were they? What happened? What are the larger patterns of police brutality, misconduct, just interactions with the Black community in a northern city during this time period? And what are its legacies?”

Lassiter says newspapers of the era didn’t often document incidents of Detroit police misconduct, and if they did, they would publish only a short report relating the police department’s version of what happened. The Detroit Under Fire researchers combed through archives at institutions like Wayne State University’s Reuther Library and the Detroit Public Library for further evidence of police abuses. Lassiter says the work of historical activists and communities protesting police violence made the exhibit possible.

“Almost everything we've documented on our exhibit was documented during the 1960s and 1970s by civil rights and Black power organizations and by the people in the communities who are most impacted by this,” he says. “What we did was just go try to find the work that they had already done and bring it back to the public and make it available to those communities as well.”

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Credit Courtesy of Detroit Under Fire
Police violence and political repression escalated in the late 1960s. In this May 1968 incident, white Detroit Police Department officers attacked nonviolent civil rights marchers at Cobo Hall.

Drawing on more than 1,500 archival documents, Detroit Under Fire presents evidence of Detroit police misconduct in more than 100 pages that incorporate interactive maps, photographs, documents, and clippings. From the information gathered, the researchers estimate that more than 100 unarmed Black people were killed by the Detroit police in just one seven-year period — from 1967 to 1973. But Lassiter says that number is likely even higher.

“There's a lot of evidence that people were framed. They were said to be armed when they weren't,” he says. “But even putting that aside, the police department, as official policy, encouraged officers to shoot unarmed and fleeing, quote unquote, suspects.”

Lassiter says that before 1967, the DPD permitted officers to shoot and kill only in extreme cases. But after the 1967 uprising — in which Detroit police and other law enforcement officers shot and killed at least 30 Black people — the DPD changed its approach, Lassiter says.

“The police department changed that policy and said that the decision of whether the shooting was justified would rest in the, quote unquote, sound discretion of the police officer,” he says. “This was part of a larger surge throughout the country in the late '60s and beyond to put authority to use fatal force in the discretionary, split-second judgment of a police officer. And so in the next five to six years, the Detroit Police Department then encouraged fatal force against unarmed, fleeing, alleged robbers and burglars.”

Lassiter says this policy shift can be observed in fatal force incidents, misconduct, and deployment patterns of Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS), an undercover DPD tactical unit from the early 1970s. He says that while STRESS claimed to protect Black citizens, its focus was actually “policing the color line.”

Credit Courtesy of Detroit Under Fire
Anti-STRESS protest in Detroit, September 23, 1971, after the fatal shooting of two unarmed Black teenagers.

“Many of the people shot and killed by STRESS were, the civil rights and Black power groups proved, not even involved in a crime,” Lassiter says. “This was an active policy. The commander of STRESS said that what is at stake here is whether we can, quote unquote, police the Black community.”

Lassiter also notes that the exhibit compiles extensive evidence of Detroit police violence toward Black women. He says officers targeted Black women who were in cars, speaking out against police abuse, or participating in political activism. And, he says, police also targeted sex workers.

“There was massive police corruption around the sex trade and around the drug trade during this period,” Lassiter says. “One of the most important incidents in Detroit's history was the killing of Cynthia Scott, a young Black female sex worker who was shot in the back by a white officer when she refused to submit to an illegal arrest. And then he planted a knife on her, and he was exonerated.”

Lassiter says officers almost never faced charges for their use of force in this era, particularly because investigations prioritized the perspectives of white officers and viewed Black witnesses as biased because of their race. He says cases of police violence in the civil rights era in Detroit highlight ways in which law enforcement abuse continues in the present.

“The discretionary procedures and cover-up processes that are allowing police violence to flourish today and that are under attack by activists were largely put in place during the 1960s and 1970s in response to that activist challenge to unchecked police violence, the removal of legal responsibility from individual officers with qualified immunity, the investigative processes that were opaque and invisible to the public, the use of force guidelines that put total discretion in the officer — those were created for political and racial control reasons, in response to demands during the 1960s and 1970s for community control and civilian oversight over the police,” he says.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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