Under Policing

Police violence, harassment, and misconduct was certainly a problem in Detroit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many residents of Detroit, especially African-American residents and those of lower socio-economic status, faced discrimination, harassment, and over-policing at the hands of the Detroit Police Department (DPD). Despite this reality, under-policing was also an all too real threat for many Detroiters. The map below shows some of the locations where Detroiters complained of under-policing during our time period. 

Hover over each point to see the type of under-policing complaint.

One of the most interesting aspects of the map above is that all but two underpolicing complaints came from areas near the borders between predominantly white and black neighborhods. Because these complaints came largely from the papers of Mayor Young and City Counsilwoman Maryann Mahaffey the geographic concentration of complaints found in their records shows that people in those areas were more likely either to complain about underpolicing in the first place and to have their complaints end up at high levels of city government. The existance of some complaints within the predominantly black center of the city tells us that underpolicing did exist in those areas as well. However, the complaints of people in those areas are much less available in the historical record.

It is also important to note that the two most common types of under-policing complaints we discovered were late responses and narcotics activity. These relate directly to two major problems that the DPD was dealing with at the time: a disfunctional 911 system and the invasive presence of drug corruption within the force.

Under-policing occurred in many different ways and for many different reasons. Due largely to the city’s ongoing economic problems and high levels of unemployment, crime rates in Detroit were very high during the period. At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, the decline of the city’s tax base lead to the resources of the police department being spread thin. That being said, high crime rates coupled with a lack of resources were not the only causes of under-policing. Some crimes were under-policed because they were actively or even systematically ignored by individual police officers or the department as a whole. Domestic violence and sex crimes, for example, were often not taken seriously by the DPD, resulting in many offenders being left free and many victims being exposed to continued violence. 

Isaiah McKinnon explains how he had to deal with command officers who refused to do their jobs when he bacame Chief of Police in 1993


McKinnon's explanation of the state of the DPD when he became Chief of Police, including command officers who would't show up to work, sheds light on the phenomena of underpolicing as well as it's underlying causes. Althought it is true that Detroit had budget problems it is clear from McKinnon's statements that there were larger structural problems behind the rampant under-policing experienced by Detroiters that had to do with the culture within the DPD and the actions of individuals at with high levels of authority.


Interview of Isaiah "Ike" McKinnon by Matt Lassiter and HistoryLab Team, December 3, 2019, Ann Arbor, MI.

Coleman A. Young Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

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