Police Violence

All Police Incidents by Race (1978-1981)

All Police Incidents by Income (1978-1981)

Patterns of Police Violence:

Several clear patterns of police violence emerge in the many cases that occurred between 1978 and 1981. Among the most prominent of these is the high frequency of violence committed by off-duty officers. During most of the four year period, police officers were required to carry firearms with them even when off duty. This requirement likely played a major role in the escalation of conflicts involving off-duty officers that could have been resolved without firing a weapon. In 1978 alone, at least 6 of the 12 cases of police violence and misconduct identified through our research involved off-duty police officers. These cases were diverse, ranging from the shooting of a man who was firing a gun at a group of kids by an off-duty police officer, to the vendetta-motivated shooting of a postal worker by an off-duty officer. Despite varying circumstances, it is clear that many cases of police violence were the result of armed, off-duty police officers interacting with people in their own neighborhoods and even their own apartment buildings. 

Another important pattern within the police incidents was that minor traffic stops were often starting points for police interactions that escalated into violence. It was relatively common for small infractions such as speeding, running a red light, or even being parked in front of a fire hydrant, to lead to extreme acts of violence against citizens. In multiple cases people running away from the police after being stopped for minor crimes were shot and killed. In one similar incident instead of being shot a man who ran after the police approached him for being parked in front of a fire hydrant was beaten to death. These acts of police violence are especially shocking because the laws that form the basis of the interactions are meant to protect the safety of the citizens of Detroit. Their violent enforcement, however, often achieved the opposite.

Using digital mapping of these incidents it is possible to further analyze trend in police violence on the basis of racial and class divisions within the city of Detroit. In the maps displayed at the top of this page, a relatively clear pattern in the location of these incidents emerges. Many of the acts of police violence and misconduct that we found  for our time period took place near the borders between African-American and White concentrated neighborhoods. Higher concentrations of incidents are also found when mapped against poverty levels in different areas of the city during the period.  While there are multiple possible explanations for these trends, one possibility is that policing in Detroit was spacialized. In other words,  the function of policing in Detroit was to "protect" white, higher class areas from the perceived threat of criminality that was assumed to originate in poorer, non-white areas. It is difficult to determine with certainty the extent to which the functions of policing were spacialized along race and class lines. It is also difficult to determine whether these patterns originate in systemic policies or the biased actions of individual officers. These questions are hard to answer, in part due to archival silences which prevent us from knowing the exact nature of all of the incidents of police violence and misconduct that occurred in the late 70’s and early 80’s. 

Another reasonable interpretation of the mapping of incidents is that the visible patterns relate less to how policing was happening but how incidents of misconduct were being reported. Almost all of the incidents we identified were from historical newspapers or archival sources. These sources are inherently biased and only reveal a small fraction of the total amount of police incidents that occurred during the time period. The fact that these sources are biased could explain why many of the incidents we located are on the borders between predominantly white/black and poorer/wealthier neighborhoods. Perhaps these patterns reflect whos voices made it into the historical record as opposed to who was actually being affected the most by policing.  


The Detroit News, NewsBank.

The Detroit Free Press, Proquest Historical Newspapers.

The Michigan Chronicle, Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan.

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

Maryann Mahaffey Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

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