2. Fatalities and Victims
The official death total of the Detroit "Riot" is 43 people--33 African Americans and 10 white people. The interactive map on this page displays 47 fatalities, including four additional African American residents, based on our research findings into the Detroit Uprising of late July/early August 1967. This is still probably an undercount.
The Detroit Police Department killed the most people and operated under orders to "use discretion" to shoot looters. The National Guard killed the second largest group and deployed with initial orders to "shoot any person seen looting" and to shoot looters "if necessary." The U.S. Army deployed later with orders to "use the minimum force necessary" and killed only one person. The National Guard came under the same orders as the Army at this time and did not comply.
Many of the fatal shootings (and non-fatal shootings) by DPD officers appeared questionable under the police department's "Use of Firearms" policy (right), which had been revised in 1962 and remained operative during the 1967 Uprising. The policy instructed officers to discharge their weapons only in "extreme cases" and restricted deadly force "to apprehend or prevent escape of a known felon . . . if the perpetrator cannot be apprehended by any other means." The DPD policy further stated that "the officer should not fire upon a person who is called upon to halt upon mere suspicion and who, without resisting, simply runs away to avoid arrest. Neither should the officer fire at a person who is running away to avoid a minor arrest." Instead of conducting thorough investigations of DPD officers who killed fleeing civilians suspected of low-level property crimes during the 1967 Uprising, the police department and the Wayne County prosecutor presumed all of these shootings to be justified. However, the DPD significantly liberalized its "Use of Firearms" policy on Sept. 1, 1967, removing almost all of the above language and specifically authorizing the shooting of burglary and arson suspects, which can only be interpreted as a recognition that the discretionary use of deadly force by DPD officers was stretching the parameters or in actual violation of the manual and that get-tough policing in Detroit's black neighborhoods required clearer encouragement to shoot.
The fatalities in the map below are located in the city's racial geography (dark blue = all-black neighborhoods, dark green = the most segregated white areas). Hover over the dots to view the name of the deceased, the date, the party responsible for the death, and a brief incident description. Note that in a majority of these cases, 'what actually happened' is deeply contested. The incident descriptions and cause of death in this map differs in many cases from initial media reports, which generally accepted law enforcement reports at face value and often classified deceased African Americans as "looters" and "snipers," when the real story was often more ambiguous or directly contradictory. Analysis of these patterns is below the map. The colors indicate:
- Red (22 people) = Killed by Detroit Police Department officer(s)
- Black (10 people) = Killed by National Guard
- Yellow (6 people) = Killed by civilian
- Grey (7 people) = Unknown
- Purple (1 person) = Killed by Army trooper
- Blue (1 person) = Killed by Michigan State Police trooper
Fatalities during the 1967 Detroit Uprising (Racial Geography Map)
- 15 of the 22 people shot and killed by DPD officers were unarmed African American males alleged to be "looters." A majority were fleeing and shot in the back for what was at most a property theft offense. The DPD orders were unclear and unwritten but appeared to include authorization to "use discretion" in shooting looters. In several incidents, DPD officers killed bystanders and onlookers and then classified them as looting suspects in apparent cover-ups. The Wayne County prosecutor ruled all shootings of alleged looters to be justifiable homicides, based on the "fleeing felon" rule that officers could use deadly force against the felony of "breaking and entering."
- Three fatalities involved unarmed African American males shot for alleged looting by store owners or private guards, all ruled justified.
- DPD officers murdered three African American male teenagers in the Algiers Motel Incident and did face criminal charges or investigations, but none was convicted.
- Most of the 10 homicides by National Guardsmen involved unarmed African Americans who posed no threat. In several incidents, National Guardsmen killed clearly innocent people by firing wildly into buildings and moving cars, including a 4-year-old girl, middle-aged men on their way to work, and a 26-year-old Guardsman. The National Guard deployed with orders "to shoot any person seen looting." No cases involving National Guardsmen resulted in criminal charges, even when Guardsmen clearly sought to cover up what actually happened.
- Official government and newspaper compilations do not include any homicides by the Michigan State Police, but our research has uncovered one (Mike Williams), and there are likely others.
- Of the four white law enforcement officials or firefighters who died, two were shot accidentally by National Guardsmen, one was shot by a DPD officer's gun in a confusing sequence of events, and one died fighting a fire. In other words, despite intense hype and panic, no "snipers" killed any law enforcement officers or military troops.
The gallery below includes analysis and details of a majority of these homicides conducted by the Kerner Commission in its investigation of the civil disorder in Detroit. These reports are more thorough, and more skeptical of the official version, than the DPD Homicide Bureau document (above right), but they are certainly not definitive. The fatality reports are also interspersed throughout a more detailed chronology of the days in question.
The Political Category of "Justifiable Homicides"
The Wayne County prosecutor's office applied the finding of "justifiable homicide" to every fatality of an African American resident of Detroit during the 1967 Uprising, except for the eventual decision to prosecute the officers involved in the Algiers Motel Incident once overwhelming evidence emerged. The finding of "justifiable homicide," when applied so broadly to cover so many different types of incidents, deserves to be analyzed as a clearly political and indeed racially motivated application of the law rather than a product of careful investigation and neutral principles. To reinforce this point, the prosecutor's office often over-charged civilians involved in murky incidents that resulted in the deaths of law enforcement officers and military troops, including three young white men initially charged with assault with intent to murder for the death of a National Guardsman who was accidentially shot by other members of his unit.
George Talbert: In the document excerpted above, the legal counsel to Governor George Romney is reporting on the explanation from the Wayne County prosecutor's office that National Guardsman Johann Guykema will not be charged in the killing of an unnamed "first Negro" (George Talbert, 20 years old) even though he fired at two unarmed civilians after allegedly yelling at them to lay on the ground from across the street. Guykema received the benefit of the doubt "because of the tenseness and the situation," even though his decision to open fire on unarmed civilians violated National Guard orders for rules of engagement, and even though multiple witnesses say that Guykema fired without warning. Talbert, who died of his injuries more than a week later, told his family he thought he had been shot by a sniper and clearly never even saw Guykema.
Tonia Blanding: In another tragic episode at 1:20 a.m. on July 25, Sergeant Mortimer J. LaBlanc of the Michigan National Guard fired the 50-caliber machine gun mounted on his tank into an upper-floor apartment on the corner of 12th Street and Euclid, killing 4-year-old Tonia Blanding. The National Guard investigation of the "incident involving the death of Tonia Blanding" (right) placed blame for the decision to fire a machine gun into a residential building on the imagined snipers that "was believed" by the National Guard unit to be threatening a truck that needed to withdraw from the intersection, which is transformed into a war zone in this report. The Detroit Police Department Homicide Bureau also sought to blame the residents of the building for the death of Tonia Blanding by asserting that either her father or her uncle lit a cigarette, an alleged violation of orders for residents to keep their apartments completely dark, and that this action caused the National Guard unit to open fire. The death of Tonia Blanding, a terrible tragedy, was also legally a "justifiable homicide."
Sources for this Page:
Note: The book Nightmare in Detroit, by investigative journalists Van Gordon Sauter and Burleigh Hines, was an invaluable resource in reassessing the initial incident reports in the Detroit newspapers. The "43 Who Died" series in the Detroit Free Press (Sept. 3, 1967) also provided a more complex portrait than the initial police-shaped coverage in the Free Press and the Detroit News, including the News's widely circulated "A Time of Tragedy" report (Aug. 11, 1967).
Kerner Commission Investigative Staff, "Detroit, Michigan: Description of Area and Chronology of Disorder of July 23-August 2, 1967," Folder 001346-008-0104, Civil Rights during the Johnson Administration, 1963-1969, Part V: Records of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin Texas (ProQuest History Vault)
"Incidents Reported at the Time of the Detroit Riot to Congressman John Conyers and the Detroit Branch of the NAACP," n.d. [August 1967], Folder: Civil Liberties - Blacks - Michigan - Detroit - 1967 Rebellion, Subject Vertical Files, Joseph A. Labadie Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan
Detroit Police Department, "Deaths Due to Civil Disorder," July 27, 1967, Box 319, Folder Detroit Riot, George Romney Paprs, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
Michigan State Police, "Racial Disturbances-Detroit," July 24, 1967, Box 319, Folder: Detroit Riot General, George Romney Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
"A Time of Tragedy," The Detroit News, August 11, 1967
"The 43 Who Died," Detroit Free Press (Sept. 3, 1967)
Van Gordon Sauter and Burleigh Hines, Nightmare in Detroit: A Rebellion and its Victims (Henry Regnery Company: Chicago, 1968)