These are the overall research findings of the Fall 2018 HistoryLab class and subsequent Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab researchers that created Detroit Under Fire. Visit the exhibit sections for elaboration on all of these arguments, and consult the interactive maps for each section to visualize these findings as patterns in Detroit's racial geography.
- The Detroit Police Department (DPD) enforced racial segregation and policed the color line through policies of racial criminalization, rather than focusing on solving crimes and protecting all citizens.
- Police brutality toward African Americans was systemic, not a problem of a few individual "bad apples," as policymakers and police department leaders designed complaint and investigation procedures to maintain police discretion and insulate officers from discipline even in egregious cases of clear felony assault and murder of civilians.
- DPD officers killed at least 203 civilians between 1960 and 1973, and a majority of these fatalities involved unarmed African American male teenagers and young adults, many allegedly fleeing from the scene of property crimes. The DPD and the Wayne County prosecutor exonerated police officers in every case except for three when incontrovertible evidence of coverups emerged (Algiers Motel and Raymond Peterson's ninth homicide), and in each of these all-white juries acquitted the officers.
- Civil rights activists pushed unsuccessfully from the late 1950s onward for a civilian review board, which white liberals (including Mayor Jerome Cavanagh) and the DPD adamantly opposed.
- The majority of the white public in Detroit opposed civilian oversight of the DPD and endorsed both racial segregation and police brutality against African American citizens perceived as criminals, as indicated by support for mayoral candidates and evidence from letters to political officials.
- Liberal reforms addressed issues such as discourtesy and racial epithets through ineffective psychological training. Such efforts deliberately did not address systematic police misconduct because liberal policing in the war on crime depended on policies of criminalization of black civilians and neighborhoods by maintaining police discretion on the street and through stop-and-frisk procedures of racial profiling.
- Liberal reformers also sought to diversify the police force, which was almost completely segregated until the mid-1960s and remained more than 90% white into the early 1970s. The DPD and the Detroit Police Officers Association union resisted efforts to address racial discrimination in employment policies, and African American officers faced extreme prejudice and discrimination from their white counterparts.
- The DPD, under a liberal regime (city and national), militarized policing in the mid-1960s in response not only to civil unrest/riots but also to criminalize political activism and mass protests by civil rights and black power organizations.
- After the 1967 Uprising, the DPD embraced open and violent political repression of civil rights, black power, and white New Left activists--including explicit politically motivated violence against nonviolent protesters and in preemptive strikes against black power groups.
- Black power and white radical activists in the late 1960s moved beyond the call for a civilian review board toward a vision of total civilian oversight of the police department.
- The DPD criminalized and illegally surveilled political activists and organizations on a mass scale. They used discretionary procedures to harass civil rights and left activists, including criminalizing protests against police harassment and brutality.
- DPD operated as a right-wing political organization in local politics, especially through the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA) union, which became a significant independent political force in the mid-to-late 1960s. The department could not be controlled by the mayor by the late 1960s.
- The DPD was extensively corrupt, especially in the drug and sex markets.
- DPD violence against women was most notably against young political activists, mothers who filed complaints of brutality on behalf of their family members, and sex workers. The 1963 police murder of sex worker Cynthia Scott, and the prosecutorial coverup, was a turning point in Detroit's civil rights movement and expanded the anti-police brutality campaign beyond the middle-class oriented NAACP and ACLU into a grassroots protest movement by black power organizations.
- The DPD punished very few officers for any acts of brutality or misconduct during this time period, and routinely found civilian complaints to be unjustified or lacking in evidence, indicating a system designed to insulate these actions from oversight. No police officer was fired for on-duty brutality against a civilian during the 1960s. (See each section's page on patterns of police brutality and misconduct for elaboration).
- The Wayne County prosecutor, responsible for deciding whether or not to bring charges in the event of a police killing and other allegations of police violence, routinely exonerated officers and covered up misconduct and therefore shares significant responsibility for the racial injustices and civilian fatalities of the DPD during this period.
- Most instances of police brutality and many police killings are not available in the archives because of deliberate silencing.
- The DPD during this era operated as an extension of Detroit's criminal justice and political systems rather than as an outlier. Mayoral administrations (conservative and liberal), county prosecutors, local courts, and other public officials and agencies all contributed to the systemic patterns of police violence and misconduct.