Pingree Street Conspiracy

"We want to look into the strong feeling of people in our poorer community that the drug traffic could not exist if law enforcement people were not involved"--Lawrence Doss, president of New Detroit Committee, April 24, 1972
"A blatant and irresponsible statement, . . . a direct insult to the literally hundreds of officers working in the narcotics field who are going undercover, who are laying their lives on the line"--DPD Commissioner John Nichols, April 25, 1972
"Nichols's energies have been spent covering up illegality in his department rather than exposing it"--From the Ground Up, Groundwork, July-August 1973

Pingree Street Conspiracy trial expose in Ann Arbor Sun (1975)

Police corruption in the field of narcotics enforcement is endemic and inevitable. The criminalization of heroin and other lucrative but illegal drugs brings enormous profits into the underground market and creates massive opportunities for corruption by the undercover officers who police them. This pattern is related to the extensive corruption of law enforcement officers in other so-called "vice" markets, such as prostitution and gambling, but also far more pervasive because of the tens of millions of dollars that have flowed to urban police departments through federal funding of the "war on drugs." The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon, channeled huge resources to Detroit and other major American cities and ramped up street-level narcotics enforcement during this era.

That same year, the New York Times broke the story of widespread narcotics corruption in the New York Police Department, leading to explosive hearings by the Knapp Commission in 1971. The Knapp Commission found that half of all officers in the NYPD engaged in corrupt activities such as planting evidence and taking bribes, and that undercover drug enforcement in particular had led to "the nearly complete corruption of narcotics police," including protection for favored dealers and the resale of more than $32 million of confiscated heroin on the street. Historian Eric Schneider concluded that undercover narcotics officers in New York City often acted "in ways indistinguishable from the dealers they policed" and that "in the war against drugs, some of the biggest dealers were the warriors themselves." 

In Detroit, the corruption of narcotics enforcement officers during the 1960s and early 1970s was extensive, but the full scope of the problem is unknowable, because of the secretive nature of undercover operations and criminal conspiracies, the failure of city and state leaders to authorize an investigation on the scale of the Knapp Commission, and most of all the DPD's successful efforts to minimize and obstruct the legal inquiry into the Pingree Street Conspiracy after the scandal became public in the spring of 1973. The Pingree investigation led to the indictments of ten police officers, which almost everyone except the DPD itself acknowledged was only the tip of the iceberg. Only three officers were convicted, one for narcotics trafficking and two for obstruction of justice, during a prosecution marred by witness intimidation and other improprieties by a network inside the Detroit Police Department. Community activists charged the DPD with a massive coverup, demanded a full investigation by an independent citizens' grand jury, and believed that commanding officers and even top DPD officials also took bribes arranged and collected by undercover cops on the street.

This page addresses the broader issue of DPD narcotics corruption through a focus on the Pingree Street Conspiracy. It is important to emphasize that this organized criminal network, uncovered in the Tenth Precinct, definitely did not encompass the full scope of narcotics corruption by Detroit police officers during this time period. Black community activists had long accused the DPD of pervasive narcotics corruption (see headline below), and during the early 1970s a wide range of civil rights and leftist groups mobilized against the heroin traffic, which they blamed in large part on police complicity. The formation of STRESS in 1970 also coincided with the escalation of Detroit's war on drugs, and narcotics enforcement was one of the primary responsibilities of this undercover operation. Radical groups charged STRESS with narcotics corruption in the 1972 Rochester Street Massacre, the 1973 shootout that led to the DPD manhunt against three Black anti-narcotics activists, and more generally in its everyday operations. "All black people know about police complicity on drugs, about STRESS officers going into dope houses and getting payoffs," Ron Lockett of the Committee to Abolish STRESS said in 1973. "They bring dope to dope houses--I myself have seen this."   

Black residents of Detroit accused the DPD of narcotics corruption long before the Pingree Street Conspiracy surfaced. Headline in Michigan Chronicle, May 6, 1972

Police Drug Trafficking in the Tenth Precinct

"We had a devil of a time convincing [DPD Commissioner] Nichols to start an investigation"--Vincent Piersante, head of the organized crime division of the Michigan Attorney General's Office, in Detroit Free Press, Sept. 26, 1976

In May 1972, the head of the New Detroit Committee publicly called for an investigation into the reasons for Detroit's growing narcotics problem and emphasized "the strong feeling of people in our poorer community"--meaning the poor and mostly Black neighborhoods where street-level narcotics markets flourished--"that the drug traffic would not exist if law enforcement people were not involved." DPD Commissioner John Nichols responded with extreme anger, attacking NDC head Lawrence Doss for an "irresponsible statement" that was a "direct insult" to the undercover police officers risking their lives to stop the scourge of illegal drugs. Yet in the same press conference, Nichols conceded that recent internal inquiries by the DPD had resulted in the prosecution or termination of eight police officers for narcotics-related corruption in the previous year alone, with multiple cases still pending. In truth, no one knew the scope of the problem, and both logic and history made clear that the dirty cops identified by the DPD must have represented only a small fraction of the overall pattern of police criminality in the narcotics trade.

The New Detroit Committee received behind-the-scenes support from the organized crime division of the state attorney general's office. Despite his public protests, Commissioner Nichols eventually responded to the controversy by agreeing to establish a special task force to investigate the allegations. Vincent Piersante, the head of the organized crime division, recalled later that they "had a devil of a time" convincing John Nichols to take this step, a preview of the extensive internal DPD obstruction of the task force over the next several years. 

Headlines from Detroit Free Press bombshell expose of Pingree Street Conspiracy, 4-29-1973

Detroit Free Press expose. In the spring of 1973, the Detroit Free Press published the first bombshell report from reporter Howard Kohn's two-year investigation into the criminal activities and organized networks of police officers who participated in the heroin trade in the city of Detroit. The expose identified six corrupt police officers by name but stated that the newspaper had specific information on thirty in total, all of which Kohn had turned over to the special task force. According to Kohn's series, informed law enforcement sources believed that at least 200 members of the Detroit Police Department were involved. It is notable that the first public exposure of a widespread police conspiracy came from the Free Press, whose reporter interviewed more than 100 heroin dealers and addicts and then confirmed the information with task force investigators, and in some cases provided it to them.

The Free Press investigation centered on the Tenth Precinct, a low-income and almost all-Black area in Northwest Detroit where vice and narcotics markets had long flourished with police complicity. (The epicenter of the investigation, at 12th and Pingree, was less than a half mile from the "blind pig" where the 1967 Uprising began). The evidence revealed that more than one network of veteran officers had both supplied and extorted heroin dealers for years and also provided protection to many of the city's major trafficking operations. The named white officers appeared to be running their own sophisticated criminal organization, while several of the Black officers had initially become involved under the direction of the recently deceased Henry Marzette, an African American former police officer who became Detroit's most powerful "heroin boss" during the 1960s, in part by hiring or bribing former colleagues. The six named police officers, half of whom were white and half of whom were African American, included Sgt. William Stackhouse, Sgt. Rudy Davis, Patrolman Robert Mitchell, Patrolman Charles Brown, Patrolman Richard Herold, and Patrolman David Slater. Their documented criminal activity included:

*In October 1972, two known drug dealers, Edward Chatman and Raymond Walker, were murdered in identical unsolved execution-style slayings, and in 1976, the Detroit Free Press reported that both homicide files had mysteriously gone missing from headquarters and that an active DPD officer was the suspect in both.

*In 1973, undercover narcotics officer Percy Key was indicted for manslaughter for shooting an unarmed man from Alabama from a car; in 1974 Key and another officer were indicted for conspiracy to distribute heroin, making it likely that the 1971 homicide was a drug dispute. 

Officers named in Detroit Free Press expose, April 29, 1973

Three weeks after the Free Press article listing these six officers appeared, reporter Howard Kohn alleged that he had been abducted, held for twelve hours, and narrowly escaped being murdered by a "hired gunman." The Free Press swore that it would not be "intimidated by violent tactics," but the newspaper soon fired Kohn for not informing his editors that he had bought a gun for self-defense and for omitting this part of the story from police investigators. The DPD charged Kohn with filing a false police report, which appeared to be an act of retribution against a crime victim who had blown the whistle on massive police corruption. The Detroit Free Press soon dramatically scaled back its investigations of police complicy in the narcotics market, leading to accusations that the newspaper had caved in to pressure from the DPD and its allies. 

Task force head and corruption crusader

Bennett Task Force and DPD Interference. The Tenth Precinct investigation was run by Lt. George Bennett, an African American police officer reluctantly appointed by Commissioner John Nichols in response to criticism that the DPD was not willing to clean its own house. Bennett almost immediately protested directly to the mayor's office that the DPD hierarchy, including the commissioner, were resisting and obstructing his investigation. He eventually moved his 12-member team out of DPD headquarters and into the state attorney general's office because of continued interference by high-ranking law enforcement officials. Bennett's team specifically worried that there would be "leaks to the crooked cops, even from big guys in the department." The head of the Guardians of Michigan even accused the DPD hierarchy of supporting Bennett's investigation as long as the focus remained on corrupt African American officers, but then telling him to "lay off . . . as soon as he uncovered white names." 

At the same time, Bennett's task force enjoyed a high degree of autonomy because of the Michigan Supreme Court's recent clarification of the independence of citizen grand juries to conduct their own criminal investigations, a response to the interference of Prosecutor William Cahalan when a grand jury sought a more thorough investigation of the Rochester Street Massacre. Bennett also worked directly with the Wayne County Organized Crime Task Force, allowing him to call witnesses before the grand jury with the assistance of a prosecutorial division that was not beholden to the DPD. Bennett's task force continued to face obstruction and threats from within the DPD for the five-year duration of the Pingree investigation and trial, through the end of 1975, as discussed below.  

Grand Jury Indictments. In December 1972, Bennett's task force raided the Tenth Precinct station house and found large quantities of heroin and cocaine stashed in small unmarked bags in various places--none of it in the evidence room in line with rules and procedures. In January 1973, the task force and county prosecutor from the organized crime division began taking secret grand jury testimony from narcotics dealers cooperating with their investigation. Then in late April, investigators on Bennett's special task force requested sealed indictments against 22 police officers for involvement in heroin trafficking and other narcotics-related crimes. It is crucial to highlight that the DPD and its close ally, Wayne County Prosecutor William Cahalan, did not approve these indictments in advance, because of the arrangement of the task force and its ability to work directly with the citizens grand jury. All of the indicted officers worked or had worked in plainclothes and undercover narcotics operations in the Tenth Precinct, and most had at least five years on the force. Five were sergeants and seventeen were patrolmen; thirteen were white and nine were African American. A law enforcement source on the task force told the Free Press:

"It may take another year or two of investigation, but you're going to find that 100 or 200 more officers are in this mess up to their necks and that their superiors either know about it or are part of it"--Anonymous law enforcement source to Detroit Free Press, April 26, 1973    

Tenth precinct indictments in Detroit Free Press, May 24, 1973 (the headline is wrong; 10 officers were indicted)

On May 23, 1973, the citizens grand jury indicted 10 of the 22 DPD officers recommended for prosecution, along with 16 civilian co-conspirators, on charges ranging from narcotics trafficking and obstruction of justice to murder, kidnapping, bribery, and robbery. Prosecutor William Cahalan announced the charges and promised to deal a major blow to narcotics crime in Detroit, while Police Commissioner John Nichols stood beside him and pledged that there would be no DPD coverup and that all guilty officers would be brought to justice. Whether Nichols was sincere or not, it was already very clear that he did not have control of his own department when it came to either police complicity in narcotics trafficking or the "Blue Curtain" tradition of covering up crimes by law enforcement. Radical groups immediately argued that both the police commissioner and the prosecutor wanted to limit the scope of the Bennett task force inquiry as much as politically possible.    

The Left Demands a Full and Independent Investigation

"Who is herded through the courts? It is the victim addicts, those who are sick and victimized by heroin--not the financiers, not the big dealers, not the corrupt police and politicians"--Kenneth Cockrel, May 16, 1973

From the Ground Up, part of the anti-STRESS coalition, demanded that the police corruption investigation cover top DPD officials and not just be limited to cops on the street and the Tenth Precinct

The indictments of DPD officers in the Tenth Precinct generated a wave of protests by radical groups in Detroit and confirmed the charges of police corruption and criminality that these activists had long sought to expose. From the Ground Up, the white radical anti-STRESS organization affiliated with the Labor Defense Coalition, provided extensive coverage of the Pingree Street Conspiracy in its publication Groundwork (right) and demanded that the city of Detroit fight a real war on heroin. These activists formed a new ad hoc group, Whites Against Repression (WAR), to lead a petition drive demanding an expansion of the police corruption probe through empowerment of an independent citizens grand jury that did not rely on the prosecutor to bring charges. WAR also labeled STRESS and the police-facilitated heroin trade to be the twin crises confronting, and killing, the poor and Black citizens of Detroit. The group held several protests outside of the DPD's downtown headquarters in spring 1973 and issued three specific demands, all based on the expectation that the police department and Prosecutor Cahalan would cover up the breadth and depth of law enforcement narcotics corruption and protect higher-ranking officials by limiting the probe to a few cops on the street.

On May 16, even before the announcement of the police indictments, From the Ground Up sponsored a community forum with other anti-STRESS activists called "Heroin: Who Profits? Who Suffers?" (full transcript in gallery below, left). The event featured Hayward Brown, a Black anti-narcotics activist who had recently been acquitted of murdering a police officer in the episode than inspired the DPD's manhunt, and who had testified in his trial that DPD officers protected heroin dealers and therefore did irreparable harm to the inner-city African American community. Overall the forum portrayed the American war on drugs as a racist, capitalist smokescreen to arrest and incarcerate the poor and Black "victim addicts" while letting the "big dealers" ravage their communities with the assistance of "corrupt police and politicians." Kenneth Cockrel, the leader of the Labor Defense Coalition, insisted that the indictments of a dozen or so street-level police officers would bring the process "no closer to the top and to the source of that criminality." Justin Ravitz, the co-founder of the Labor Defense Coalition and a recently elected Wayne County Recorder's Court judge (who later presided over the Pingree trial), accused the police of "wholesale illegality" in narcotics enforcement operations against low-level addicts. Ravitz also brought the police conspiracy issue back to STRESS, pointing out:

"They [STRESS] kill mostly small people who are inebriated and don't have any weapons, and four cops with .357 magnums gun them down. If they're so big and bad, I've got a program to offer them. What they ought to do is go after the bigger dealers. Go after the financiers. . . . Infiltrate the higher layers of heroin traffic in this community"--Judge Justin Ravitz, May 16, 1973

From the Ground Up mocked 10th Precinct station house "We'll Stamp Out Drugs" banner, summer 1973

From the Ground Up and the Labor Defense Coalition continued to attack the DPD and Wayne County Prosecutor for covering up police narcotics corruption throughout the summer and fall of 1973, during a mayoral election that revolved around the fate of STRESS and with the Pingree Street trial on the horizon. Groundwork, the newsletter started by the groups, published features such as "Heroin: The Profitable Plague" and emphasized that trafficking operated through "payoffs, bribes, and kickbacks to corrupt politicians and police which allows it to operate and expand with greater immunity." Kenneth Cockrel of the Labor Defense Coalition explained that African American neighborhoods wanted to eradicate dope houses and banish heroin dealers but had nowhere to turn, because reporting drug crime to the police department would be "like calling the dope man to bust the dope man." Another Groundwork article attacked John Nichols and William Cahalan, arguing that the police commissioner's "energies have been spent covering up illegality in his department rather than exposing it" and that the prosecutor would have preferred "no investigation and no indictments" based on his record of "covering up racist police activity, brutality and murder."

From the Ground Up also warned, after the announcement of indictments of 10 DPD officers:

"This is only the tip of the iceberg"--Groundwork, May-June 1973 

The gallery below contains four From the Ground Up and Labor Defense Coalition publications from the spring and summer of 1973 that examine law enforcement complicity in heroin trafficking and charge the DPD and Wayne County Prosecutor with a coverup of its scope. 

"Heroin: Who Profits? Who Suffers" forum, May 16, 1973 (20 pgs.) 

"Heroin: The Profitable Plague," in Groundwork (2 pgs.)

Kenneth Cockrel on heroin and police corruption in Groundwork (3 pgs.)

"The Grand Jury and William Cahalan" in Groundwork (2 pgs.)

The Pingree Street Conspiracy Trial and a Limited Verdict 

The May 1973 indictment listed 16 civilians charged with narcotics trafficking, all but one African American males, and 10 DPD officers, half of whom were African American:

Pretrial developments in Pingree case (8 pgs.)

Two of the civilian defendants were shot and killed before trial, which raised suspicions about whether an interested party might have sought to silence them before they turned state's evidence and testified against their alleged co-conspirators. Several other took plea deals. Then the first attempt to prosecute the remaining defendants ended in a mistrial after another one of the civilians took a deal during the proceedings and agreed to testify against others. Before the second trial began, Patrolman Anthony Lopez also agreed to testify for the prosecution, which dropped charges and placed him and his family in protective custody. The second trial of the remaining defendants, dubbed the "Pingree Street Sixteen," finally got underway in July 1975.

Deputy Chief George Bennett, the African American head of the special investigative task force (who was promoted from lieutenant in 1974), faced substantial harassment and intimidation from within the DPD between the announcement of indictments and the culmination of the trial. In June 1973, Bennett reported a threat against his life, a $20,000 contract offer for a hit man, and subsequently received protection on the orders of Police Commissioner John Nichols. Two African American police officer associations, the Guardians of Michigan and Concerned Police Officers for Equal Justice, publicly stated that they did not trust the DPD to protect Bennett and offered instead to do so themselves as volunteers. Then in a pretrial hearing, Bennett testified that he had personally witnessed a DPD officer make a heroin drop to a street dealer and then report back to Sgt. Rudy Davis, the white officer indicted as a ringleader of the Tenth Precinct conspiracy operation. In an obvious revenge move, Patrolman Richard Herrold, another indicted officer whose credibility was obviously in doubt, later testified that Bennett had asked him to plant evidence on Sgt. Rudy Davis and then offered him $50,000 to kill either Davis or Commissioner John Nichols. Another unindicted DPD officer who was part of the Tenth Precinct narcotics squad also testified, presumably falsely, that Bennett had asked him to plant narcotics on several of the indicted officers. Anonymous sources within the department slandered him as a "bitter and vengeful black man who had framed the white officers" because he once sued the DPD for racial discrimination. George Bennett emphasized that these lies were part of a deluge of "harassment, intimidation, and threats" that he and other task force members faced from a corrupt and organized conspiracy inside the DPD.

The Pingree Street Conspiracy trial revealed extensive police criminality in the narcotics trade but also necessarily remained narrowly focused on the individual police defendants, several of whom had been charged with obstruction of justice, rather than exposing the broader networks of internal DPD corruption. Highlights of the proceedings (full testimony in gallery below) include:

Trial coverage in radical Ann Arbor Sun (3 pgs.)

Verdict in Ann Arbor Sun

Lead investigator Bennett expressed undue optimism that the verdicts would lead the DPD to clean house

Verdict. On December 20, 1975, the majority-Black jury convicted half of the "Pingree Street Sixteen" defendants, including three DPD officers and five civilians. Six DPD officers were acquitted in a verdict that represented a clear compromise from a divided jury. (Journalists later uncovered that ten of the jurors wanted to convict all defendants on all counts, but two white jurors held out for acquittals of every police officer involved). The defense clearly succeeded in impugning the credibility of the prosecution witnesses, most of whom were admitted drug dealers, and in some cases admitted killers, who provided evidence in exchange for limited grants of immunity. Remarkably, given the detailed testimony and other evidence gathered by the task force, only one low-level police officer was found guilty on the charge of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and all of the rest were acquitted. Three were found guilty of obstruction of justice, a capacious charge that covered the taking of bribes to protect drug traffickers from arrest. It is also notable that the jury, consisting of thirteen African Americans and five white members, acquitted all of the African American defendants except Richard Herrold, who had previously been arrested in Canada for cocaine trafficking. The guilty officers:

The "Blue Curtain" Holds. George Bennett's task force hoped that the conviction of the ringleaders of the Tenth Precinct operation, especially Sgt. Davis and Ptr. Mitchell, would convince the officers to turn state's evidence and violate the "Blue Curtain" policy of shielding the criminality of other police officers. The investigators believed that Sgt. Davis, in particular, was not just the ringleader of the street operation but also the "bag man" for higher-up DPD officials in a corruption scheme that went up the pyramid, deep into police headquarters. However, Davis's acquittal on the more serious charge of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, which carried a much lengthier sentence than obstruction of justice, reduced his incentive to seek a deal. The Ann Arbor Sun, a radical newspaper that covered the trial closely, wrote that the task force's strategy depended on the convicted officers to "name the higher-ups in the DPD who have often been rumored to be on the take in connection with the illicit drug business." This did not happen.

Deputy Chief George Bennett, although clearly disappointed at the mixed verdict, expressed satisfaction that "we got the core." Bennett left the courthouse with a warning for dirty cops and their enablers:

"I want to serve notice that this is only the beginning, that this community will not tolerate narcotics conspiracies such as this one, nor any kind of criminal police conspirary"--Deputy Chief George Bennett, Dec. 20, 1975    

This promise turned out to be more optimistic than realistic. In a retrospective on the Pingree Street Conspiracy, the Detroit Free Press asked whether police corruption in the lucrative underground narcotics market could ever be eradicated and noted that attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense all began "talking of legalization as the only answer to this country's heroin problem." 

Drug corruption continued to plague the DPD during subsequent decades, even as the department and city government came under Black political control, and ultimately brought multiple investigations by the FBI in recognition that the DPD's internal affairs processes were not capable of breaking down the "Blue Curtain." These corruption investigations and criminal police conspiracies will be covered in our project's follow-up website, Crackdown: Policing Detroit through the War on Crime, Drugs, and Youth, about the 1974-1993 period.   

The gallery below contains Pingree trial testimony about police criminality from three key prosecution witnesses, all admitted narcotics dealers who received limited immunity for their cooperation, and the Ann Arbor Sun's report on the testimony of a fourth witness. 

Harold Chapman testimony, implicating Sgt. Rudy Davis (6 pgs.)

Larry McNeal testimony implicating eight DPD officers (13 pgs.)

Wiley Reed cross-examination, implicating multiple DPD officers (3 pgs.)

Peaches Miles testimony implicating Ptr. Robert Mitchell, reported in Ann Arbor Sun

Sources:

Pingree Street Conspiracy Trial-Recorders Court File #73-03636, Box 1, William Lucas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Kenneth V. and Sheila M. Cockrel Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Thomas V. LoCicero, "The Drug Conspiracy Trial that Rocked Detroit's 10th Precinct," Detroit Free Press, September 26, 1976

Howard Kohn, "6 Policemen's Roles Bared in Probe of Heroin Racket," Detroit Free Press, April 29, 1973. Additional Pingree Street Conspiracy coverage in Howard Kohn series in Detroit Free Press, April 15-20, 1973

Pingree Street Trial coverage in Ann Arbor Sun, July-Dec. 1975

Detroit Free Press, April 26, 1972, May 21, 24, April 29, June 25, 1973, Sept. 6, 1974, July 18, 1975, Oct. 5, 1976

Michigan Chronicle, May 6, 1972

Groundwork coverage from The American Radicalism Collection: Part 4: Twentieth-Century Social, Economic, and Environmental Movements, Michigan State University, Political Extremism & Radicalism, Gale Primary Sources

Percy Key in Michigan Chronicle, July 21, 1973; March 5, 1977 

Eric Schneider, Smack: Heroin and the American City (2008)

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