Police Homicides + Shootings 1968-70
The Detroit Police Department officially acknowledged that its police officers killed 42 civilians between 1968 and 1970. The DPD did not release their identities, except occasionally to reporters, and only publicized the aggregate data because of a onetime decision to make it part of a 1970 police recruitment pamphlet, as explained below. The real number is certainly higher. Most of the civilian fatalities identified by our team through archival and newspaper research involve unarmed African American male juveniles or young adults in their early 20s who were allegedly fleeing from the scene of a property crime and shot from the back. Almost all non-fatal police shootings identified here also fit this pattern, including several involving young white males. The killing of "fleeing" juveniles and young adults involved in nonviolent property crimes had made up the main category of police-involved homicides earlier in the decade as well, but the number of incidents escalated significantly in the racially targeted, get-tough, often openly racist police crackdown on African American youth in the late 1960s.
Liberalizing Use of Deadly Force Regulations
The Detroit Police Department made a deliberate decision to liberalize its "Use of Firearms in Police Action" policy almost immediately after the 1967 Uprising, when DPD officers shot at many African American civilians and killed 22 people, mostly alleged "looters." The previous policy, as revised in 1962, instructed officers to fire on felony suspects only in "extreme cases" and permitted deadly force "to apprehend or prevent escape of a known felon . . . if the perpetrator cannot be apprehended by any other means." This policy, which was operative from 1962 through August 1967, also 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." (Read the full policy here).
The revised "Use of Firearms Policy" (right) went into effect on Sept. 1, 1967, and remained operative until the mid-1970s, ushering in an era when the DPD probably killed more civilians per capita than any other urban police department in the United States. The revised policy stated:
The revised policy, for the first time, explicitly located authorization to use deadly force in the "discretion of the officer," part of the broader movement in the late 1960s to anchor the legal authority for get-tough policing in the individual discretion of the officer on the street, which also made it much harder to second-guess what the officer claimed happened in administrative reviews, criminal proceedings, and civil litigation. The revised policy also explicitly added robbery and burglary to the list of felony crimes for which the officer was authorized to shoot fleeing suspects and removed the previous manual's language that the officer must have personally witnessed ("if the officer actually sees") the crime take place. The revised policy further removed the previous language that "the officer should not fire upon a person who is called upon to halt upon mere suspicion."
The liberalization of the "Use of Firearms" policy was part and parcel of the racially targeted crackdown on Detroit's black neighborhoods after the 1967 Uprising and had deadly consequences on the streets. Using official data, the DPD acknowledged fatal use of force against civilians in 22 cases during 1964-1966, the three years before the Uprising, and in 42 cases between 1968 and 1970. The DPD's policies therefore played a direct role in doubling the number of civilians killed by police officers in the late 1960s compared to the mid-1960s. The DPD argued that this happened because of the dramatic increase in violent and serious crime during this period, but the patterns of police-involved fatalities do not bear this out. DPD officers were far more likely to shoot and kill younger juveniles and unarmed African American males in the late 1960s, and far more likely to use deadly force against fleeing suspects in lower-level nonviolent property crimes, compared to the mid-1960s:
- Only 2 of the 14 police homicides identified by our project between 1964 and 1966 involved youth age 18 or younger, but 6 of the 12 civilian fatalities identified for 1968-1970 are in that category.
- About half of the police homicides between 1964 and 1966 included civilians who allegedly threatened the officer or another civilian with a deadly weapon, but only 1 of the 12 cases detailed on this page involved a civilian actively threatening an officer with a weapon. Three-fourths of the police homicides between 1968 and 1970 involved suspects fleeing on foot who presented no threat.
The DPD designed the new "Use of Firearms" policy to crack down on crime, including low-level property crime, in Detroit's black neighborhoods and to insulate police officers from consequences as long as their use of deadly force was reasonable in their individual "sound discretion." Needless to say, three different DPD commissioners did not order any trial board investigations of police officers whose use of deadly and non-fatal force through firearms against African Americans between 1968-1970 violated or pushed the boundaries of the new rules and would have clearly violated the previous policy. (The DPD did conduct an internal investigation and exonerated an officer after the beating and fatal shooting of a white factory worker). As mapped below, these included cases where police officers shot and killed youth suspects for allegedly stealing a pair of shoes and allegedly stealing clothing, based on the interpretation that a "breaking and entering" burglary was a felony crime, and other cases where so-called "suspects" just did not halt on command (note again the explicit removal of the previous prohibition against shooting people "on mere suspicion" after ordering them to halt). These are all still only the technical legal rationales; the main reason for the consistent outcome of justifying police homicides was that the DPD chain of command retroactively classified all police actions that violated or strained its use of force policies as justified based on the prevailing law enforcement doctrine that police discretion in the field should not be second-guessed and that criminal law did not apply. This, of course, was nothing new.
Wayne County prosecutor William Cahalan found every police homicide of a civilian during 1968-1970 to be justifiable, including in multiple cases where police fired at young juveniles in murky petty theft scenarios, except for one egregious case involving a white man brutally assaulted and murdered in front of multiple witnesses. (Even in this case, the prosecutor did not press formal charges but just took the case to a grand jury, which declined to indict). In the typical homicide scenario, if a police officer claimed to have yelled "halt," and if the officer claimed that the person killed was a suspect in a crime of any magnitude, the prosecutor automatically justified the shooting. The accounts by police in these cases are so similar--the officer yelled "halt," the suspect kept fleeing, the officer then fired--as to constitute a script that officers knew in advance would suffice. (Private security guards also killed five additional civilians in similar circumstances in 1970 alone, and the county prosecutor ruled all to be justifiable).
In spring 1970, the DPD under Commissioner Patrick Murphy put out an extraordinary recruitment pamphlet designed to reassure potential police officers that they were far more likely to kill a citizen than to be killed by a criminal, and that the Wayne County prosecutor had habitually ruled such police homicides of civilians justifiable throughout the department's history (read the full pamphlet at right). The immediate context for the pamphlet was that seven DPD officers had been killed on the job between January 1968 and March 1970, included a patrolman who confronted armed black militants in the March 1969 New Bethel Incident (and whose partner almost certainly fired first). Commissioner Murphy hoped to recruit officers to join the DPD by reassuring them that police work in the city of Detroit was not as dangerous as they feared, by sending a message that the department and the local government would sanction their necessary use of deadly force.
Commissioner Murphy warned the Detroit police to be vigilant against "armed assaults on police officers," although this was very uncommon, and only one of the police killings of a civilian identified below even involved a person allegedly pointing a gun at an officer. He also urged police officers not to over-react and concluded:
Mapping Police Homicides and Shootings of Civilians
Between 1968 and 1970, Detroit police officers shot and/or killed the 22 civilians listed on the map below. The 12 homicides identified represent only 28 percent of the officially acknowledged police killings, which is itself an undercount. The 10 non-fatal police shootings identified represent an extremely small proportion of police use of firearms against civilians during this time period, which was so common that it barely qualified as newsworthy and was noted, if at all, in a few paragraphs taken directly from the police report and buried deep inside the Free Press or Detroit News. Most police killings of civilians did not make the newspapers, and only a few even made the front page, generally only when the deceased was white, or very young, or when the family and community protested.
This interactive map locates police homicides and non-fatal shootings in the racial geography of Detroit based on the 1970 census. The darkest blue areas are all-black neighborhoods, and the darkest green are segregated white areas, with the shifting racial boundary in between. Click on the dots to learn more about each incident, and scroll down to read feature about each fatality at the bottom of this page. Note: one incident on this map is a fatality by the Highland Park Police Department, in a small city surrounded by Detroit.
- Black dots = Police Homicides of Civilian
- Red dots = Police Shootings of Civilian (non-fatal)
Police Homicides and Shootings of Civilians, 1968-1970, in Detroit's Racial Geography
- Of the 12 homicides identified, 8 of the deceased were African American, 2 were white, 1 was Latinx, and one is unidentified but was possibly white based on incident location. (This does not necessarily mirror the racial breakdown of all civilians killed, since white fatalities were more likely to make the newspapers).
- Half (6) of the fatalities were of juveniles ages 18 or younger, and all in this category were African American. This includes a 13-year old killed on the West Side of Detroit, a 14-year-old killed in Inkster with DPD involvement, and a 9-year-old killed by a police officer in Highland Park, a small municipality fully inside the Detroit city limits.
- The other half of the identified homicides were of young men between the ages of 20 and 25.
- 9 of the 12 civilians killed by police were unarmed. Of the 3 who allegedly had guns, only 1 was actively threatening the life of a police officer when shot.
- 8 of the civilians killed by police were fleeing on foot and shot from behind, and 1 additional person, a 9-year-old, was an innocent bystander killed when police wildly fired on other fleeing suspects.
- 2 of the deceased civilians were brutally beaten by police officers who instigated the encounter, and multiple officers participated in the coverups, as detailed below.
- All of the non-fatal police shootings involved people fleeing who presented no threat to the officer or other civilians. Most were African American juveniles between ages 15 and 18, allegedly caught in the act of burglarizing bars and stores late at night, after they were closed.
- The only female listed in these incidents was a 15-year-old "runaway" shot non-fatally when an officer fired into a moving vehicle that allegedly posed a threat.
Chucky Howell, Age 13: Police and Prosecutorial Coverup
Clifford "Chucky" Howell, a 13-year-old African American boy, was shot fatally three times in the back on Nov. 13, 1969, by Patrolman William Orton while the youth was allegedly fleeing in the dark. The incident occurred after a racial fight between two groups of female teenagers who lived on the same street in a poor West Side neighborhood that had recently been all-white and had become overwhelmingly African American during the past few years. White police officers generally intervened on the side of white residents in racially motivated conflicts, and this would be no exception.The uncle of the white teenagers requested police assistance from TMU officers William Orton and William Jennison, who were driving by, and claimed that the black females had injured the white females. The uncle also said that the black youth had broken windows in the white family's house and threatened to burn it down. The uncle and the white youth left the scene, and the police officers went to investigate.
The white police officers claimed to see four black females stealing "bundles of clothing" from the house of the white family and ordered them to halt. Whether this even happened is disputable, but by accusing the black females of entering the white house to steal clothing in their incident report, the officers transformed the alleged offense to which they were responding from misdemeanor vandalism (breaking the windows of the white house) to felony burglary (breaking and entering), which had the convenient outcome of justifying deadly force.
According to the police officers, two of the black females ran into their house next door, and Patrolman Orton followed them inside. He claimed in his statement that he was disoriented in the dark house and then heard glass breaking as a "male figure" jumped through a rear window. Patrolman Orton claimed that he yelled "halt" and then fired three shots at the fleeing figure who was running down an alley, killing Chucky Howell. According to his family, Chucky was a very small child, less than 4 feet tall and weighing under 100 pounds.
The logic used by the Wayne County prosecutor to justify the fatal shooting of this 13-year-old African American boy was outrageous and strongly indicates clear intent to participate in the coverup (left). Prosecutor William Cahalan labeled Clifford Howell a "fleeing felon," guilty of breaking and entering in the neighborhood dispute, even though there is no way from this sequence of events--this is obvious even from the prosecutor's cursory and biased memorandum--that Patrolman Orton could have known if the "male figure" had ever been inside the house next door. The officer claimed that he saw "four negro females" exit the white family's residence, and then followed two of them into their own house, where he encountered a "male figure" and began shooting in the dark. The prosecutor did not consider that Chucky Howell, the "male figure," might have fled because he was scared after a white police officer burst into his house with gun drawn (although whether this incident even began inside the black family's house is contested). There is no evidence that Patrolman Orton had any reasonable suspicion that the "male figure" had been involved in a felony, and so the prosecutor's application of the "fleeing felon" label is disingenuous and retroactive, a coverup that cannot apply to the officer's intent.
Orton's decision to shoot at Chucky Howell also appeared to violate even the recently liberalized DPD policy (top of page), which stated that deadly force was only permissible against a "known" burglar if it "appears to be the only means of preventing the felon's escape." How could this apply to a group of black teenagers who were being chased out of their own house, in a neighborhood dispute? Where was a very small 13-year-old boy escaping to, where the officer would not have been able to find him later, rather than kill him? Even putting aside the racial element of the white officers intervening to protect the white family in a tensely integrated neighborhood by criminalizing their black counterparts, the rationale by the Wayne County prosecutor's office is indefensible, and so was the DPD's failure to convene an internal trial board investigation.
Black radical groups got involved in the case and disputed everything in the police account and prosecutorial exoneration of the white officers, Patrolman Orton and Patrolman William Jennison, whom they accused of murder. The West Central Organization and the Black United Front, two black militant groups based on the West Side of Detroit, held protests and also provided funds to the Howell family, which was very poor and had nine children. These community activists charged that officers had fled the scene of their crime, indicating culpability for killing a child, and failed to provide Chucky Howell with timely medical treatment (right). The Black United Front also contended that Patrolman Orton had never been inside the house at all and had shot Chucky down in cold blood when the youth was not even aware of the danger and the situation.
5 More Homicides of Nonwhite Juveniles at the Hands of Police Officers, 1968-1970
Lester Earl Johnson, an 18-year-old African American male, was shot and killed on March 12, 1968, by DPD Vice Squad officer Terrance Les in an encounter that began at a bar on Woodward Ave. Johnson allegedly offered to provide a prostitute to the undercover officer, and they headed toward a blind pig together in Les's car. According to the police officer, Johnson then pulled a gun and demanded his money. Terrance Les pulled out his gun and identified himself as a police officer, and Lester Johnson opened the car door and tried to flee. Office Les "immediately began firing" and emptied his six-shot revolver into the teenager, who died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds. The incident did not make the mainstream newspapers and the Michigan Chronicle, the city's African American weekly, labeled Johnson a "thug" in a short report.
James (Jimmy) Matthews, a 14-year-old African American male and completely innocent bystander, was shot from behind and killed on August 8, 1968, in the majority-black industrial suburb of Inkster while fleeing from death threats made by law enforcement officers from some combination of the Detroit Police Department, Wayne County Sheriff's Department, Inkster Police Department, and suburban Westland Police Department. The large contingent of officers was part of a manhunt for an African American man accused of shooting two Inkster policemen. There were many police abuses during the manhunt, during which law enforcement criminalized and racially profiled black youth in Inkster en masse, culminating in the death of Jimmy Matthews. Jimmy and three of his friends, all young juveniles, were talking outside a house at 3:00 a.m. when several police officers jumped out of a car with rifles leveled at the terrified boys, who all ran. The police chased after them and found Jimmy running through a field in a residential area and shot him in the back as he fled toward his home. The Wayne County prosecutor's investigation deliberately did not identify which officers fired, although the state ballistics lab could have done so, and said only that "17 officers flushed him out." The officers involved were not charged after the prosecutor ruled the homicide a "case of mistaken identity." Jimmy's older brother George called it a racial revenge killing: "an unwarranted assault on teenagers as a means to even the score for an act that was undoubtedly perpetrated by adults." Jimmy's father called for first-degree murder charges and said, "I think a frightened child might be captured without the use of firearms."
Fernando Gonzalez, a 16-year-old Latino male who lived in Southwest Detroit, died on March 25, 1969, after being beaten by multiple police officers and undergoing unsuccessful brain surgery. Four police officers responded to a "disturbance" call at a residence and encountered a group of youth, including Gonzalez, who had been drinking alcohol. The police claimed that Gonzalez "became belligerent," refused to get in the squad car when so ordered, and injured himself by falling. Multiple witnesses stated that the police officers beat Freddy Gonzalez with blackjacks, causing his injuries and eventual death. Gonzalez's father filed a formal complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as well as the DPD's Citizen Complaint Bureau. The Committee of Concerned Spanish-Americans, a civic group in this heavily Latinx part of Southwest Detroit, also protested the police murder of Freddy Gonzalez. The Detroit Police Department cleared the officers and denied any brutality, stating that Gonzalez had injured himself and also put up "wild and uncontrolled resistance to the police." Mayor Cavanagh defended the police department.
Anthony Bullard, a 17-year-old African American male, was shot three times while fleeing and killed on October 30, 1969, by Patrolmen Albert Holman and Thomas Madsen. Bullard had allegedly broken into the home of his former girlfriend, violating terms of probation for an incident in which he had previously beat the 16-year-old female. Her mother, fearing violence, called the police. Bullard fled when the police arrived and they shot him from behind, claiming to have yelled for him to halt. Anthony Bullard was unarmed.
Danny Smith, a 9-year-old African American boy, was shot in the chest and killed by Patrolman Thomas Aranyos of the Highland Park Police Department around 10:30 p.m. on April 25, 1970, while the fourth-grader waited at a bus stop with his mother. Patrolman Aranyos and his partner were chasing and firing at two suspected teenage car thieves who were running down a sidewalk in Highland Park, a small municipality inside the city of Detroit. The Highland Park Police Department initially claimed that none of its officers had fired the bullet that killed Danny Smith but refused to release the names of the officers involved in the chase. The state crime lab then determined that the bullet came from Patrolman Aranyos's gun. A few days later, 250 people marched from the scene of the fatal shooting to Highland Park City Hall to protest. The Wayne County prosecutor exonerated the officers, because the shooting of Danny Smith was accidental--and also because Thomas Aranyos's intent to use deadly force against the two fleeing teenagers, no matter how dangerous in a crowded urban setting, was considered inherently justifiable.
6 Homicides of Young Adults at the Hands of Detroit Police Officers, 1968-1970
Unidentified White Male, early 20s, was shot three times and killed on August 10, 1968, while allegedly burglarizing Mann's Bar in a 100% white area of Northeast Detroit. Patrolmen Warren Quine and Richard Steel claim that they shot the young man "when he refused their order to halt." The Detroit News noted his death in a a three-paragraph report with no follow-up.
David Simpson, a 23-year-old African American male, was shot in the back and killed by Patrolman Gerald Boris on August 30, 1969, while fleeing and after allegedly refusing to halt. Simpson had been involved in a bar fight earlier that evening and then, with his brother, drove to the home of the person he had tangled with and allegedly fired two shotgun blasts into the residence around 4:00 a.m. The police chased after Simpson and his brother, who jumped out of their car (without the shotgun) and fled on foot. Patrolman Boris shot David Simpson from behind, and the officers arrested his brother for attempted murder. At no time did David Simpson threaten the police officers with the weapon.
Milton G. Travis, a 21-year-old African American male, was shot to death by Patrolman Hugh Patterson on Jan. 4, 1970, after Travis allegedly pointing a gun at the officer. Travis was enlisted in the U.S. Army and had deserted. He was with a 20-year-old Detroit man and narcotics were late found in their car. But the officers pulled them over because the car apparently matched the description of one used for a getaway in a recent Inkster shooting. Asked for identification, Travis allegedly put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a pistol, leading Patterson to shoot him twice. This is the only identified incident during 1968-1970 in which the officer had a legitimate self-defense claim when firing the fatal shots.
Richard Bryant, a 20-year-old African American male, was fatally shot by Patrolman Thomas George on March 29, 1970, while fleeing after allegedly robbing the Bottle and Keg Party Store of $75. The incident happened in a commercial district on the racial boundary between the African American West Side and adjacent white neighborhoods. Patrolman George said he ordered Bryant to halt and then shot him as he leaped a fence. Bryant had a starter pistol and the cash in his pocket when the body was recovered. The Free Press noted his death in a brief six-paragraph report.
Charles L. Calloway, a 23-year-old white male who lived in a working-class area of Southwest Detroit, was brutally beaten and murdered in his backyard on October 11, 1970, by Patrolman Ronald Gedda. Gedda and his partner, Patrolman William Freeman, claimed that they spotted Calloway and three other men in an alleyway (behind Calloway's home), told them to move a car, and asked for identification. The officers allege that Calloway attacked them unprovoked, and reached for both of their guns, prompting Patrolman Gedda to shoot Calloway through the heart. Ten witnesses vehemently disputed the officer's account, and a Detroit Free Press investigation interviewed five people who all stated that the confrontation began when Patrolman Gedda called Charles Calloway a "smartass" and punched him in the face. After Calloway attempted to defend himself, Gedda brutally assaulted him in the alley for "at least five minutes" before his partner Patrolman Freeman said, "Why don't you shoot him and get it over with?" Gedda then fatally shot Calloway in the chest as he was sitting on the ground, dazed from the beating. The extensive media coverage, and the fact that the incident involved a white unionized factory worker and a military veteran, made this case unique. The DPD Homicide Bureau recommended a criminal warrant, and the Wayne County prosecutor convened a grand jury inquiry rather than the usual automatic exoneration process. (Notably, the prosecutor did not choose to file charges, opting instead to ask the grand jury to investigate). The grand jury voted narrowly, 9-8, not to indict Patrolman Gedda. Several witnesses who testified or were scheduled to do so alleged that DPD officers had intimidated them, threatened violent retaliation, and in one case beat someone. The DPD's internal investigation, which rarely happened in cases of police homicides, also exonerated Gedda. The DPD decided to transfer the officer to a new precinct for his own safety, clarifying that this was not disciplinary but because "some of the people in the community believe he is a murderer."
Charles Neeley, a 25-year-old male, was fatally shot in the back on December 4, 1970, by TMU officer Patrick Little after allegedly stealing a pair a shoes from an apartment building. As Neeley ran away, the police officer fired five shots and hit him with one. The very brief newspaper report did not note Neeley's race, and the incident happened in a racially mixed, majority-white part of Southwest Detroit.
Citations for incidents mapped, including newspaper articles, are in the pop-up boxes.
Detroit Police Manual: Rules and Regulations of the Detroit Police Department (1967, 1970 update), Social Science, Education, and Religion Department, Detroit Public Library
Detroit Police Department, "The 1970's: A Good Time To Be a Police Officer?" 1970, Box 1, Folder 8, Detroit Police Department Additional Papers (1965-1993), Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Detroit Commission on Community Relations/Human Rights Department Records, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
James H. Lincoln Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
Michigan Chronicle, March 1968
Detroit Free Press, Aug. 10, 1968, Dec. 25, 1969, Dec. 27, 1970
Detroit News, March 21, 1969
Additional Free Press and Detroit News articles also used in reconstructing these cases.