STRESS Ends, But Police Violence Persists
The 1973 Detroit mayoral election pitted the black community against the police establishment. The candidates were John Nichols, the white commissioner of the Detroit Police Department during STRESS, and Coleman Young, a former state senator vying to become the first black mayor in Detroit's history. Community outrage and activism pushed the issue of STRESS to the forefront of the election. Support for STRESS was connected with race. According to a study from New Detroit Inc., 65% of black Detroiters opposed STRESS, and 78% of white Detroiters supported STRESS. Coleman Young represented black Detroit's outrage against STRESS, and he vowed to abolish STRESS and fire John Nichols if elected. On the other hand, Nichols represented white Detroit's fear of black crime, and he vowed to continue STRESS if elected. The election revolved entirely around race. Richard McKnight, John Nichols' campaign coordinator, said years later in an interview for the podcast Crimetown that the campaign strategy was "to produce as many white votes as possible. On November 7, 1973, Young was elected mayor of Detroit by a very slim margin. A month after he took office, Young issued an executive order to Detroit Police Commissioner Phillip Tannian to disband the STRESS unit. Young's executive order also pushed for recruitment of more black officers, direct citizen involvement in policing, and anti-police corruption. However, this same order also called for an "all-out war on crime."
As the Detroit Free Press reported on February 14, 1974, Young said that STRESS caused the "unnecessary deaths of citizens and police officers." Young said "Mickey Mouse decoy operations" like STRESS were ineffective in curbing crime. Yet, Young still ramped up policing despite abolishing STRESS. Young called for a "highly visible increase in the number of uniformed officers in cars and on foot on neighborhood streets."
Civil Suits in the Wake of STRESS
In the years after STRESS was abolished, the City of Detroit paid millions of dollars in financial settlements from the STRESS era. A number of STRESS victims' families received financial settlements from separate civil suits. The image below shows the spike in lawsuit settlements from police misconduct cases in the years after STRESS. The family of Clarence Manning was awarded $180,000 from the city of Detroit as a result of the STRESS lawsuit. The families of Horace Fennicks and Howard Moore received $215,000 in an out of court settlement. Neil Bray's mother received $100,000 in an out of court settlement. Though they were not part of the suit, the mothers of Craig Mitchell and Ricardo Buck received $270,000 in an out of court settlement. Many others not involved in the suit to abolish STRESS also sued the police for restitution. by August of 1976, the city of Detroit paid $1.1 million in the judgments and settlements of STRESS lawsuits in seven cases. Just two years later, the city paid $1.5 million to James Jenkins, a deputy shot by STRESS officers during the Rochester Massacre which blinded him in one eye, gave him brain damage, and limited his motor function and walking abilities. The city also paid $450,000 to his wife. The racist letter below shows how some white Detroiters who left the city after Coleman Young's election reacted to these lawsuits.
Police brutality in Detroit did not begin with STRESS. STRESS was not the only segment of the Detroit Police Department that abused people. By electing Coleman Young and abolishing STRESS, Detroit's black community eliminated the most flagrantly abusive division of the DPD, but the underlying systemic causes of police brutality remained. Police officers continued to over police poor black communities. Police officers continued to avoid any criminal repercussions for their actions. Police officers continued to operate as an occupying military force at odds with the black community, rather than public servants for the community. The activism of Detroiters in abolishing STRESS was certainly important, but one must not see the end of STRESS as the end of police violence in Detroit.
Detroit Free Press, February 14, 1974
Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1980
Detroit News, June 5, 1975
Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004)
Michael Stauch Jr., “Wildcat of the Streets: Race, Class and the Punitive Turn in 1970s Detroit,” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2015).
Marc Smerling and Zach Stuart-Pontier, "The Battle for Detroit," October 1, 2018, Crimetown, accessed June 22, 2019, https://www.crimetownshow.com/episodes-detroit/2018/9/25/s2e02.
Detroit News, January 27, 1978
Detroit Free Press, June 1, 1973
Detroit News, August 30, 1976
Kenneth V and Sheila M Cockrel Collection, Walter P Reuther Library Archive of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University