Digital Documentary History of Police Violence in Detroit—A Review of “Detroit Under Fire”

By Matt Guariglia and Charlotte Rosen

The purpose of the Disciplining the Nation project is to make the history of policing, incarceration, and criminalization in the United States more accessible and teachable by highlighting the documents which shaped it. In addition to looking at specific documents, we also want to highlight specific public history projects which enrich our understanding of historical moments.

Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era is an essential digital exhibit built by Matthew Lassiter and the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan. Emerging in response to the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown and in the context of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, Detroit Under Fire offers the “most comprehensive accounting of fatal force incidents by police officers” of any American city during the civil rights era. The resource weaves together primary sources, digestible narrative, and images to map police murders and chronicle opposition to police brutality. Detroit Under Fire also demonstrates how shallow liberal reforms did nothing to stop the drum beat of the police militarization which came to characterize the 1970s. 

While a rich pedagogical tool for historical educators, Detroit Under Fire also offers a way for the general public to  access knowledge that, until now, has been tucked away in archives or only accessible via tedious FOIA requests. As Lassiter has discussed, it is critical for activists organizing to defund or abolish policing to understand the scope of anti-Black police violence. Despite this need, the actual work of documenting police violence, both presently and historically, is rife with challenges. Sifting through archival sources, newspapers databases, and FOIA requests, the researchers shows the prevalence of police terror in Detroit, and puts these incidents in the context of urban racial criminalization and anti-police protest over time.

“They Murdered Our Brothers!!!!” The majority of marchers were teenagers who boycotted school to participate. From Detroit Under Fire.

Detroit Under Fire offers powerful historical evidence of the fundamentally anti-Black and repressive function of policing in the United States—not individual officers, or individual departments, but policing, period. Readers are confronted with data that overwhelmingly affirms what criminalized people and scholars of the carceral state have long argued, but that popular discourses on law enforcement and police reform today still question and sideline. For example, Detroit Under Fire found that of the 201 people murdered by the Detroit Police Department (DPD) between 1957-1972, 79 percent were Black and 59 percent were unarmed civilians. Wayne County’s prosecutor declared all on-duty police homicides “justifiable” except for five.

It’s difficult to capture all of  Detroit Under Fire’s offerings, and we encourage readers of The Metropole to peruse and utilize the entire exhibit, which is laden with political analysis and pedagogical tools. For now, however, we will spotlight Section V: STRESS and Radical Response, 1971-1973, which offers a particularly instructive module for grasping the DPD’s history of racial violence against Black Detroiters, their extensive efforts to cover it up, and Black Detroit’s community organizing against the department’s racist approach to policing street crime.

Funded in part by the federal government’s 1968 Safe Streets Act, STRESS, or “Stop the Robberies–Enjoy Safe Streets,” was a specialized police tactical unit within the DPD created in 1971. The purpose of STRESS was to mobilize undercover surveillance and decoy operations aimed at preventing street crime. A nearly all-white unit, known as an “elite strike force,” STRESS specifically targeted Black “street criminals” and utilized overt racial profiling in carrying out their missions. As Detroit Under Fire notes, STRESS was just one example of the new “preemptive policing” strategies proliferating across the nation during the 1970s. Law enforcement justified “preemptive and discretionary racial criminalization,” carried out by militarized tactical units, to ease apparently rising low-level street crime.

Protest at DPD headquarters, 2-27-73. From Detroit Under Fire.

One tactic used by STRESS officers was the concept of “zero visibility patrol,” where undercover teams of male officers set out on foot disguised as drunks, elderly people, sex workers, or women. During “patrols” they searched for targets while plainclothes support units in unmarked patrol cars or other disguises were stationed nearby. These officers would then launch surprise attacks on individuals allegedly engaging in street crime. Often these attacks resulted in a “flurry of fatalities,” as DPD employed an already institutionalized “shoot-first philosophy” that targeted primarily Black teenagers and young adults whom DPD officials deemed to be irreparably criminal. The fatality rate for STRESS decoy encounters was a shocking 15 precent. Those killed were often unarmed and shot in the back.

A section of the exhibit dedicated to the STRESS victims not only details the suspicious and constitutionally questionable patterns of STRESS killings and maps their locations, but also provides the victims’ names and describes their attack by police, ensuring they and the violence of their police killers are not forgotten. Falsified police testimony is interspersed with activists’ anti-STRESS pamphlets and ephemera, offering counter narratives on the murders and allowing the reader to understand how law enforcement invented justifications for the wanton murder of Black Detroiters. The section is thus not only a place for gathering knowledge about the details of STRESS’s anti-Black violence, but also a place where the reader learns to question the archive as a heavily subjective and mediated collection of historical knowledge that intentionally legitimizes carceral institutions.

Flyer calling for armed self-defense against STRESS “war” on Black community. From Detroit Under Fire.

Although STRESS’s architect Detective Inspector James Bannon and ardent supporter Police Commissioner John Nichols argued the program intended to protect Black crime victims, Detroit Under Fire’s analyses found that STRESS deployments were largely in “racially mixed commercial districts in and near downtown and midtown centers of business, shopping, professional sports, and other recreational activities.” In other words, STRESS’s actual goal appeared to be targeting the “less common but media-hyped problem of black-on-white street crime in interracial zones of commerce” in order to protect white consumers and commuters, not Black communities. A “STRESS homicide map” is powerful visual evidence of this claim, demonstrating the clear discrepancy between DPD’s justifications regarding the program’s purpose and focus and its actual operation on the ground.

Modeling critical readings of primary sources related to law enforcement and data on crime, Detroit Under Fire compellingly deconstructs DPD’s claims that STRESS led to a meaningful reduction in crime and that it had Black community support. In presenting the statistics that DPD utilized to “prove” the program’s success, the resource also includes a breakdown about the unreliability of crime data and the historical tendency of police departments to flat out lie or manipulate statistics to serve their agendas.

STRESS’s violent and constitutionally dubious assault against Black Detroiters led to the development of a “united front” of Black Power and civil rights organizations calling for the abolition of STRESS. One of Detroit Under Fire’s key contributions is mapping the creation and development of the anti-STRESS State of Emergency Committee. Formed after LDC radical attorneys Kenneth Cockrel and Justin Ravitz brought together 75 African American community leaders around the effort to abolish STRESS, the State of Emergency Committee served as a unity coalition that included civil rights and liberal organizations, white radicals, labor unions, and Black nationalists. At one point, the State of Emergency Committee mobilized 5,000 people, mainly young Black people, to take the streets in protest against STRESS. Readers can view the State of Emergency Committee protest flyer, which linked the 1971 murders of two Black men, Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell, by the STRESS unit to the racialized state violence on display at the the Attica prison massacre and the shut down of General Motors in Pontiac by white workers to protest bussing. “We Black workers, mothers, students—the entire black community—must stop our work, come out of the plants and off the job, to show our indignation in this silent march,” the flyer reads.

State of Emergency Committee flyer for Sept. 23 protest march. From Detroit Under Fire.

In the end, grassroots activists with the LDC and the State of Emergency Committee successfully won the abolition of STRESS under newly elected Black progressive mayor Coleman Young. It was an enormous victory. Black community members had launched one of the largest mass movements against police terror in United States history and had won the destruction of a uniquely brutal and anti-Black police unit. Detroit Under Fire ends with this win—importantly contending that this tradition of Black anti-police activism is a key “research finding” for the project. Yet, the Coda notes that Young’s election and the ascent of Black political power in Detroit did not ultimately upend patterns of racialized police brutality and criminalization in the Motor City—the subject of which will be covered in a forthcoming exhibit from Lassiter and his team, entitled Crackdown: Policing Detroit through the War on Crime, Drugs, and Youth. For now, Detroit Under Fire gives historians, students, locals, and the curious an accessible deep dive into a contentious moment in the city’s history, where the future of policing was arguably unsettled and ripe for transformation. As the struggle against police terror continues in Detroit and in cities across the country, readers of Detroit Under Fire receive a powerful political education on the long history of racist police brutality and Black-led resistance movements against it, providing vital historical evidence for the necessity of police abolition and critical movement lessons for contemporary anti-policing movements today.

Dr. Matthew Guariglia is a visiting research scholar in the Department of History at the University of California-Berkeley and a policy analyst researching government and police surveillance at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is currently writing a book about how race, immigration, and United States colonial governance abroad created the modern police department in New York City, 1845-1930, and is a co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liverlight Books, 2021). Matthew has bylines in The Washington Post, NBC News, Slate, VICE, and The Abusable Past.

Charlotte Rosen is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” uses Pennsylvania as a case study to examine the untold history–and challenge–of prison overcrowding and prisoner resistance against mass imprisonment in the late-twentieth-century United States. Charlotte has bylines in The Washington Post, The Nation, Belt Magazine, Truthout, and The Cleveland Review of Books and is an Associate Editor for The Metropole.

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