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Book Excerpt: An Ex-Detroit Police Officer Writes About Racism and the Racial Divide on the Police Force

Mike Cowling served in the Detroit Police Department from 1972-90 and worked uniform patrol, a felony plainclothes car and 16 years as an undercover narcotics officer. The white former officer writes in his new book, “Force Divided,” about the racial divide in the department and racism he saw among white and black officers.

“Yes, the ugly force of racism is alive and well in the Detroit Police Department, and it exists on both sides,” he writes under the pen name David Stealth. Here’s the first chapter from the 368-page book, available here in hard cover, paperback or e-book.

By Mike Cowling                                                  

As I gazed at the clock, I thought. Why did I even set the alarm? I have not slept a wink all night. How could I sleep on the eve before the day I was to become part of a great fraternity, a brotherhood with approximately five thousand members. Today was the day I would become a Detroit police officer just as my father before me, a man I admired for his ethics and the fact that he was an honest lawman who loved enforcing the law.

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After a quick shower and a cup of coffee, I put on my newly purchased rookie uniform, which fit like a glove, if I must say so myself; I attributed my excellent physical condition to being a recently discharged Army veteran, standing at six feet and tilting the scale at approximately two hundred pounds. My sandy brown hair complimented the tan uniform; I certainly looked like a cop, my objective was now to become one.

I arrived at 1300 Beaubien (Detroit Police Headquarters) at 6:30 a.m., an hour- and- a- half early. I sure didn’t want to be late my first morning, the day I would be sworn in as one of “Detroit’s Finest.”

As I stared at this large historical, gray, multi-story building, that had obviously been built at the turn of the century, given its stately architecture along with the fabulous sculpturing in the mortar. I felt as though this grand old lady was demanding respect from all who gazed upon her including the moon that shined brightly overhead.

My stomach was in knots; the dream I had held since childhood was only a short time away from becoming true. Oh God, I thought. Please don’t let anything happen to prevent me from becoming commissioned. Just then the ringing of bells came from a distance. As I turned towards the sound a man exited a small greasy spoon that was located kitty-corner from Police Headquarters. Great, I thought, because I sure could use another cup of coffee.

The bell hanging on the door rang once again as I entered the little eatery causing the patrons to turn and look in my direction. Immediately, I observed a short chubby man dressed in the unmistakable tan student patrolman uniform, which all police rookies are required to wear during their 16 weeks in the Police Academy.

As our eyes met, we both smiled, realizing each was most likely a member of the new Police Academy class. I walked over and introduced myself, “Hi, my name is Dave Stealth; you look like a new guy, too,” extending my hand. He said, “I’m Bill, Bill Stephan” grabbing my hand and shaking it  eagerly. “Are you also being sworn in this morning?” “Yes, I guess will be classmates,” I replied. Little did I know, I had just shaken the hand of one of our class’s future fatalities.

At the end of the counter was a slightly older black officer in uniform. He was apparently deep in thought, which would explain why he ignored us, two of his new brothers in blue, oh well. We ordered breakfast; I don’t believe my food ever touched my teeth because I nervously ate so quickly. The only thing on my mind was that in less than an hour I was going to finally be sworn in as a Detroit cop!

As Bill and I entered Police Headquarters with spirits high, we observed what seemed like hundreds of officers of all ranks, detectives in plainclothes with guns and badges attached to their belts as well as those in full uniform. Some were beginning their tour of duty while others who appeared fatigued, from working the graveyard shift were obviously going home. Strangely enough, just as the black officer in the restaurant had, these officers were ignoring us as if we were apparitions. Did we exist? I didn’t expect a party; however, a simple hello or a casual nod of recognition would have been nice!

Suddenly, I realized Bill was no longer involved in our conversation or at my side. As I turned I found him silently looking at a wall that was littered with photos of Detroit officers who had given their lives in the line of duty, the Wall of Honor. There was something eerie yet holy about the shrine and I’m sure we both were sharing the same thoughts. How were they killed and would one of us experience the same fate?

It was now 7:45 a.m. as we entered the gym. Many of our fellow colleagues were now beginning to arrive, all displaying enthusiasm, and a little arrogance, on their faces. The gym quickly began filling up with tan uniforms, all awaiting our first orders or instructions. As introductions were being made between classmates, I could sense the bonding of our group taking place, even before we were officially sworn in as law enforcement officers.

Brothers in Blue

At 8:00a.m., all 28 members of Class 72 L, one of the smallest classes in the last two years, were present and awaiting the arrival of our training officers, who obviously were late. As I looked around, I noticed two distinct groups forming, one black group and the other white. Thoughts of my three years in the army came to mind where racial tension was blatant and occasionally violent. Surely the police department would be different; after all we are all brothers in blue who will be depending upon each other daily in the fi ght against our common enemy: crime.

Just then a voice from the rear shouted “Front and center people, all you wannabe’s shut up and fall into formation, now!” Our training officers, one sergeant and two patrol- men had arrived. They weren’t quite what I imagined. I had thought they would be a reflection of Sergeant Johnson, my D.I. (Drill Instructor) in the army, well built with the eyes of a shark. But these guys were your everyday Joe’s, with average builds and rather pleasant faces. The only thing outstanding about them was their police uniforms and pistols hanging from their sides.

“All right people. My name is Sergeant Mustaff and these are Officers German and Glowski. For the next sixteen weeks, we will have the misfortune of being your parents. It is our job to weed out the boys and those who just don’t have the right stuff. God only knows we don’t need any more incompetent or bad cops out there! We will teach you to respond as a team and you will learn to act as one! Now listen up for your name to be called and respond with, Here sir, student patrolmen and your last name, is that understood?” The class responded simultaneously, “Sir, yes sir!” We had an enthusiastic class, most cadets had been recently discharged from the military service, so PT (physical training) was not considered a challenge. Those of us who were physically fit would be able to assist any classmates who were having a difficult time, because we would never leave one of our own behind, a mindset we had been taught in the military.

As the weeks passed, our class began to form a strong brotherhood. We were operating as a team where color was not an issue and all were becoming more confident with each passing day. This was just how I had imagined the brotherhood to be. As well as everything was going, what could possibly go wrong?

As with the many classes graduating before us, the future would not be kind to all. During the following four years, three of our 28 classmates would commit suicide, one would be shot and killed in a domestic dispute, half a dozen would become divorced and many of us would become alcohol abusers. It was becoming clear that the perfect matter-of-fact world I believed in had a dark and often hidden side. Suicide, divorce, alcoholism and racism are very prevalent in the field of law enforcement, which we would all learn in the very near future!

In the spring of 1972, I proudly graduated from the Detroit Police Academy and was assigned to the Seventh Precinct. The Seventh was located on the southeast side of Detroit bordering the Detroit River. It was considered to be one of the more dangerous and active precincts in the city. Not only had my dream come true, it came with a real bonus, a precinct with a high level of crime and a lot of action. The Seventh Precinct was divided into ten scout car (patrol) areas one through ten. Theoretically two men were assigned to each patrol car and area during each shift. However, this was not always possible due to a manpower shortage. Scout cars would be assigned an area number as their radio call signal i.e.: 7-1, 7-2, 7-3 and so on.

On day one, a classmate and I arrived at the Seventh Precinct expecting the officers to welcome us with open arms, their new brothers in blue. Wow, were we mistaken! Not one officer greeted us, as a matter of fact, most were just outright rude. We were directed to the squad room by an overweight sergeant who talked to us like we were pizza delivery boys.

As we entered the squad room, most of the officers glanced in our direction then quickly turned their backs to us, while the others looked at us like we were aliens. We quietly stood by the Coke machine appearing as if we were reading the bulletins on the wall, while awaiting the arrival of the shift supervisors to begin roll call, at which time we would receive our first assignment.

Shortly thereafter, a lieutenant along with three sergeants entered the squad room and announced, “Roll call. Fall in.” The lieutenant was Bill Chimes, a large white male who stood about six-foot-three and weighed approximately 250 pounds, with salt and pepper hair. The lieutenant’s commanding presence left little doubt about who was in charge.

The sergeants on the other hand were far less impressive, at least in appearance and stature. They were Ken Jacobs, an older, short gray-haired man with a slight belly and a large pipe hanging from his mouth, definitely number two in charge. Then, there were sergeants Tom Stockton and Bill Anthem, both obviously recently promoted due to their young ages.

Lt. Chimes began calling officer’s names and handing out their assignments for the afternoon. “Robbie, Perry, you’ve got 7-10 (referring to scout car area 7-10). Field, Bagger, 7-3. Kingston, Rogers, 7-4. Thomas, you’ve got the rookie Stealth on 7-2.” To my surprise Thomas immediately spoke out, “Aw come on lieu, why in the hell do I always get stuck with these kids? You know damn well they can get us killed out there!” The entire formation started laughing, which made me feel even worse, if that could be possible. It was sure nice to be wanted!

Most rookies are assigned to walk a beat (foot patrol) for months before they are eligible to ride in a patrol car. I should have been flattered but instead, I felt humiliated and useless because the only reason I wasn’t walking a beat with the others was due to the fact that Thomas partner called in sick at the last moment.

Lt. Chimes spoke up, “All right you guys knock  off the bullshit, everyone gets their turn in the barrel with new officers. It wasn’t too long ago you guys were the rookies.” I knew this to be true because our academy instructors told us the average time on the job was 2-3 years.

Odd Behavior

The lieutenant then completed the assignments and began giving out information from the teletypes concerning wanted vehicles and criminals in our area. Suddenly, those in the front row began to giggle as they attempted unsuccessfully to conceal their laughs. The lieu then looked up from his report and said, “Nods, what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” It was at this time I observed whom he was addressing; it was the officer second from the right in the front row. He was an old-timer in a sloppy uniform, with food stains on his tie and a broken down hat, which looked as though it had been through 20 bomber missions in WW II.


Rear cover of the book published in late Spetmeber.

As this officer began to reply to the lieutenant, he turned slightly which allowed us in the second rank to observe what everyone was laughing about. I could not believe my eyes.

Nods had his pants unzipped exposing himself to the entire shift, as he replied, “If you are going to work us like damn livestock we might as well look like them.” The entire squad room, including me, roared with laughter, as the lieutenant shook his head from side to side stating, “Nobs, you are one crazy asshole. Sergeants, you got anything?” asked the lieutenant, to which they responded negatively. “All right guys, get out there, back each other up and watch your asses!”

These supervisors seemed to accept, if not condone this type of behavior. Now, I must tell you I had experienced a lot of strange behavior in my three years in the Army, but young kids forced to grow up overnight performed most of those acts.

I just didn’t expect this type of behavior from adults who in my mind should be setting an example, not to mention we’re supposed to be the professionals that hold the city together, the only force stopping complete chaos. I was totally confused; as humorous as this was, it is not the way I envisioned the police department. Although, I would soon learn that laughter and a sense of humor is a defense mechanism that allows officers to vent as well as mask their innermost feelings.

I was beginning to understand why the black officer in the restaurant and all the others ignored us. Just because you wear this uniform doesn’t make you a “brother.” There is a definite rite to passage in the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and it’s mandatory for all rookies. You must prove yourself as a cop prior to being accepted as a trusted partner or brother.

After roll call, I nervously walked up to Officer Thomas, who was at his locker, and extended my hand saying, “Hi! Officer Thomas, my name is Dave” and he reluctantly shook my hand, “How ya doing! I’m Jerry.” I then asked if I should sign out a prep radio (which is a hand held radio that attaches to ones belt) and a shotgun. Thomas snapped back “Look kid, let’s get something straight, you can get a radio but you won’t need a shotgun, not unless you plan on going squirrel hunting.” I could see it was going to be a trying eight hours.

As I was walking in the parking lot, I observed one of the black crews loading their scout car with a shotgun, M-1 carbine rifle and other miscellaneous police equipment. They obviously felt that there might come an occasion when a weapon more powerful than the 38-caliber revolver we all are issued by the department would be advantageous. Now, I’m not a hotdog or some kid that is infatuated with guns. However, I have been engaged in combat and I surely wouldn’t mind having a shotgun or rifl e if the crap hit the fan. Why couldn’t this jerk I’m working with recognize the importance of firepower just as the black crew did?

I understood I was the new guy on the block, but it didn’t take a detective to realize that a definite segregation existed, the black officers stood on one side of the squad room and the white officers on the other. Furthermore, there were no integrated scout cars. Maybe this was just a fluke and their assigned partner was off that day. Was there something going on here I wasn’t aware of, or was I just really naïve?

As Thomas and I pulled out of the Seventh precinct parking lot, we received our first radio run from dispatch. “7-2, East Grand Blvd. and Jefferson they hear a women screaming,” to which I responded, “7-2 on the way radio.” Thomas murmured “Just wonderful, first I get stuck with a rookie and now I can’t even stop for a coffee.”

Upon our arrival, we found a large black woman who was obviously intoxicated standing in the street screaming as she wiped blood from her nose, “Get that son of a bitch in the house officer.” Just then the screen door opened and a black male rushed out screaming, “That’s right, I beat that bitch’s ass and I will beat her ass again if she opens that damn mouth.”

Officer Thomas grabbed the irate male by the arm and I restrained the woman who was attempting to attack the man. I was right in the middle of my first of many domestic disputes. We separated the fighting couple and calmed them down. I then advised the lady that I was going to arrest her boyfriend for cursing in public, an old law that had never been removed from the books. Officer Thomas abruptly turned towards me with a look of disbelief and said, “What in the hell did you say rookie? You aren’t arresting anyone unless I say they’re going to jail.” He then demanded the couple stop drinking and make amends, while informing them if we were called back, both of them were going to jail!

First Lesson In the Racial Divide

Once back in the car, Jerry gave me my first lesson in the racial divide that existed in Detroit’s inner city “Look kid, you’d better wake up and wake up quick, people like this act like animals and we are the zoo keepers. Quit thinking of them as civilized citizens, these folks just get high, make babies and kill one another.” Wow, my first day on the job and I get stuck with “Bobby Bigot!”

We weren’t even a half a block away when a gunshot rang out from the direction of the couple we had just investigated. “That’s it damn it, I’ve had it!” It was apparent Jerry was hot and one if not both of these folks were going to jail. “Kid, tell radio we’re going back and shots have been fired,” as he made a sharp U-turn heading back to their house.

As we approached the location, I observed the boyfriend lying in the street, face-down in a pool of blood. The girlfriend was standing on the front porch with a silver pistol in her right hand screaming: “I had to shoot the son of a bitch officer, he started beating my ass as soon as you left.”

Jerry and I approached the frantic lady with guns drawn, advising her to lay the weapon on the porch and come down immediately. She looked at us in a distraught fashion and for a moment, just a moment, I was sure she was considering taking a shot at us.

Suddenly, the lady complied, laying the gun on the porch. She then fell to her knees burying her face in her cupped hands crying out loud: “Oh my Lord, I have killed the man I love.”

I retrieved the nickel-plated revolver from the porch, care- fully placing it in my pocket, so that I didn’t contaminate any fingerprints, which would be needed to confirm the identity of the shooter should this case go to trial. Officer Thomas assisted the lady to her feet, at which point she was handcuffed.

As I examined the victim lying face down in the pool of blood, it was obvious that the tough guy had taken his final breath. This man will never beat another lady again. Jerry gave radio our status and requested a backup crew, Medical Examiner as well as Homicide Division Investigators.

By this time, a crowd of approximately 50 people had formed and they were getting pretty nasty, yelling things \like “We ain’t letting you take the sister away, she was just protecting herself.” Suddenly, a beer bottle came flying from the rear of the crowd landing near my feet; this situation was beginning to get out of hand and quickly. Just then 7-3 showed up manned by Field and Bagger. Boy was it nice to see some good guys arrive, especially two good-sized cops. They approached Jerry, passing right by me as if I didn’t exist, asking, “What do ya have, Jerry?” “That crazy bitch, (referring to our prisoner now seated in the rear of our scout car) shot her old man there” (pointing to the body lying in the street) and now I’ve got a crowd of animals that want to take our prisoner.

Field, a large muscular man with a stone face and cold gray eyes looked up at Jerry, then at the crowd saying “Will get these loud mouths moving and transport your prisoner. That way, you can wait for Homicide and the Morgue wagon to arrive” “Thanks Bob, I really appreciate it.”

As Bob sized up the crowd, his attention was drawn to a large black male standing in front of the mob holding a beer bottle in his hand. He was definitely the self-proclaimed ringleader. He was the loudest and the most intimidating in size and body language, screaming obscenities and advising the mob that “These peckerwoods are only arresting the sister because she’s black! There are only four of them and lots of us and we have guns too, let’s take the sister.”

Field and his partner with guns discreetly concealed behind their legs, walked directly over to the loud mouth in the crowd at which time he began to raise the beer bottle over his head in a threatening motion. Huge mistake, Field promptly de-escalated the situation by kneeing him in his groin which caused him to drop immediately to the ground in excruciating pain. Bagger handcuffed the idiot, while Field advised the crowd they too would be going to jail with the loud mouth if they didn’t  get moving.

Reluctantly, they began to slowly disperse. God forbid, they appeared as though they respected the law and quickly obeyed.

Would They Back Us Up?

As the street cleared, I could not believe my eyes. Parked not a half a block away was one of our scout cars occupied by two black officers and they were just sitting there watching us. Why didn’t they assist us with the crowd? Would they have just stood by while we got our heads beat in? You’re either with us or against us. I found this totally unacceptable not to mention very disturbing!

My thoughts immediately reflected to the days I served in the U.S. Army, where if a soldier stood by while a comrade was involved in a combat situation and failed to assist that person, they would be court-martialed and tried for cowardliness, that’s if they made it back to base camp alive. I never experienced this type of behavior while serving in foreign countries, yet now that I’ve returned to the world (stateside), I find that I must unfortunately watch my back because I’m unsure if all of my brothers-in-blue would be there to support me when needed.

By time we completed our statements and paperwork at the Homicide Division it was 12:30 pm. As we were getting on the elevator, Jerry who was lighting his pipe, said, “See kid that is why you don’t get a lot done on this job. An arrest that takes moments generates hours of paperwork. It’s just not worth it.” Even though I nodded in agreement, I was thinking to myself, I’m not going to let bureaucracy or paperwork prevent me from doing my job. I joined this Department to lock up bad guys and by-God I’m going to do just that.

Jerry immediately drove to a small restaurant on East Jefferson and told me to advise dispatch that we were clear from Homicide and now request a code 9330 (lunch). Two of our scout cars were already at the restaurant. Once inside we joined our comrades in a booth for lunch and again, I was ignored as if I was the saltshaker. At that moment in the booth, I made a silent pledge, that when I became a senior officer I was going to make some serious changes. Rookies might not be accepted initially, however, they would certainly be treated civilly.

The final three hours of my shift consisted of an auto accident report and two alarm runs. I thought it was an awesome shift but I’m sure Jerry would say it was just another day at the office; nothing seemed to excite this guy. As we pulled in the precinct parking lot and began to unload the scout car, one of the senior patrolman walked by jokingly saying “Long day Jerry?” I could not believe Jerry’s response. “Aw, the kid seems alright, I’ve had worse.” For Jerry, that was like him offering me the honor of being the Godfather to his child!

I couldn’t drive home fast enough to share the day’s events with my wife and two- year- old son, a day filled with disappointment, excitement and inner satisfaction all in one. I dominated the conversation throughout dinner and the entire evening, giving my point of view on what was wrong with the department and how some day as a senior officer intended to change things for the better. This evening no doubt would be a sleepless one, as I was sure I would lie in bed with anticipations of what tomorrow would bring. I could not believe how exciting my first day was, the first day of twenty-five years on a job that has already become the love of my life. The alarm went off awakening me from a healthy two-hour sleep. After a shower, cup of coffee and a slice of toast, I was out the door.

That day and for months to follow, I would be assigned to walk a beat (foot patrol) with another rookie. This actually was not a bad detail because it allowed us to meet the people in the community, as well as making our own decisions regarding investigations and arrests. It was nice not having some judgmental old timer watching your every move, while making condescending wise crack remarks. Don’t get me wrong, constructive criticism is an excellent learning tool; however, certain officers would correct you just to belittle you, or provide a good laugh for other senior officers.

Walking a beat in uniform gives one a whole new perspective of those who live in the neighborhoods of our cities. You meet all varieties of people, prostitutes, pimps, winos, vagrants, hardworking decent citizens who love their city, as well as those who are just stuck there because they’re old, poor or just a product of their environment. Some are fine people with great ethics and others are purely opportunists who are too lazy or unwilling to get a job and provide for themselves. Subsequently, they tend to blame society for their predicament conveniently turning to crime or entitlements, which they consider the easy way out.

West Side Childhood

I, myself, was raised on the west side of Detroit in a racially mixed neighborhood, so I was somewhat familiar with the ways of the street and people from various backgrounds. This was unlike a few of the rookies who moved to Detroit from the suburbs to experience the action a big city police department provides. My father had also enlightened me regarding the streets from a police officer’s perspective and I would find the combination invaluable throughout my career.

During the first year I, as every other rookie would be used in whatever capacity is needed. Many found this indefinite schedule discomforting, whereas I considered it an opportunity to learn the infrastructure of our Department. Each day brought new challenges, and with each test we became better officers.

Tomorrow would be a big day, my six-month anniversary as a police officer, which meant I was only six months away from completing my first year. This is very important because it means my probationary period will have been successfully completed. I will then become a member of the Detroit Police Officers Association Union (DPOA) more importantly; those officers with a year or more on the job were no longer looked upon as rookies. My God, it will be great to be treated like a man instead of something lower than a sea urchin.

The clock in the squad room read 3:35 p.m. As usual, I stood silently by the Coke machine reading the same bulletins and wanted posters I have read over and over waiting for roll call to start. Suddenly, the doors opened and in came Lt. Chimes and the sergeants. My assignment for this day was Beat 7-22, Chene Street between Mack Avenue and the I-94 Interstate freeway. My assigned partner for today was Officer Jay Johnson or J.J., a tall thin black male who appeared to be very pleasant, sporting a smile which I interpreted as a sign; we will be just fine as partners.

As I have indicated, a rookie’s assignment varies daily, since they are pretty much used as fill-ins for those on leave or who call in sick. If no one calls in ill, your assignments could include walking a beat, precinct security or working inside behind the desk as an extra clerk, which is not very appealing to a rookie. We wanted to experience action. Although it is understood as a rookie, you are understandably just an extra body at the bottom of the food chain.

J.J. and I were dropped off at the corner of Mack and Chene by Scout 7-3, Field & Bagger, who advised us “Watch your asses when you’re walking by the pool hall at Illinois & Chene because there’s a lot of dope in that place. Just make sure they hear you approaching. You don’t want to su prise anyone.” I felt as though they were advising us to turn our heads by letting the criminals know we were coming. However, I would later learn that this location was notorious for dope and shootings, Field and Bagger were genuinely concerned for our wellbeing.

The fact of the matter was that we might not respond promptly to a narcotic situation taking place. As rookies, we weren’t familiar with the area or key players (violators) and if we walked up unwittingly into a narcotic transaction, we could very well become injured or worse. As with most rookies, we would soon discover ignorance can be very costly.

As we began walking North on Chene Street, we could observe a crowd of black folks several blocks away standing in front of an old white building, a building I would soon discover was the Chene & Illinois Pool Hall about which 7-3 had warned us. It was still early and there was plenty of daylight remaining, which allowed the crowd to see us as well. The closer we got, the more people slipped inside the pool hall.

“Hi officer, how you doing?” asked one of the black males that remained in front of the pool hall as we passed. “Fine sir, what’s going on with you folks?” “Aw, nothing much, just hanging out, sir.” Another man looked at my partner saying, “What’s up my brother?” J.J. nodded and continued to walk along my side. Once we were several houses away from the pool hall, I asked J.J. if he observed the brothers inside the pool hall peeking out from behind the curtains. “Yea, I seen them, they probably have outstanding warrants.”

Man with Crutches

Once we passed, the crowd reappeared and cars once again began pulling up and taking part in what I’m sure were narcotic transactions. Damn, if we only had a scout car, we could make a narcotic arrest. Upon reaching the intersection of Chene and Warren Avenue, we observed a black male with crutches in hand lying on the ground in front of a bakery. He obviously had fallen and would need assistance to get back on his feet. As we approached the incapacitated individual we detected a strong and disgusting stench of alcohol and body-odor. He was murmuring something that sounded like “Bitch, bitch, stay away from me, bitch.” I leaned over this unfortunate crippled individual and placed my hand on his shoulder stating “Sir, can we give you a hand?” Suddenly, this poor handicapped man grabbed me with such force that it felt like a bear trap had closed on my arm. This drunk pulled me to the ground with little effort, and began striking me with one of his crutches.

He had a strong grasp on one arm and I was blocking his blows with my other arm, leaving me virtually defenseless. I recall saying, “You crazy idiot, I’m trying to help you.”

J.J. immediately came to my aid, grabbing him around his neck. At this point, “Sampson” dropped the crutch and flung J.J. against the wall like a human dart.

Just my luck, the first fight I get into is with a drunken cripple with the strength of ten men. I finally got the crutch that he was striking me with away and kicked the second into the street. I now found myself rolling around on the sidewalk exchanging blows with this nut. J.J. returned and between the two of us, we were finally able to break his grip from my arm, allowing me to crawl out of his reach.

Now that we were out of harm’s way, J.J. and I looked at each other, slightly smiling, reminding me of two professional wrestlers who had just won a major tag team title. We had faced a situation that required teamwork and unfaltering commitment, which we both successfully displayed. This was significant in my mind because it reinforced my belief that black and white officers could work together as brothers with the same common goal.

A scout car was requested to assist us in transporting our prisoner. I could not believe what had just happened, our first arrest without the presence of a senior officer was an insane disabled drunk who just kicked our asses and had yet to be handcuffed – how embarrassing! Of all people to respond, was Sergeant Ken Jacobs. As he pulled up, I could see him shaking his head in disbelief.

There we stood, J.J. with the knees of his pants torn out and me with my ripped blood-covered shirt, blood which was mostly mine. He leaned out the window with his pipe clinched in his teeth. “What the hell are you kids doing with him?” “This man assaulted us Sir,” I replied. “No shit, that’s quite obvious, look at you guys, you’re a mess, if he’s under arrest, why isn’t he cuffed?” “Boss, we tried. This guy is strong as a bull!” Sergeant Jacobs, with his eyes closing just shook his head side-to-side in disbelief.

Just then, 7-4, who had received the radio run pulled up. As Rodgers and Kingston got out of their car, they, too, began shaking their heads while laughing. “I see you guys have met Jonathan, nice guy isn’t he?”

Rodgers leaned over our prisoner and said, “Jonathan, it’s Rodge, are you OK?” I thought, is he OK? We’re the ones who just got our butts kicked by this crazy. “Hey Rodge, I’m alright. I was just playing with the rookies and shit got a little out of hand.” Rodgers had our subject crawl into the rear seat of his scout car, where the handcuffs were placed on him with no resistance whatsoever. Unbelievable!

We would later learn that the handicap gentleman we encountered was known as Jonathan, who frequently got drunk and loved to fight, especially with police rookies. Everyone at the precinct knew and welcomed him as if he was one of the family. He was placed in the lockup (jail cell) to sleep it off and upon sobering, he would be released. So much for our first big arrest; he goes free and we are left with torn uniforms, aching bodies and bruised egos.

Sergeant Jacobs advised us to write a quick Preliminary Compliant Report (PCR) on the incident, change our uniforms, lick our wounds and get back on the street for the remaining five hours of the shift. As he walked away with his back to us he shouted, “And try not to get into any more trouble damn it.” J.J. and I looked at each other in disbelief. Our attempt to assist a fallen handicapped citizen had turned into a fiasco where we not only got our clocks cleaned; we now appeared like mischievous kids or bumbling idiots. What’s wrong with this picture?

Once we were driven back to our beat, we walked toward the northern end of the precinct in search of a place to take a code 9330 (lunch). The north end of the Seventh Precinct was a racially diverse area. There were black and white, Polish, as well as those of Arabic descent, residing in an area that covered approximately four square miles. This area was referred to as the United Nations because of the many cultures represented. And, surprisingly, the crime rate was lower than many of the other scout car areas within the precinct.

As we crossed Milwaukee Street, the bright neon sign that read “Famous “Restaurant” lit up the sidewalk, welcoming customers. It was an older restaurant with pre-World War II décor, which consisted of a long counter with wooden stools, small wooden tables covered with red and white checkered table cloths, along with a number of wood booths against the wall. We sat at the counter and began viewing today’s specials, which were displayed on a large black chalkboard hanging on the wall.

Just then the door opened and two older officers walked in. I nodded and said, Hi, guys, how’s it going? They re- plied with a courteous nod prior to seating themselves in the furthest booth away from us. “J.J. I’m getting so tired of this bullshit. Who in the hell do these guys think they are?” His response was not quite what I expected, “Don’t take it personal, Dave, it’s me. They don’t like a brother in their white restaurant.” “No way, J.J., it’s because we are rookies, I replied. “Dave, you’re a nice guy but you have a lot to learn about this race thing.” As I looked around the restaurant, it was apparent my partner was the only black patron. Surely, this wasn’t the case. He’s not some suspicious street thug, he’s a police officer in full uniform.

Later, at off duty roll call, everything returned to business as usual. J.J. went and stood with the black officers and I stood on the white officers’ side of the squad room. Even after all we went through during the last eight hours; it all came back to the reality of the ugly truth, racism. Maybe J.J. was right, I’m living in a dream world. Racism not only exists, it’s a cancer that refuses to die, spreading throughout society and now residing within the Detroit Police Department.

For the next few weeks, J.J. and I walked beat 7-22 (Chene Street) together, during which time we got to know each other quite well. J.J. came from a large family, four brothers and three sisters that had moved north from Alabama during the 1950’s. He, too, was recently discharged from the Army after returning from Vietnam.

I found we had much in common until it regarded race, then we took on two totally different views. J.J. believed many black criminals are victims of society, or are a trapped people, forced to remain a product of their environment. On the other hand, I was far less forgiving. I believe that each and every one of us is free and quite capable of making our own decisions, as well as facing the consequences of those choices. In my opinion, many blacks declare racism when caught in an illegal act, which provides a smoke screen for the crime they have committed. Sometimes, ignorance is convenient, and it’s easier to blame the world for your misfortunes rather than attempting to make a positive change.

Fortunately, J.J. and I were able to separate our ethnic and political views from our patrol duties. We had both proven our loyalty to each other, fighting side by side without mistreating any suspects. This was a concern of mine because of the stories I had heard about old-timers beating suspects half to death because they were black. Thank God I had not witnessed anything like that! I surely would like to believe it’s an exaggeration, although J.J. assured me not only did it exist, it’s very prevalent.

I also expressed my concern that there appeared to be a racial divide within the Seventh Precinct and I prayed this was not the case department-wide. Once again, J.J. reminded me that I was either blind or awfully naïve, that racism is not only prevalent in the Seventh Precinct, it’s everywhere and it’s about time I wake up and see the light. I totally disagreed, saying that we may not be able to change the world but we can certainly make some changes within our precinct.

Let me make something very clear: I’m not a bleeding heart liberal, or an activist in the civil rights movement. To the contrary, I come from a southern background where traditionally, integration was considered totally unacceptable and, unfortunately, racism was widespread.

My roots are in a small town in western Kentucky, a town by the name of Russellville. I recall as a young boy, my grandfather, whom we respectfully referred to as “Daddy Claude,” would take me into town where he would trade pocket knives in the square with other old timers.

On one occasion, he took me to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. While ordering a soda, I observed a sign on the back door that read “Colored Eating Area.” I walked to the screen door and gazed outside where I observed several wood picnic tables occupied by black folks who were eating. When I asked why they were not allowed to come inside and eat with the whites, my grandfather stated, “That’s just the way it is, son whites don’t eat with colored folks.”

This was an answer that I did not understand or find appropriate at the time, but it would become very clear during the next decade, a time in history that was to become known as the Era of the Civil Rights Movement.

Now, my forefathers were anything but rich, actually they were poor white sharecroppers going back several generations. I recall my great grandpa Billy, who lived to the ripe old age of 105, relating a story from his childhood. He said he and his siblings would join the black farm hands in the barn to worship, singing gospel songs. What was so unique about his account was the manner in which he said they worshipped, actually placing wooden water buckets over their heads while singing. They did so in an effort to muffle the sound so they would not disturb the rich landowner up in the big house. How pathetic!

I would be less than truthful if I implied there were no prejudices within me because I was exposed to certain beliefs in childhood, ugly teachings that I have since abandoned or fully intend to conceal, protecting my son and daughter from the ugly traditions. I pray this cycle stops with me.

I’m a man who believes that change can be very constructive and should be implemented by those with true conviction. No man, no creature should be treated with less dignity than God intended and to declare oneself superior over another, actually reveals how inferior you really are. I fought side by side with people of color in the Army and now with fellow black police officers. It’s just beyond me how we could bleed and die for one another; yet still eat in separate restaurants. My God, this was not 1910!

J.J. and I did compromise and agreed to eat at locations in which we felt comfortable and considered race-friendly. One of these locations was Donnie’s Pizzeria, located on our beat. Donnie treated us well and always had hot pizza ready for policemen in the back room, which was great because it kept us away from those customers who always had a ton of what would be perceived as ridiculous questions. This is not the way one wants to spend their lunch hour.

My partner and I were beginning to get this police thing down; almost to the point it appeared that we knew what we were doing. We lead the shift in misdemeanor arrests for the month and wrote two books of tickets each, mostly parking tickets. Now, while I did not enjoy writing tickets, as rookies on probation it was necessary to display your aggressiveness in all areas until we reached our first year anniversary.

During the probationary period rookies have absolutely no representation nor protection from the Detroit Police Officers Association. This meant in effect, we could be terminated at will for essentially any reason. July was now upon us and criminal activity was beginning to soar. It was not out of the ordinary to get 12-15 police runs a night. Hot summer nights just seem to bring out the worst in people. I’m not sure if it’s because the homes are far too hot due to the lack of air conditioners, which eventually drives everyone out into the streets. Drinking also becomes a huge factor influencing one’s behavior, especially when among large crowds. Then, you have those individuals who are just plain evil and find pleasure in causing trouble.

Controversial S.T.R.E.S.S.

It was a Friday night and the temperature was holding in the upper 80s with little if any wind. The streets were crowded and tempers were rising, all the ingredients for trouble. Our radios were transmitting non-stop and they were all  serious calls. We had just left the lot when information came over the radio that a S.T.R.E.S.S. crew had been ambushed during an investigation, followed by a description of three suspects. I wanted to throw up; with these four it made six officers shot in my first seven months on the job.

Later that evening, we were advised that all four members of the S.T.R.E.S.S. crew were shot by three black male subjects, who were eventually identified as Boyd, Bethune and Brown, men who would later be described as “Mad dog killers” by Police Commissioner John Nichols, a statement that would return to haunt him during the upcoming Mayoral election.

To say that S.T.R.E.S.S. was a controversial unit within the Detroit Police Department would be a great understatement.  S.T.R.E.S.S., which was the acronym for “Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets” was the child of then Police Commissioner Nichols and one of his deputy chiefs. Nichols was also a controversial figure in his own right, respected by most of the white population and detested by many within the black community.
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Mayor Coleman A. Young

In the near future, Nichols would be running for mayor of the City of Detroit. His opponent, a black candidate by the name of Coleman A. Young has been involved in the political game for years. Young was well known for his rude and outspoken mannerisms as well as being recognized as a black activist for the civil rights movement. This campaign set the forum for one of the most heated mayoral debates in the history of Detroit. The majority of the issues would be race-related with the dismantlement of the S.T.R.E.S.S. unit in the forefront.

S.T.R.E.S.S. was created as a decoy type unit and recruited the best of the best throughout the police department. The officers, both black and white, were placed in covert operations in high crime areas citywide, usually portraying themselves as helpless or unaware citizens, who are typically the prime targets for the criminal element, especially holdup men.

Since the unit’s inception, there have been a number of officers involved in fatal shootings where the suspects were either killed or wounded during the commission of a felony or the actual arrest. The unit was loved by conservatives, who believed that hardened criminals were being taken off the streets. Whereas, much of the black community and liberals truly believed that S.T.R.E.S.S. was a gang of white cops declaring open season on the city’s black citizens. Many accused the white establishment of enticing blacks into committing felonies by posing as easy targets. Again, it was not about right or wrong, it was about black and white!

My partner on this particular evening was Officer Arne Greyson, a stocky red headed fellow who was very opinionated on any topic that might arise. He displayed a very bitter attitude toward blacks in general, blaming them for just about every problem that existed in society. I must admit that I, too, had a bitter taste toward the black criminal element but did not consider the entire black population a product of evil.

“These black bastards continue to shoot us and the courts just keep letting them go free (A statement directed toward the shooting of the four S.T.R.E.S.S Officers). You know why? I’ll tell you why. Because they’re black and in today’s society that gives them a free ticket!” “Arnie, you can’t blame the entire black race for the shit a few maggots do.” “Bullshit, they all hate us and it’s quite obvious.”

There was no talking to this guy: he was one of those that loved to hate. I too get infuriated at the black idiots that just live to stir up trouble, causing this country to constantly be on the brink of internal war. However, I know lining up blacks and executing them as if they are all criminals is not an option. That’s been tried in Germany and it didn’t work, not to mention its outright evil. No, there is enough responsibility to go around for both races.

Suddenly, the radio sounded off, “7-6 East Grand Blvd and Farnsworth, there’s a black male in a red shirt threatening peoplewithalargestick.” “Ontheway,radio7-6,” relayed. As we approached Farnsworth, some kids advised us that the suspect had just gone into the alley that runs adjacent to the street.

Upon entering the alley, we observed the suspect staggering and carrying a baseball bat as reported, which he pointed at our scout car while advising us how he was going to kick our asses. Arnie and I approached the drunk from different directions and attempted to convince him to drop the bat which he now had over heard in a threatening fashion, our request were met with insulting racial remarks, indicating rational compliance was not an option. While I was negotiating with the suspect, Arnie came from behind, grabbing him in a bear hug, which gave me the opportunity to take away the bat.

What followed next was shocking to say the least: Arnie threw the suspect to the ground and went crazy on the old guy. I don’t know what got into him. He began kicking and hitting the suspect while screaming racial slurs. This guy was no longer resisting, he was just attempting to block the blows. “Come on, Arnie, he’s had enough. You’re going to kill him.” “Fuck him, I’ll teach him how to respect the law.”

I thought to myself that the only thing you are teaching him is to hate cops! Finally, I was able to get my cuffs on the old timer who was a mess. He was then transported to Detroit Receiving Hospital where he was registered as a police prisoner and ironically charged with Assault & Battery of a Police Officer and Resisting Arrest. I found this strange due to the fact that Arnie and I had only obtained minor wounds, as where the defendant was the one that would require minor medical attention. I must tell you I do believe this prisoner was dealt with appropriately up to the point he stopped battling and no longer presented a threat.

That night after the shift, I drove around for quite a while just thinking about the episode with the old man. Eventually, I stopped over my parents’ home and had a long discussion with my mom, a lovely old southern gal who had a heart the size of Texas and was always willing to share her wisdom. I expressed how disappointed I was in myself for not stopping the beating of the old man.

“Momma, it just wasn’t right, the old guy got a beating far more than he deserved and I stood by idly and let it happen. This makes me as guilty as my partner.”

Her statement was simple but profound. She said, “Son, you can’t change another man’s heart, but you must answer for yours. You cannot turn the hands of time back so what happened today will always remain, but you can make sure it never happens again.”

Her advice became the foundation of how I would carry myself throughout the rest of my career. If I made a mistake or a fool out of myself, it would be because of my actions, not because I was going along to get along.


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