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.
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?