Police reform can harm black Americans

  • Standing up: protesters walk through the streets after a standoff with police in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 18, 2014, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown (Photograph by Charlie Riedel/AP)

    Standing up: protesters walk through the streets after a standoff with police in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 18, 2014, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown (Photograph by Charlie Riedel/AP)


In July 2017, just days after the 50th anniversary of an uprising against police harassment by the city’s aggrieved African-American community, Detroit entered into a contract with Data Works Plus to dramatically increase its police department’s access to the social lives of residents.

The company agreed to provide the department with software and equipment to analyse live video feeds and images collected from the city’s massive surveillance network, which includes cameras installed in 568 locations, among them petrol stations, restaurants and bars, apartment complexes, and even churches and schools.

This partnership among local businesses, police, the city and data firms once again raises a critical question about technical solutions to the problems of policing. Do these changes make residents safer, or do they ingrain social inequality and bias more deeply into the criminal justice system?

As a city at the forefront of police reform since the 1970s, Detroit has repeatedly confronted this question. The city has fallen into a predictable pattern in how it answers it: investing in surveillance systems rather than the resources needed to remedy social inequality and its symptoms.

But these solutions do not work. Technical changes expanding police presence in evermore intimate ways into the social life of communities marked by inequality make the experience of those cities much worse for the people most often subject to the biases of policing: the poor, LGBTQ people, black and non-white people, and others at the bottom of society’s many social hierarchies.

Yet, while places such as San Francisco, Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts, have recently banned facial recognition in public spaces, Detroit, the nation’s iconic capital of urban crisis, is once again rushing to implement and expand a technology rooted more in notions of maintaining hierarchy and order than advancing social justice and equality.

During the postwar era, policing fed tensions between law enforcement officers and Detroit’s growing black community. A lack of representation, frequent complaints of police brutality and what appeared to be wilful neglect of vice districts operating in mostly African-American neighbourhoods exacerbated what the local NAACP called “the single most important problem in the city”.

On July 23, 1967, Detroit’s streets exploded in an uprising after a police raid on an after-hours party on 12th Street celebrating the return home of two soldiers from Vietnam. It took a week for the crisis, which was also a crisis of policing, to come to an end.

Yet it was not until the 1973 election that any meaningful police reforms were launched. Alongside their approval of a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police and approve law-enforcement policy, Detroiters elected Coleman Young as the city’s first African-American mayor.

Young announced his campaign by asserting as one of his first acts that he would “fire John Nichols”, the police chief responsible for the creation of the city’s brutal Stress unit, Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets, a paramilitary-style decoy operation responsible for the deaths of 22 people, almost all of them African-American men and boys, in its less-than-three-year existence.

Promising to abolish Stress and introduce an affirmative-action hiring policy, a residency requirement for Detroit police officers and training programmes in police-community relations, Young was elected mayor in November 1973.

Young was as good as his word. In one of his first acts as mayor, he issued Executive Order No 2, abolishing Stress. That same order also outlined his vision of police reform, a “people’s police department” that would embody the spirit of his campaign promises.

The centrepiece of Young’s vision was the introduction of scores of neighbourhood police stations, or mini-stations, across the city. These command centres would mix police with public housing sites, church basements, strip malls — anywhere people gathered in public — in the hope that police beats would more efficiently enforce order in the city.

But the reaction to these stations was not what Young might have envisioned. Residents immediately resented them. An editorial in the Detroit Free Press described one station in the central business district, with three-foot signs announcing the presence of a large platoon of police officers, as “a distressing case of overkill” and dubbed its design “Mussolini Modern”.

A mini-station in a housing project was repeatedly assailed after police, acting on a complaint about young people “gambling in a public place”, arrested one juvenile and took him to a nearby precinct. When the officers returned, they found the tires of their personal vehicles slashed. The next day, a firebomb thrown at the station didn’t ignite, and a week later, shots were fired at the station while it was empty.

Still, not all responses to Detroit’s expanded police presence were negative. Small-business owners in the city in particular supported Young’s policies.

Brady Keys, who owned several fast-food restaurants, demanded greater attention from Young’s police force in his stores, threatening to close them and leave the city entirely if the police didn’t address his concerns. The police department responded by dispatching officers from a nearby precinct to visit his stores twice per shift.

Young’s “people’s police department” transformed the city’s social landscape, introducing police charged with maintaining a class-based order within the city’s African-American community.

Young’s policies were part of a larger experimental project launched in Newark, New Jersey, and Kansas City, Missouri, by George Kelling and James Wilson, which substantially influenced their “broken windows” approach to policing: an emphasis on misdemeanour arrests meant to forestall neighbourhood decline that threatened property values.

The result? The logic of economic austerity was enforced on the city’s growing wageless population by a reformed police department, which was less overtly brutal but far more ubiquitous than ever before. That year, 1975, soon became a turning point in Detroit’s law enforcement history. Never before had more people been arrested; never again would fewer be.

A similar dynamic is at play today in Detroit. Alongside concerted efforts by mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to reinvigorate investment in the city since its historic bankruptcy, surveillance has proliferated. With this massive surveillance apparatus in place, Duggan promised in his State of the City address in March to conduct a crackdown on crime, one he claimed would rehabilitate the city’s image and attract economic investment.

With city council approval for a $4 million expansion of the surveillance system, Detroit has chosen to further invest in an unreliable technology that disproportionately errs in evaluating darker-skinned faces, one with dubious merit in reducing crime.

The danger in technical changes to police practices, then as now, lies in an uncomfortable reality about policing that our society refuses to confront: the way in which policing practices reinforce patterns of inequality.

In Detroit today, as economic investment cautiously returns, we can expect the introduction or expansion of pre-existing surveillance systems to disproportionately affect poor African-American people in what is the blackest, poorest big city in the nation.

It is therefore imperative that society finally address a vital question raised in the debate about police surveillance. What do we value more: justice for even the most disadvantaged among us, or adherence to a capitalist system that produces the inequality our police then punish?

Michael Stauch is a professor of history at the University of Toledo and is working on a manuscript about the politics of policing in Detroit since 1967

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Published Aug 22, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 22, 2019 at 12:16 am)

Police reform can harm black Americans

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