News that our new police chief from Detroit is shaking up the vice squad sent me scrambling to learn what I could about the Detroit Police Department during her time there. Then I stepped through a trapdoor and found myself reading about the Detroit Police Department during my own tenure in Detroit. It’s amazing how much has changed there and here, amazing how little.
Dallas Chief U. Renee Hall was a baby when I went to work for the Detroit Free Press in the early 1970s. My history in Detroit is her prequel.
Hall announced last week she is breaking up the Dallas police vice unit, reassigning 20 police officers to duties outside vice because of “irregularities.” She declined to provide details pending an investigative review. Whatever she has found, it must be serious enough and sufficiently urgent, in her view, to warrant a full stop, even before a full investigation.
Especially interesting to me was that Hall already has contracted with an outside consulting group called No Limit Investigative and Security Service to carry out an analysis of the Dallas vice unit. No Limit is often described as being associated with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The IACP is a nonprofit registered with the IRS. No Limit appears to be a for-profit business.
Looking outside the city for advice and review is not a Dallas thing. If anything, the professional city manager system in place in Dallas for more than 80 years has bred a culture of extreme inwardness, as if letting an outsider get a peek inside City Hall might be the ultimate sin and betrayal.
Of course, now we have a new city manager who came from outside the city — the first time that has happened in living memory — and a police chief from Detroit. So the times are changing.
Detroit today does not appear to have at all the same aversion to outside oversight we do, and Detroit has had some serious oversight.
In 2003, the city of Detroit entered into two consent decrees with the U.S. Justice Department involving police brutality and illegal jailing after a scandal unearthed by the Free Press. Last year, when a federal judge lifted the decrees after 13 years of federal oversight, the Free Press reported that Detroit finally was “officially free from Big Brother oversight.”
The much more interesting reaction came in April after President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced he was thinking of getting rid of all police department consent decrees initiated by his department. Sessions suggested the decrees are just a way for liberals to mess with cops.
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, a combined elective and appointive body with final authority over discipline within the police department, urged Sessions to reconsider. In an official resolution, the board said, “Today, the [Detroit] police department is better organized and provides better service to the community as a result of the reform process initiated and completed in 2016 by the consent decrees.”
The commissioners said Sessions was flat wrong in his view of how the consent decrees work in the real world of American cities.
“His belief,” the resolution said, “ignores facts and evidence that consent decrees do not target a few ‘bad actors,’ but rather departments with systemic and often long patterns of civil rights and other constitutional abuses or ingrained problems that undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement, the strength of police confidence and community relations, and the achievement of justice.”
I mentioned that the Detroit Free Press, which has always been one of this country’s best big-city dailies, uncovered the scandal of abuses that led to Detroit’s consent decrees. I’m really proud to have worked there in the ’70s when I was green and in my 20s.
But I’m also aware that the Free Press owed Detroit some serious atonement on police issues from that time. I don’t know if anybody still there at the time of the consent decrees remembers why, but I do.
When I was there, we had 13-year-old kids walking up to stoplights and shooting motorists through closed car windows because the kids with the guns were too shy to speak to adults. We used to go to lunch at a Hungarian restaurant in a bad neighborhood. On the way there and back, we always saw so many people running with TV sets, we debated at lunch whether it was theoretically possible to create an entire economy based on people stealing TV sets from each other. (No, because they drop them.)
The Detroit Police Department, desperate to make a dent, created a flying squad of decoy cops called STRESS (Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) to catch robbers. It was so cowboy and unsupervised that eventually it turned into a notorious murder machine gunning down innocent citizens and sometimes even shooting other cops.
The STRESS scandal was the tip of an iceberg of abuse, all about white cops and black citizens. The solid-citizen black community was so furious with the police department that a street thug named Hayward Brown, tried three times for shooting cops, was acquitted three times by majority black juries.
It wasn’t against the law for cops to shoot citizens. It wasn’t against the law for citizens to shoot cops.
A factor contributing to the Brown acquittals, I always believed, was a series of stories we were running in the Free Press at the time accusing the police department of being the principal importer of heroin into the city. I say “we.” I was on the city desk copying dictated obituaries from funeral homes, but I was very proud to be working for such a brave, crusading newspaper.
Those stories all collapsed when elaborate lies were found in the reporting. A set of editors and reporters, drooling for a Pulitzer Prize, were all too willing to be played by an element within a very divided and fractious police department.
I am not making an excuse for the journalists. Innocent cops had their careers smashed apart on the front pages of the paper, lives ruined. A bunch of middle-class, white-bread reporters and editors who grew up nowhere near Detroit, looking for fame, thought the inner city was their personal junk pile to go scalp-hunting in. And I know there were also Detroit natives on the staff who loved their city dearly and hated every minute of it.
It all came out. It blew up. People were fired. The New York Times covered it on page 15. The paper published halfhearted apologies, with fretful lawyers in the background warning not to confess too much.
“We are determined to find and intend to publish the full truth as soon as we can determine it,” the paper assured readers.
I remember thinking, “How about we do everybody a favor and just shut up for a while?”
More important than what happened to us at the paper was what happened to the city. The whole city was played. We told the people of Detroit elaborate, convincing lies about what was going on — drugs are all the cops’ fault, not yours — at a terrible time, a time when the city desperately needed to know the truth. So we could win a prize. Which we did not win, needless to say.
Whenever I think of cops having to deal with disillusionment and disappointment in their field, I think, “Been there, done that.” I guess nobody’s the Lone Ranger in that department.
The striking parallel between Detroit almost a half-century ago and Dallas today is the persistence in both places and times of drugs, poverty, racial segregation, crime — all the dangerous, metastasizing crises we should have resolved decades ago but have not. The difference is this: I see at least an inkling of a new wisdom, a skepticism, a little bit of humility.
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Detroit knows from hard times that it sometimes needs the perspective of outsiders. It knows not to simply trust and accept the little urban-legend tempests that get cooked up inside the hothouse of local debate. Even when somebody inside the house is selling Detroit a story it may want to hear — especially when somebody is selling that story, Detroit knows to look out the window.
Let’s hope Dallas is learning that lesson as well. It’s fine to be proud of our city, but it’s stupid to think that’s enough.
By the way, years later when I was still in Detroit, I ran into the principal architect of those fake stories. He was enjoying great success elsewhere. Over coffee, he said to me, “I bet the Free Press is kicking itself for ever letting me go.”
I nodded. I said, “I think the Free Press is still kicking itself.” I’m glad the paper got that stuff right in 2003. Now it can stop kicking.