Police “Reform:”  A Totally Obsolete Illusion

By Gloria House

In this article, I present excerpts from a historic presentation by the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality (DCAPB) to the Detroit City Council.  This November 30, 1998 statement of the DCAPB documented the history of police abuse and murder in Detroit for several decades leading up to and throughout the 90s.  The work of the DCAPB exposed the criminality of the Detroit Police Department (DPD), and prompted the federal government to monitor the Department in a consent decree that extended over 13 years.  Yet police misconduct and corruption continue unabated in Detroit.  These days Detroit citizens continue to call for the very same reforms that the DCAPB demanded over 20 years ago:

End dangerous, life-threatening police patrol car chases

Track violent police officers, for reprimand and possible removal from force

Require Detroit police officers to reside in Detroit 

Publish annual reports of citizen complaints against the police

Account for use of federal and state funds

Support the option of neighborhood councils for resolution of community conflicts

End police surveillance of private citizens; end surveillance and harassment of individuals and families who have been victims of police violence

Ban use of military force (state or federal) against Detroit citizens

Elect the police chief, elect the public safety director, elect all members of the police commission

The persistence of brutal police culture throughout the history of this country convinces thinking individuals that it is futile to continue calling for police “reform.”  People are beginning to face the truth that the function of policing in the United States has always been to make war on people of color, in order to uphold the power and control of white supremacy— through intimidation, brutality, torture, imprisonment, and outright murder.  Most outrageous and heartbreaking of all the objectives of policing in the United States is its targeting and murderous assault on Black youths. 

This 1998 statement makes very clear the decades-long persistence of misconduct and violence within the DPD.  The excessive use of force that we have witnessed during the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Detroit is characteristic of the Department, a continuation into the 21st century of a totally egregious legacy. Disbanding of this obsolete institution is what we have to work for.  Let’s imagine what peacekeeping would look like in our communities. Many young revolutionaries have already undertaken this visionary task. 

Excerpts from the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality 1998 Statement

“We are here today to examine the nature and extent of the problem with police brutality in Detroit.  It is unfortunate that we have to confront this issue again in Detroit, a city which first elected a Black mayor in 1974 as a direct result of widespread opposition to the misconduct of STRESS, the notorious police undercover decoy unit.  Twenty-four years later, Detroit citizens must again wake up their elected officials and other leaders to the epidemic of police violence, which threatens our youth and erodes the quality of life for everyone….

Nationally and worldwide, the current economic situation involves record profits for corporations, dizzying highs and lows on Wall Street, and massive downsizing, cutbacks, low wages, privatization, unemployment, and racism and poverty for the vast majority of the world’s citizens…. In this social context, where there is ever greater wealth for a few and impoverishment of the many, police brutality is being used to enforce the status quo through intimidation, harassment, repression of human rights, brutal physical assaults, and outright murder.  The police are functioning on behalf of the wealthy against the general population.

Brutalization of citizens is not a new role for policemen in Detroit…. Correcting this problem was a major concern of the Coleman Young administration, and while Mayor Young had some success in his efforts to civilize and humanize the Detroit Police Department, it is clear to us that the current City administration is turning the clock back, using an increasingly alienated and corrupt police force to facilitate its own pursuit of corporate objectives and personal wealth….

The well-known case of Malice Green in 1992 illustrates the extent to which the city administration has permitted police behavior in routine interactions with the public to go completely out of control. Add to Malice Green’s murder by Detroit policemen the murder of Jose Iturralde in 1992, Ricardo Gordy in 1993, Gary Glenn, also in 1993, Richard Tromeur in 1994 (essential medicines withheld while he was in custody), Rahab White in 1995, Lamar Grable in 1996, Jimmi Ruth Ratliff, 1997, Roy Hoskins, 1997, and Damian Solomon and Cora Bell Jones in 1998.

In August of this year [1998], the research agency Human Rights Watch released the results of its study of human rights violations in the United States.  This document reported that: 

Police brutality is one of the most serious, enduring, and divisive human rights violations in the United States…. Police officers engage in unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal choking, and unnecessarily rough physical treatment throughout the United States, while their police superiors, city officials, and the Justice Department fail to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts or even to record the full magnitude of the problem….  A victim seeking redress faces obstacles at every point in the process, ranging from overt intimidation to the reluctance of local and federal prosecutors to take on police brutality cases….

Most profoundly affected in every city and region of the United States are citizens of color, for whom “driving while black” or being young, Black, Latino, Arab or Asian have become undeclared “crimes” in the eyes of the police nationwide.  In many such encounters with the police, young people have been subjected to all manner of punishment, up to and including summary execution on the streets or in their homes…. [The case of Hakim Littleton, executed by police in Detroit on July 10, 2020, is an instance of the continuing assault on young Black men.]

In New York, when tens of thousands of young Black folk gathered in Harlem for the Million Youth March, the mayor of New York sent out hundreds of policemen who herded the March participants through barricades and hovered over them in helicopters, intending to provoke a full-scale confrontation.  This March came on the heels of the horrendous Abner Louima case of police abuse when the New York City Police Department was being criticized for its officers’ brutality and for its irresponsible handling of citizens’ complaints…. In daily police-youth confrontations across the nation [it is clear] that the government has set itself against Black youth, and wants to use its power to disabuse the younger generation of its militancy and basic human rights.

Michigan has one of the worst records for criminalizing its youth.  In 1996, Michigan passed a law to try juveniles younger than 15 as adults and promptly convicted a 14-year-old as an adult.  Currently, there are attempts to convict 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham as an adult…. Michigan is seventh in the nation in the imprisonment of juveniles. The $25,000 a year [1998] that Michigan spends to hold a prisoner could provide five Michigan children with high-quality preschool education….

In a further move to criminalize our young people, the Detroit police department is calling for the implementation of a law that will provide for fingerprinting everyone who is arrested, regardless of whether they are charged.   Even when charges are dropped or no charges are filed at all, such arrests are being used to create criminal “profiles” of youths….

In 1997, there were 10,145 juvenile arrests in Detroit. (Juvenile Crime Statistics, Detroit Police Department Annual Report, 1997.)  [There were] 5,574 arrests for loitering, 4,245 for curfew violations, 105 for drugs, and 431 classified as miscellaneous.  To say that an entire generation is being criminalized is a reality, not rhetoric.  The young people represented in these statistics are our future.  We must not allow the police to treat them as criminals, creating a death trap for them before they even have a chance to reflect upon their life goals….

Since 1986, $107 million of Detroit citizens’ tax monies have been paid to settle [police brutality/misconduct] lawsuits brought by civilians and police claimants.  In 1997 alone, $15.7 million were spent.  (Detroit News, March 9, 1998, p. A1.) …. Of all the major urban centers in this country, Detroit taxpayers have had to pay the largest amount of money in settlement of police brutality lawsuits.  (Detroit News, July 8, 1998, p. C6.)  Our tax coffers are being emptied by the millions in settlement of these cases, but disciplinary actions against police who brutalize lag far behind.

Source:  Presentation of the Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality to Detroit City Council Hearing, November 30, 1998.  

Definition of Police Brutality*

Police brutality is any behavior by law enforcement officers that results in either physical, psychological, social or spiritual oppression, repression, or criminalization of citizens.  It includes but is not limited to “unnecessary use of force from verbal to deadly.” (McEwen, 1996, 16.)   Harassment such as illegal searches, illegal photographs of youth, excessive questioning, and racist behavior such as racial slurs and police sweeps in communities of color also constitutes police brutality.  (National Emergency Conference on Police Brutality and Misconduct, 1997, p. 8.)   Some examples of police behavior in Detroit are assault, battery, false arrest and imprisonment, trespass, infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, abuse of due process, destruction of property, and misuse of firearms…. (Littlejohn 1990, p. 2—7.) Detroit policemen are engaged in such activities on a routine basis. In addition, many persons have reported that Detroit policemen pursue and continue to harass and victimize individuals and families whose human rights they have already violated. There is substantial evidence that some Detroit policemen do in fact conspire to violate the civil rights of citizens, that they are engaged in carrying out personal vendettas against innocent citizens. (Detroit News, March 3, 1998, p. A1.)  These repressive tactics are further exacerbated by the involvement of some police officers in other forms of illegal activities, including conspiracy to rob citizens, drug trafficking, and/or the protection of drug dealers.

*From DCAPB statement, 1998