A History of Violence: The Detroit Police Department, The African American Community and S.T.R.E.S.S: An Army of Occupation or An Army Under Siege, will focus upon the post rebellion/riot years in Detroit of 1970-to-1974, and the controversial police decoy unit known by the acronym of S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), a major component in the living history and memory of African Americans and the modern day Civil Rights Movement in the city of Detroit. In some circles, the very mention of this acronym will provoke guaranteed responses from African American Detroiters, depending on the demographic. For those present during the time of S.T.R.E.S.S., the response will either be in the negative, “They were a renegade unit of racist kill crazy cops!” Or in the thumbs up category of “S.T.R.E.S.S. was responsible for the lowest crime Detroit has ever had or since. It’s a concept the city definitely needs to revisit.” Usually, there is no in between.
Historiographically, essential questions remain unanswered regarding police violence and the influence of the S.T.R.E.S.S. Decoy Unit. Foremost among them may be this: Is the History of Violence regarding the Detroit Police Department and S.T.R.E.S.S. the whole story; the complete and unvarnished truth of their operation in primarily African American neighborhoods? Or was the actual history and memory of S.T.R.E.S.S. actually different from how it is largely remembered by African Americans in Detroit? Or is the memory of S.T.R.E.S.S. a result of who crafted the historical narrative, either for the purposes of political expediency while actually revising the history and memory of this controversial decoy unit? Is it possible there exist another narrative in the history and memory of S.T.R.E.S.S. that has not been heard, even though there is more than ample evidence that a different narrative from the accepted one exist? Perhaps different opinions existed as to how the entire S.T.R.E.S.S. issue was handled by City of Detroit Officials, Police Administration or Detroit Civic Organizations, both daily newspapers and the African American weekly, The Michigan Chronicle? Was enough really heard from the pro and con sides of the public on this issue?
However the historical debate goes, there are certain facts of historiography that are very clear. S.T.R.E.S.S. was a decoy unit that in three and a half years was responsible for the fatal shootings of twenty-four men, twenty-two of them African-American. They were identified as suspects, fatally shot by S.T.R.E.S.S. officers, allegedly while in the process of mugging or strong arm robbing S.T.R.E.S.S. decoy operatives. In Detroit, with the specter of a negative history of police abuse peering forward from the past, the issue of S.T.R.E.S.S. and the deaths of twenty-two African-Americans at the hands of DPD undercover decoys in so short a period of time became a cause for alarm within the African American community for obvious reasons. While the Detroit Police could counter by pointing to empirical results in the dramatic lowering of the crime rate through S.T.R.E.S.S.’s efforts, the unit was still viewed with a jaundiced eye by a majority of African Americans.1 To them S.T.R.E.S.S. was yet another means of police oppression in a history of oppression, and they galvanized and raised the alarm. It was a clarion call so loud that then State Senator Coleman Young glommed onto the cause. The call resonated, and became a prime fulcrum point for his election as Detroit’s first African-American Mayor. S.T.R.E.S.S. was such a divisive issue that it became a powerful vortex for an emerging and increasingly politically savvy African-American electorate. African Americans recognized a true moment in history for what it was: a Carpe Diem moment.
Heather Ann Thompson argues in Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, And Race In A Modern City, that as the rebellion shattered 1960’s closed out, in the still fresh memory of the 1967 conflagration—and with street crime continuing to rise in all categories, the Detroit Police Department and the African American community were on a collision course. Thompson maintains there were a number of elements in the mix: A corresponding spike in the level of street crime, increasing unemployment among African-Americans in the auto plants due to industry-wide layoffs, a determined African-American-progressive push to remedy inadequate Detroit Public Schools, desegregate southeast Michigan as a whole, coupled with bitter white conservative resistance to open housing laws. All contributed to increasing tensions with the police department, which was a predominantly white male institution inculcated with generational white male attitudes from the thirties, forties and fifties. Thompson strongly suggest, in the 1969 mayoral election to succeed Cavanagh was actually a referendum on those issues. Wayne County Sheriff Roman Gribbs, a middle-aged white male, running against moderate African American candidate, Richard Austin, promised his resentful predominantly white constituency “an all-out fight against crime in the streets…by suggesting the creation of small units of police with crime fighting responsibility assigned to certain neighborhoods.”2 Can there be any doubt of Thompson’s interpretation of what Gribbs meant by “certain neighborhoods?”
Thus, the idea of S.T.R.E.S.S. began to take form. After Gribbs defeated Austin by 7,000 votes in one of the more close mayoral elections in decades, African American activist and white progressives began to redouble their efforts to affect some sort of change within the power structure, white conservative reactionaries also began to dig in their heels and ramp up their resistance efforts. Street crime continued to spike, and white neighborhood association’s voices became louder and shriller for the mayor to take control of the situation. In January 1971, Mayor Gribbs met with newly appointed Police Commissioner John F. Nichols, and expressed his concerns. The concept of S.T.R.E.S.S. then grew wings. Again, Thompson, in Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, And Race In A Modern City gets right to the heart of this matter, and is more than clear in reaffirming the argument that S.T.R.E.S.S. was born in response to the loudest angriest and fearful voices among his predominantly white constituency. Push back against African American and progressive encroachment was demanded.3 The Mayor’s white constituents viewed the specter of law and order and street crime as being tethered to African Americans. And they wanted something done about it.
In October 1970, Police Commissioner, John F. Nichols, held a meeting with District Inspectors James Bannon and Gordon Smith, told them, “If you don’t do something about the robberies, I’m going to be looking for some new people.”4 Thus, appointed as Co-Commanders District Inspectors Bannon and Smith began organizational planning for a new unit. A tremendous amount of planning went into the concept, and other models were in other city’s were looked at closely. When DPD leadership felt they had a workable model, S.T.R.E.S.S. was rolled out in January 1971 as a genuine, sincere effort to curtail a burgeoning street crime rate that was both a disgrace and an embarrassment to the city administration. It was District Inspector Smith who coined the acronym for the new unit as S.T.R.E.S.S., which meant, “Stop The Robberies—Enjoy Safe Streets.”5
This unit, however, wasn’t just thrown together in a hodge podge and then given a Mission Statement to go out and arrest or shoot African Americans dead. There were three months of high-level administration planning, and the working out of organizational details while volunteer officers were selected and trained in their new decoy roles. The volunteers were a cross section of Detroit’s population, and meticulously screened. According to Commissioner Nichols, “The decoys were young, and not so young, veterans and recruits (rookies), black and (mostly) white. They will be all males, though some will be dressed up as women.” While District Inspector Smith added “We want to integrate into a neighborhood and make ourselves look like the people in that neighborhood as we possibly can. In this regard, S.T.R.E.S.S. found logistical allies in local businesses, frequently the target of street robberies, which gladly provided delivery vans, trucks, uniforms and other equipment. And, upon request, according to District Inspector Smith, S.T.R.E.S.S. officers will be assigned to work in businesses frequently victimized by robbers. 6
Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, in Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide place the city administration’s emphasis on stopping the post rebellion/riot surge in street robberies as a priority. Street crimes were reaching ridiculous new levels, with a breath-taking jump of 25% in 1970, for over 21,000 street robberies reported in 1970. 7 No matter how one viewed the ideological or sociological divide for such robberies, 21,000 street robberies in twelve months (1750 a month) was a staggering number, even for a city of over one million. Furthermore, 69 of those robbery victims were murdered in 1970, the majority of them African American. The clear mission of S.T.R.E.S.S., again, according to District Inspector Smith, “was to make the risks so great for robbers in Detroit that it will be just as unsafe for them as it has been for law abiding citizens.”8
On the surface, S.T.R.E.S.S. appeared to be the right solution for street crime at the right time, and in its first year of operation earned it what Darden and Thomas describe as a “checkered reputation.”9 When S.T.R.E.S.S. released its first statistical review on 10 June 1971, however, it revealed that “fifteen people had been killed, thirteen of who had been black.”10 The Gordian Knot for S.T.R.E.S.S., however, was that African American criminals generated the overwhelming majority of street crime in the African American neighborhoods with African American victims. Thus, the majority of the alleged street criminals fatally shot by S.T.R.E.S.S. were unavoidably African American, while the majority of S.T.R.E.S.S. decoys were white. This imbalance carried with it the unpleasant legacy of African American history of conflict with the police in Detroit. It was at this point that the different narratives began to emerge. In the words of a veteran officer, “It wasn’t long before the fecal matter hit the rotary blades…” 11
Street crimes are crimes of opportunity. S.T.R.E.S.S. operations began on the streets of Detroit with stunning effect; street criminals were suddenly denied the target rich environment they had previously enjoyed. During the unit’s first nine months of operation, S.T.R.E.S.S. decoys arrested over 1,400 felony and misdemeanor suspects, which resulted in a 45% increase in felony and misdemeanor warrant suspects apprehended by S.T.R.E.S.S. in the actual commission of street crime. This averages out to a more than respectable forty-six arrests per day. This is a prodigious arrest rate, resulting in a 4% reduction in actual street robberies over the same period in 1970. 12 Thousands of illegal firearms were taken off of the streets. On the negative side, felony suspects were also fatally shot by S.T.R.E.S.S. officers while either physically resisting arrest or attempting to flee the scene. If there were ever-empirical evidence of the effectiveness of S.T.R.E.S.S. this was it! This was part of the S.T.R.E.S.S. narrative that was drowned out by some of the louder voices of the African American community, who, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, saw S.T.R.E.S.S. in the light of a white oppressor, whose sole purpose was to keep African Americans in line by any means necessary. Lost in the cacophony of discord about S.T.R.E.S.S. was that the first S.T.R.E.S.S. officer to die in the line of duty was an African American, Officer Frederick Hunter, who was shot to death by a female suspect that Officer Hunter and his partner, Officer Ronald Fleming were attempting to arrest. The date was August 21, 1971, nine months after S.T.R.E.S.S. began. Officer Hunter was 22 years old. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he left behind a wife and three children. 13
A third highly charged incident occurred 9 March 1972, and is a highlight of Thompson’s Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, And Race In A Modern American City. On That date, three S.T.R.E.S.S officers, effected an unauthorized entry into the apartment of an off duty Wayne County Sheriff Deputy, allegedly having followed a “man-with-a-gun” from a nearby neighborhood bar. Inside of the apartment of Deputy Aaron Vincent, three other off duty Deputy’s, and a friend were playing a game of Whist, a card game. According to Deputy Vincent, S.T.R.E.S.S. officers burst into his apartment with “guns drawn.” In the bloody chaos that followed Deputy Henry Henderson was shot dead, shot six times. Deputy Vincent and the other three off duty Deputies sustained multiple gunshot wounds. There were very strong allegations of after action physical abuse by arriving uniformed DPD officers. The incident became known as the “Rochester Street Massacre,” which drove a serious wedge between Wayne County’s two largest law enforcement agencies that took a while to heal. However, there was another twist of irony; the S.T.R.E.E.S. officers involved were all African Americans. The Guardians of Michigan, a professional advocacy organization of African American Law Enforcement Offices, injected their considerable clout into the controversy. 14 They, too, added their voices to the cacophony of “disband S.T.R.E.S.S!” The S.T.R.E.S.S. officers were ultimately charged with Attempted Murder and several lesser-included offenses. All three S.T.R.E.S.S. officers were acquitted at trial, which is something that still troubles Vincent to this day.
(Please view the video interview with Retired Wayne County Sheriff Deputy Aaron Vincent as he shares his memories of this infamous incident for the first time in forty-three years. The video interview is 15: 41 seconds in length, shot on 23 September 2015 in HD 720i )
(This video has been taken down. It may appear at a later date)
Of the narrative that is hardly ever heard, there was considerable support across a broad range of Detroiters, both black and white, which was ecstatic about the plummeting crime rate. They made sure their voices were heard in the city administration with an avalanche of support in the form of letters to the city and the city’s newspapers, the daily’s and the Michigan Chronicle, the African American weekly. Detroit’s television stations consistently ran pro S.T.R.E.S.S. editorials. These television and radio editorials expressed a variety of opinions as to why S.T.R.E.S.S. should be embraced as a strong solution to the problem of crime in the neighborhoods.15 This opinion also included a significant portion of the African American clergy, African American business organizations and African Americans homeowners associations. In some of their correspondence to the city administration and the city’s daily newspapers regarding these matters, these advocates simply were not understanding of the African Americans who wanted S.T.R.E.S.S. gone. Their deepest feeling was that S.T.R.E.S.S. had returned normalcy and safety to their neighborhoods, and they didn’t particularly care who was responsible for it.16 In the larger narrative, however, their voices have been discarded and, in some cases, shouted down or ridiculed. It was, however, a ridicule not based on facts.
Another, critical portion of the narrative that is never heard is that of the S.T.R.E.S.S. officers involved. Their actual voices are as crucial in the narrative on S.T.R.E.S.S. as are those of its detractors. They were the ones in the trenches, who saw the devastating effects of street crime on Detroiter’s up close and personal. Theirs is a story that needs to be told as part of the narrative of how their pro actions as S.T.R.E.S.S. decoys fundamentally helped to bring street crime to a screeching halt during the years 1970-to-1973, despite the blow back to the contrary. These now retired officers have shaped a different perspective on their time in S.T.R.E.S.S. The consensus is that they felt they made an actual impact in creating a safe environment where the citizens could feel safe on the streets again. For many of them, it was more than just an assignment; it was a calling. They’re proud of their accomplishments but, rarely, if ever have they spoken about them.
One of those officers who have spoken at length on the subject is retired DPD officer Michael Blount, who was a charter volunteer member of S.T.R.E.S.S. from its inception until it was disbanded in February 1974, after which he transferred to Mayor young’s Security Detail. Much like retired Wayne County Deputy Aaron Vincent, his voice is an authentic linchpin of African American history and memory in Detroit regarding S.T.R.E.S.S. In fact, during a video interview with retired Officer Blount regarding his time in S.T.R.E.S.S., in addition to the depth of knowledge and emotion he bought to the subject, it was he who coined, the term “The Detroit Police Department: An Army of Occupation or an Army Under Siege.” And during the video interview, he explained why this is so. Retired Officer Blount maintains that “some of the best police work of (his) career was done while (he) was with S.T.R.E.S.S.” And “that (they) made a difference in making the streets safe again) Further, during the video. Interview, Michael Blount strongly argues the demise of S.T.R.E.S.S. was due to “incompetent leadership that came of age during the thirties, forties and fifties and sixties, and didn’t know how to change with the times.” 17
(Please click on the link below below to watch the video of Mr. Blount’s comments regarding his time in S.T.R.E.S.S. A time he maintains was personally gratifying and well worth it).
(This Video Has Been Taken Down. It may reappear at a later Date)…
Crime fighting heroes or rouge policemen? NAACP citizen’s complaints gathered from the Detroit Main Library Burton Historical Collection, the Reuther Library, newspaper articles and analysis from Detroit’s daily newspapers would suggest rouge cops. On the other hand, empirical evidence gathered in the form of archival newspaper articles accessed from, the Detroit News, Free Press, Michigan Chronicle and DPD Crime Statistics from the years 1971-to-1974, from the Burton Historical Collection (Main Branch, Detroit Public Library) strongly suggest otherwise: that the S.T.R.E.S.S. decoy operation had an outsized impact on reducing street level crime during its existence. 18This point is not up for debate. Crime statistics in the months following the units disbanding show dramatic increases in street crime across all categories.
It’s been over forty-three years since Coleman Young disbanded S.T.R.E.S.S., so why does any of this even matter? Statistically, as a crime-fighting tool, S.T.R.E.S.S. was successful beyond DPD’s wildest dreams. S.T.R.E.S.S., however, had two critical structural weaknesses, which metastasized and ultimately doomed it. One, there was a cadre of three S.T.R.E.S.S. officers who were lightning rods for controversy. In retrospect, these officers should never have been part of a S.T.R.E.S.S. or DPD leadership should have moved with haste to remove them as their personal body counts climbed. Unfortunately, DPD leadership was tone deaf to this particular circumstance, and for whatever reason, these officers were allowed to remain in the unit. These officers were liabilities in the extreme.19 Their presence in the unit turned legitimate S.T.R.E.S.S. proponents into outliers in crafting a positive narrative.
The other flaw was in DPD leadership failing to even participate in the public relations-media war with S.T.R.E.S.S. opponents. Shaping a positive narrative may have changed the outcome. Their failure to tailor their responses to the positives results allowed the opposition to gain the informational initiative and, thus, the public’s ear. Consequently, they shaped the events and narrative to their agenda. That DPD leadership failed to see this flaw was institutionally extraordinary, and can only be attributed to incompetence and a cultural rigidity at the higher decision making levels of DPD leadership. They were unable to adapt to a changing demographic and thus surrendered the information initiative to the opposition. Once this occurred, the game was over. DPD leadership lost the high ground with the public despite any actual facts relating to the lowest level of street crime in decades. It was one of those gross errors in leadership judgment from which there was no recovery. Despite its success as a tactic against street crime, strategically, S.T.R.E.S.S. was doomed. It withered on the vine after Young’s election as Mayor. Eventually, S.T.E.S.S. officers would be assigned elsewhere.
Do you think that the concept of S.T.R.E.S.S. is something that should be revisited? If you’re from that era, what do you think? Even if you’re not old enough to remember this tumult, peruse some of the source materials posted, then add your opinion to the narrative responses. All Responses are welcome.
B1. Darden, Joe, T. and Richard W. Thomas. Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts To Bridge The Racial Divide ( E. Lansing, Michigan, Michigan State University) 51.
- Thompson, Heather, Ann. Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, And Race In A Modern American City. (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, and London) 80.
3. Ibid. p. 82.
N. Detroit News, 13 January 1971, Richard Pavich, Staff Writer, Box 173, Folder 9, Mayor Roman S. Gribbs Collection, Vol.1, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Accessed 14 and 21 October 2015.
8 . Ibid
B 9. Darden, Joe, T. and Richard W Thomas: Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts To Bridge The Racial Divide.( E. Lansing, Michigan, Michigan State University) 50
11. N A euphemism commonly used by senior law enforcement officers when things don’t go as planned and serious repercussions follow. Often used in place of “When the shit hits the fan…”
12. Detroit News, 13 January 1971, Richard Pavich, Staff Writer, Box 173, Folder 9, Roman S. Gribbs Collections, Vol 1., Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Accessed 14 and 21 October 2015.
- Detroit Free Press, 27 August, 1971, Michael Graham and John Griffith, Staff Writers, Box 173, Folder 10, Mayor Roman S. Gribbs Collections, Vol. 1., Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Accessed 14 and 21 October 2015.
14. Detroit News, 10 March 1971, Douglas Glazier, David Grant and Fred Manardo, Staff Writers, Box 173, Folder 10, Mayor Roman S. Gribbs Collection, Vol 1., Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Accessed 14 and 28 October 2015.
15. Detroit News, September 24, 1971, unnamed staff writer, Box 174, Folder 8, Mayor Roman S. Gribbs Collection, Vol 1., Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. “Black leaders support S.T.R.E.S.S.” Briefly details the conflict within the black community regarding the operation of S.T.R.E.S.S. Clergy supported S.T.R.E.S.S. but wanted tighter constraints on the unit. Ordinary black middle class blacks also strongly supported S.T.R.E.S.S., but it was clear there was some conflict.
16. Television Editorials Scripts from WWJ-TV Editorial Director, Box 173, Folder, 8. Mayor Roman S. Gribbs Collection, Vol.1., Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Accessed 23 October 2015. All four Detroit Television Stations ran Editorials offering their unequivocal, consistent support for the S.T.R.E.S.S. program. One station in particular, WWJ TV, and Vice President and General Manager Don F. DeGroot ran a strong pro S.T.R.E.S.S. editorial at least eight times a day on December 22, 1971, during the height of the controversy.
17. Michael Blount is an African American, twenty-six year veteran police officer that volunteered for S.T.R.E.S.S. from the very beginning of the detail. Blount maintains that he joined the Detroit Police Department, “not because he needed the money (he was working in Chrysler Plant Protection when he was appointed to the Police Academy, and took a two thousand cut in pay when he joined DPD.) But because (he) had a sense of mission, a calling, to get out and do some good in the community.” He is very proud of his time in S.T.R.E.S.S. When S.T.R.E.S.S. was ultimately disbanded, Blount was assigned to Mayor Young’s Security Detail after the election of November 1973. During the video interview, he presents a side of the pro S.T.R.E.S.S. narrative that is rarely, if ever, heard. The interview was conducted on 19 November 2015. It was 18 minutes 41 seconds long. Shot in HD 720i.
18. Detroit Police Department Information Section News Release, dated 23 August 1974, Box 34, Folder 12, Mayor Coleman A. Young Collection, Vol.1. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Crime statistics released for the summer months following the disbanding of S.T.R.E.S.S. by Mayor Coleman A. Young show “crime in Detroit is up 29.5 percent when compared to the same month in 1973.” This was consistent across the categories of Robbery (+ 46.1%), Auto theft (+ 41.4%), Rape (25.8%), Burglary (32.4%), Assaults (13.4%). Cumulatively, crime in Detroit spiked upward by 16.2 % following the disbanding of S.T.R.E.S.S. Clearly, S.T.R.E.S.S. made a difference.
19. A strong opinion expressed by Mr. Michael Blount during the video interview of 19 November 2015. Mr. Blount strongly maintains that there were “three guys who were causing all of the problems. That DPD (leadership) chose not to remove them goes to the heart of the matter; that the ones in charge, who came of age during the thirties, forties and fifties were raised a certain way, to believe that ‘We’re the police. We answer to no one…” Further, he added, “ DPD (leadership) failed to change with the times, and they never saw it coming…”