Policing & Social Justice HistoryLab
The Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab is a research collaboration to investigate the history of policing and criminalization in the city of Detroit during the 20th and 21st centuries, document the politics of crime control and civil rights activism, and excavate and map police-civilian encounters including homicides, brutality, and misconduct. The PSJ Lab deploys student research teams to explore archives and databases, interview historical actors, and present their findings through multimedia digital exhibits and interactive maps. These investigations build on the efforts of historical activists and civil rights/civil liberties organizations that have long demanded civilian review boards and community control of law enforcement and criminal justice institutions-including police, prosecutors, courts, and jails–in Detroit and Wayne County. Through its public engagement mission, the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab presents its findings for classroom use, for journalists and policymakers, and especially as resources for impacted communities and social justice-oriented organizations.
The PSJ Lab, as a partnership between Documenting Criminalization and Confinement and the U-M HistoryLabs program in the Department of History, operates through curricular and extracurricular components. Through the “Cold Cases” HistoryLab seminar, teams of undergraduates research specific periods of Detroit’s history, build document-rich website exhibits, and analyze patterns of police violence and misconduct through digital mapping. The PSJ Lab has produced two book-length exhibits thus far (linked below): Detroit Under Fire (1957-1973) and Crackdown (1974-1973, coming in July), along with accompanying ArcGIS StoryMaps. As research fellows and interns, undergraduate and graduate student researchers also work on more specialized projects, including multimedia reports about specific incidents and themes, and synthetic maps designed to create an extensive database of policing killings in Detroit. The Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab is also documenting other aspects of the carceral state in Detroit, including the history of the Wayne County Jail, and in future years will launch projects about other parts of Michigan as well.
Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era documents police violence, misconduct, and civil rights activism in the city of Detroit from 1957-1973. The book-length digital exhibit combines historical narrative and maps with more than 1,000 archival documents, photographs, and video clips–allowing audiences to explore original documents and multiple perspectives in depth.
“What Happened to Cynthia Scott?” is an investigate report, building on the Detroit Under Fire website, of the police murder and coverup of a 24-year-old African American woman on July 5, 1963. The report utilizes the long-hidden DPD homicide file, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and other previously unknown archival documents. Also view the Detroit Writing Room’s panel discussion with“Seeking Justice for Cynthia Scott: Writing the Hidden History of Police Violence in Detroit” (Sept. 29, 2020).
Created for Detroit Under Fire, this StoryMap (link here) portrays 12 known police homicides of civilians, 173 incidents of police misconduct and brutality, and systematic harassment of civil rights activists between 1964-1966. Maps of the city’s racial geography and physical streetscape enable in-depth exploration of patterns and specific encounters.
This multimedia report, condensed from the “Liberal War on Crime (1964-1966)” section of Detroit under Fire, explores the Kercheval Incident on the eve of the 1967 Detroit Uprising. Through historical documents and firsthand accounts, the report invites audiences to debate whether the Kercheval Incident represented a Black Power rebellion, a criminal riot, or an organized law enforcement conspiracy.
Crackdown documents police violence, misconduct, and criminalization of African American youth during the wars on crime and drugs from 1974-1993. The digital exhibit combined historical narrative and maps with around 600 archival documents, photographs, and video clips, allowing audiences to explore these events through an interactive multimedia experience.
Professor of History, DCC co-PI, Director Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. Matt Lassiter, the co-PI of Documenting Criminalization and Confinement, is a scholar of the twentieth-century United States with a research and teaching focus on political history, urban/suburban studies, racial and social inequality, and the history of policing and the carceral state. His most recent book project, The Suburban Crisis: Crime, Drugs, and White Middle-Class America, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. He has led undergraduate teams in the creation of seven book-length digital exhibits, including the DCC-affiliated projects Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era (1957-1973) and Crackdown: Policing Detroit through the War on Crime, Drugs, and Youth (1974-1993).
“Detroit Under Fire” Full Project Team (2018-2019)
HistoryLab Student Team (from left): Casey Jong, Brendan Bernardo, Austyn Marks, Jamie Murray, Allison Tuohy, Sahil Patel, Dominic Coschino, Aidan Traynor, Prof. Matt Lassiter, Khadija Williams, Hannah Thoms, Robert Joseph, Jesse Blumberg, John Kistler, Jack Mahon, Graduate Supervisor Nicole Navarro, Kori Thomas. Visit the About page of the “Detroit Under Fire” exhibit to learn more about student researchers.
“Crackdown” Full Project Team (2019-2020)
HistoryLab Student Team (from left): Graduate Supervisor Nicole Navarro, Dwyer Loughran, Isabella Little, Annie O’Connor, Lucas Cole, Bernie Velasquez, Prof. Matt Lassiter, Lily Johnston, Zev Miklethun, Isabella Young, Samantha Lauren, Daniel Bramhall, Sarah Payne, Martha Abrams, Brianna Wells. Seated: Anya Satywadi, Izzie Kenhard. Visit the About page of the “Crackdown” exhibit to learn more about the student researchers.