Policing and Criminalization

The Policing and Criminalization section presents research reports, maps, interviews, and other storytelling projects from the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab and from other DCC teams whose work intersects with these topics. This section explores the historical and contemporary workings of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in many dimensions, focused in particular on what happens in criminalized communities beyond incarceration in formal correctional institutions. The concept of criminalization rejects the logics of the carceral state and emphasizes the policies, laws, and practices that–through discretion, racial profiling, and other forms of selective enforcement–transform everyday activities and statuses into criminal offenses and conditions of illegality in vulnerable and marginalized communities. As Victor Rios argues in Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (2011), “criminalization occurred beyond the law . . . across an array of social institutions,” with the agenda and consequences of “maintaining social order” through “racialized social control.” For topics that overlap with policing and criminalization, please visit the sections on Immigration and the Carceral State, Reentry and Consequences of Conviction, and Detroit as a Carceral Space.

Research Publications

Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era (1957-1973). This multimedia digital exhibit, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, documents police brutality and misconduct, policies of racial criminalization, and civil rights/black power activism in the city of Detroit from the emergence of the modern anti-police brutality movement in the late 1950s through the violent STRESS era of the early 1970s. The research team uncovered 188 police killings of civilians during this time period and mapped these patterns alongside other brutality incidents. The exhibit reproduces more than 1,500 archival documents and explores themes such as police defense of the color line, increased law enforcement militarization, the Detroit Uprising of 1967, and the STRESS unit that killed 22 people in 2.5 years.
What Happened to Cynthia Scott? A Brutal Murder, Blatant Coverup, and Cries for Justice.” Drawn from Detroit Under Fire and created by M. Mann and Brianna Wells for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This investigative report revisits and documents the police murder and police/prosecutorial coverup of a 24-year-old African American woman killed in Detroit on July 5, 1963. The report utilizes the long-hidden Detroit Police Department homicide file, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and other previously unknown archival documents. The murder of Cynthia Scott, and subsequent finding of “justifiable homicide” by the county prosecutor, generated massive protests and was a turning point in the civil rights and anti-police brutality movement in modern Detroit.
Barbara Jackson, Detroit 1964: One Black Woman’s Courageous Battle Against Police Brutality.” This multimedia investigative report, created by Lily Johnston for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, explores what happened after white police officers viciously beat Barbara Jackson after arresting her on prostitution charges in August 1964. The 22-year-old Black woman immediately began a long quest for justice, demanding an internal investigation by the Detroit Police Department, which covered up the incident, and then appealing to the newly established Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Her courage resulted in the commission’s first police brutality investigation, a long forgotten story that deserves to be remembered as a milestone for the civil rights movement in Detroit.
CRASH in Detroit, 1960-1961: Racial Profiling, Mass Arrests, Police Torture, and Civil Rights Resistance to Detroit’s ‘War on Crime’ Crackdown.” This multimedia investigative report, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, documents the monthlong “crash program” launched by the Detroit Police Department in December 1960 that resulted in the illegal arrests of around 1,500 African American males on suspicion of murder.The police department brutalized and tortured many of these innocent citizens, justifying its actions based on the alleged “Negro crime problem,” while civil rights organizations condemned Crash and demanded major reforms to protect the Black community from the systematic violation of constitutional rights and civil liberties. 
Precinct Violence: Hidden Brutality inside Detroit Police Stations during the Civil Rights Era.” This multimedia investigative report, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, highlights violence inside precinct stations based on complaints filed by African American citizens and political activists targeted for repression by the Detroit Police Department, along with a small number of cases in which officers who broke the “Blue Curtain” of police silence to report brutality then suffered retaliation. Most account of police brutality focus on what happens outside, on the streets, but police violence inside precinct stations is an extensive although difficult to document phenomenon. Research drawn from the Detroit Under Fire exhibit.
The Kercheval Incident, Detroit 1966: The Police Department’s Illegal War on Black Power Activists.” A multimedia investigation of Black Power activism and the police-instigated ‘riot’ on the East Side of Detroit, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. The Detroit Police Department received national praise for preventing a riot by Black youth and radical activists in August 1966. This report reveals the origins of the unrest in the illegal police surveillance and systematic harassment of civil rights activists, especially a Black Power organization that mobilized to expose police racism and brutality. The Kercheval Incident exposed the hypocrisy of white liberal reformers in city government, who promised color-blind law enforcement but instead enhanced police militarization and racial profiling.
New Bethel Incident, Detroit 1969: Black Radicalism, Police Repression, Mass Arrests, and an Enduring Mystery.” A multimedia investigation of the infamous incident when a dozen DPD officers invaded the New Bethel Baptist Church, shot several people and brutalized many others, and made a mass arrest of 142 African Americans gathered for the national convention of the Republic of New Africa, a Black nationalist organization. This report by the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab documents the police repression, illegal DPD and FBI surveillance, murder conspiracy trials, and Black community protests that made the New Bethel Incident a major milestone in the history of modern Detroit.

Police and the License to Kill” by Matthew Lassiter in Boston Review (April 29, 2021). This article provides an overview of 188 fatal police shootings and other major brutality incidents in Detroit between 1957-1973, and the patterns of coverup by the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County prosecutor, drawn from the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab’s website exhibit Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era. The DPD shot and killed more than 100 unarmed people during this time period, with young Black males fleeing alleged property crimes the largest category of homicides.
Danny Burton: A 32-Year Wait for the Truth to Set Him Free.” This report, created by Sophie Mishara for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, is based on an interview with Danny Burton and additional research documents about the brutal treatment that he received as part of the punitive “war on crack” during the mid-to-late 1980s. Danny Burton was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1987, sentenced to life in prison without parole, and finally exonerated in 2019. Homicide detectives in the Detroit Police Department tortured the 19-year-old to produce a false confession and also coerced multiple witnesses to lie in order to secure his conviction.
Silence, Power, and Injustice: Historical Patterns of Police Violence against Women in Detroit.” This report, created by Lily Johnston for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, illustrates the patterns of police violence against women by the Detroit Police Department between the 1950s and the 1990s. In addition to high-profile protests against police killings and beatings, the report documents recurring violence that resulted from everyday traffic stops and home invasions; retaliation against women who filed brutality complaints or sought to protect their sons and partners; systemic police violence as well as sexual assault against female sex workers; and frequent failure to respond to requests for assistance from poor Black women and their families.
Cops or Robbers? The Dangers of Invisible Policing.” This report, by Zev Miklethun for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, examines the deadly and corrupt history of plainclothes and undercover policing in the city of Detroit. Plainclothes or off-duty officers in the Detroit Police Department shot and killed at least 96 people between the late 1950s and the early 1990s, around one-fourth of the known total of police-involved homicides. Plainclothes and undercover policing also facilitated high levels of corruption and criminality by law enforcement officers, especially in drug markets. “Cops or Robbers?” investigates the undercover STRESS decoy unit and other plainclothes operations that escalated in the 1970s and 1980s, finding that invisible policing heightens the risk of violence not only for the public but for police officers as well.
Poor People’s Campaign, Detroit 1968.” In May 1968, white officers in the Detroit Police Department launched a brutal mass assault on civil rights activists in the Poor People’s Campaign during a nonviolent march to demand racial and economic justice. The police department falsely blamed Black youth for provoking the encounter and covered up what really happened, leading to civil rights protests and the expansion of the anti-police brutality movement in Detroit. This multimedia investigative report by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab is based on the internal documents and photographs compiled by civil rights organizations and agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, which exposed the police coverup but led to no consequences.

Deadly Force by Off-Duty Officers: Investigating Homicides and Brutality by Detroit Police, 1994-2014.” This report, created by Corey Schneck for Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, examines 39 homicides by off-duty officers during a two-decade span that brought the Detroit Police Department under a federal consent decree for unconstitutional patterns of deadly force. The off-duty total represents one-fourth of all police killings during this period; in a majority, officers were drinking in bars or engaged in personal conflict, including domestic violence crimes, unrelated to law enforcement.

Detroit Under Fire: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1957-1973) Series

This five-part map series synthesizes the research findings and documented incidents of police violence and misconduct in the website exhibit Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era. The five chronologically organized StoryMaps are designed for use in high school and college classrooms and provide an alternative, streamlined way to explore the main themes and key events covered in Detroit Under Fire.

Detroit Under Fire Pt. I: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1957-1963).” Supplemental StoryMap for “Civil Rights and Police Brutality,” section I of Detroit Under Fire, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This 11-part interactive map series allows viewers to explore police homicides of civilians, documented incidents of police brutality and misconduct, and major events that generated mass civil rights protests in the city of Detroit between 1957-1963.
Detroit Under Fire Pt. II: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1964-1966).” Supplemental StoryMap for “Liberal War on Crime,” section II of Detroit Under Fire, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This 11-part interactive map series allows viewers to explore police homicides of civilians, documented incidents of police brutality and misconduct, and police harassment of civil rights and black power organizations in the city of Detroit between 1964-1966.
Detroit Under Fire Pt. III: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1967).” Supplemental StoryMap for “Uprising and Occupation (1967), section III of Detroit Under Fire, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This 6-part interactive map series allows viewers to explore 47 fatalities, most at the hands of law enforcement, during the Detroit Uprising of 1967, in addition to other police brutality incidents documented by the NAACP and the office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers.
Detroit Under Fire Pt. IV: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1968-1970).” Supplemental StoryMap for “Radicalization: Police Violence and Black Power,” section IV of Detroit Under Fire, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This 13-part interactive map series allows viewers to explore politically motivated police violence, homicides of civilians, documented incidents of brutality and misconduct, and illegal police surveillance and harassment of political radicals in the city of Detroit between 1968-1970.
Detroit Under Fire Pt. V: Mapping Police Violence and Misconduct (1971-1973).” Supplemental StoryMap for “STRESS and Radical Response,” section V of Detroit Under Fire, created by Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. This 11-part interactive map series allows viewers to explore 84 police homicides between 1971-1973, including 22 by the notorious STRESS unit, when the Detroit Police Department was the deadliest per capita in the nation. Other maps examine police brutality complaints, illegal surveillance, and drug corruption.

Panel Discussions/Public Events

“Black Resistance in the STRESS Era: Commemorating the Lives of Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell” (Sept. 18, 2021)

“Black Resistance in the STRESS Era”–a panel discussion of Detroit community activists–featuring Benjamin Holloway, Gino Fortune, Gregory Hicks, and Dan Aldridge–to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the killings of Black teenagers Ricardo Buck and Craig Mitchell by the STRESS unit of the Detroit Police Department. The panelists discuss Ricardo and Craig’s lives, their murders, the broader context of police violence, and the movement that brought down the notorious STRESS unit. Moderated by Lloyd Simpson, hosted by the General Baker Institute, and co-sponsored by the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab/U-M Carceral State Project.

“Seeking Justice for Cynthia Scott: Writing the History of Police Violence in Detroit” (Sept. 29, 2020)

“Seeking Justice for Cynthia Scott”–a panel discussion sponsored by the Detroit Writing Room and featuring three members of DCC’s Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. The panel was based on the DCC’s July 2020 investigative report What Happened to Cynthia Scott? A Brutal Murder, Blatant Coverup, and Cries for Justice. Panelists included Professor of History Matt Lassiter, the director of the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab; U-M graduate student Nicole Navarro, the lead investigator for the DCC project to excavate the hidden history of police killings in Detroit; Hannah Thoms, undergraduate contributor to the Detroit Under Fire website; and U-M Professor of History and AfroAmerican Studies Angela Dillard (moderator).

“Policing and Protest 2020” (July 28, 2020)

“Policing and Protest 2020” panel discussion, sponsored by the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan and recorded July 28, 2020. Featuring three of the faculty leaders of the Documenting Criminalization and Confinement project along with two other members of the U-M Department of History. 
Panelists: • Melissa Burch, Anthropology • Matthew Countryman, Afroamerican and African History, American Culture, History • Matthew Lassiter, History • William D. Lopez, Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health.  Moderator: • Mrinalini Sinha, History