How Cops Terrorize People Without Even Arresting Them
Anger at police brutality usually revolves around the shooting of unarmed people, but cops don't have to physically harm—or even arrest—to do lasting damage.
Illustration by James Noellert
Around 5 PM on an icebox cold Tuesday evening this month, Shagwaina Clark* began hyperventilating in the lobby of the Detroit Police Department (DPD) headquarters.
"Why did ya'll have to drag me into this?" she repeated on a loop, kicking her worn moccasins against the carpeted grey floor.
On February 27, friends say 24-year-old Darnell Kelly—also known as Banga Pepos—was killed in a white sedan parked three houses down from Clark's camera-lined bungalow. Four days later, and just a few hours before her public breakdown in the police station foyer, multiple armed officers arrived to retrieve "any and all computers, hard drives, and any data storage devices used to store video and/or audio data" from her west side home, according to their search warrant.
The invasion of privacy left the 37-year-old reeling.
"He lived his lifestyle, it didn't have nothing to do with us," she croaked between sobs, claiming the last time police used footage from her cameras to investigate a homicide, her car was shot up. "The police aren't here to protect, they're here to fuck up people's lives. You ain't protect me at no time that I called you, but you want me to protect this man's family?"
Around 3 PM—an hour and a half after the warrant was signed—police officers stomped across the threshold of Clark's front door and proceeded to rifle through her two-story house as her teenage daughter, who was home alone, looked on, she says.
Clark was at work during the encounter, but the aftermath was familiar. In July 2013, not long after Detroit's current Police Chief James Craig took the helm, her house was raided by the police narcotics division because they suspected she sold pot. Despite flipping the place upside down, police found only "marijuana tails"—which were not criminal because residents had recently voted in favor of decriminalizing private possession by Detroit adults of less than an ounce. Nobody was arrested, and nobody was charged, but the raid was terrifying, with Clark's wife and eldest daughter handcuffed to the dining room chair, she maintains.
The mother's youngest child cries to this day when she sees the police.
So the raid earlier this month was triggering, to say the least. "If you're coming for a DVR, why you got a gun up in my daughter's face? She is not the criminal. She is an underage minor. She don't know anything about this," Clark said, bunching her fingers into a tight ball.
In a statement, a DPD spokesperson says officers "did not have their weapons out nor did they point them at anyone at anytime." But it's difficult to deny Clark's alienation—her whole body trembles when she recounts recent experiences with local police.
In many ways, Detroit is like much of America in 2016, where entire families, blocks, and communities are traumatized in the name of public safety. But the city's situation is especially glaring given that the police force came under federal supervision in 2003—a decade before the emergence of Black Lives Matter. While Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the countless other black men and women who have been killed by police in recent years have spurred a national conversation about criminal justice, the reality is that boots-on-the-ground, aggressive policing remains prominent in many cities—even those who see federal oversight come and go.
And even if discussions of police brutality typically revolve around shootings of unarmed individuals, the fact is cops don't have to physically harm or even arrest people to do lasting damage.
"It's a myth that the only group being criminalized are those committing crimes," said Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan historian who writes on the history and present day implications of mass incarceration. "The reality is if you live on a block with criminal activity, then by association you are a suspect."
In November 2013, four months after taking the helm, Detroit Police Chief James Craig introduced the city to the "New DPD," inviting members of the press to look on as nearly 200 police officers raided the Colony Arms apartment complex on Detroit's east side. But according to the Detroit Metro Times, of the 30 people arrested there, 21 were picked up for traffic warrants—an indicator of poverty more than criminal activity.
Colony Arms was just the beginning. On March 11, uniformed and plain-clothed officers from various units within the department and partnering agencies gathered for "Rush Hour"—a raid on Detroit's east and west side that, according to an official press release, aimed to "purge the community of individuals who have outstanding warrants, participate in the sale of illegal narcotics, and/or possess illegal firearms." By the end of the day, eight search warrants had been executed, 31 arrests made, 496 tickets issued (478 of which were moving violations), and 52 vehicles impounded.
Mixed within these stats was a particularly telling figure: 322 people had been investigated. As Sgt. Michael Woody, the department's communication head, explains in an email, "Essentially, every time there is a 'legal reason' for the contact we generally will investigate the person to determine who we are dealing with."
Experts like Thompson, the University of Michigan professor, see these raids as the perverse manifestation of a national trend.
"The tactic of policing is a tactic unto itself," she told me. "In other words, the goal doesn't even have to be arrest. The goal is show of force. 'We're on your block, we're watching you. We could kick down your door at any minute; we can pull you over at any minute."
James Craig is nothing if not charismatic. Some city residents went so far as to christen him "Hollywood"—a riff on the fact that the cop spent 28 years working for the Los Angeles Police Department, but also because has a movie star's cool confidence and charm. When I attended a Police Academy program at the station earlier this month, an initiative that allows residents to size up how the DPD is run, the room of about 60 people was buzzing.
When the chief and I sat down in a sparsely decorated conference room at the DPD headquarters to talk about Operation Restore Order, Craig was quick to acknowledge the "oppressive" connotations. But in his eyes, these kinds of zero-tolerance raids are necessary to rebuild trust between Detroiters and the police force.
After years of jokes about slow response times, Craig is trying to show residents that he is present.
"Traffic violations do matter, it's like anything else," he said, before adding, "When you've read the things on zero-tolerance, it doesn't matter to us if you have a felony or a misdemeanor—both with will go to jail, because the message becomes clear: not here, not in this neighborhood. And when you do that, it has a sustaining effect on reducing crime. It's amazing to watch it."
Except that connection is pretty much impossible to make, according to Kevin Wolff, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies crime rates across America. "Unless there is a discernible change in the trend, it's really hard to say with any certainty that you've actually changed the trajectory of a city overall or in a certain area," he said, pointing to the oft-cited but arguably dubious connection between New York City's embrace of Broken Windows policing and a massive drop in local crime in the 1990s.
Likewise, Detroit has seen violent crime rates experience a general (if uneven) decline since the early 2000s, well before Craig took the helm. And Wolff believes raid style-policing, which is of a piece with the broken windows approach, has downsides like "alienation, and loss of trust in the police." For these reasons, he said, "most scholars have concluded that the costs may outweigh any benefits."
Jonathan Smith, former chief of the Special Litigation Section at the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division who helped review Ferguson policing and was in charge of monitoring Detroit during its 13-year stint under DOJ oversight, agrees. "This quality of life, low-level offense policing is what drives people nuts, and it really erodes their confidence that the police are there to create public safety, rather than just enforce order on that community," he said. "When something real is going on, they're not going to get cooperation from anybody to solve a crime."
One need look no further than Shagwaina Clark and her distrust for the police to see that.
"It's wrong and I am pissed. I am hurt. To know that if something is to go wrong now, I would never call the police," she said, heading out the door of police headquarters to her black SUV in the parking lot.
Huddled inside are two of her kids, both too shaken up to stay home alone.
"You're tearing my life apart," their mother said. "Who's going to pay for that? Nobody."
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*Last name has been changed.