Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Police Department

From Detroit’s founding in 1701 to 1860, the city did not have an organized police department.  In the early 19th century, Detroit was considered a garrison city.  The county sheriff enforced the laws and army commanders formed local militias to protect the public.

Despite local opposition, a four-member Police Commission appointed by the governor of Michigan officially formed the Detroit Police Department on March 12, 1861. However, the first uniformed officers did not take to the streets until May 15, 1865. The delay in getting the original 40 uniformed officers on the streets was attributed to the high deployment of soldiers heading off to fight in the Civil War.

During the first active year of the police force, Detroit officers made 3,056 arrests and corralled 200 loose animals and 1,700 stray geese. The officers of this era were not issued weapons, but most carried personal handguns.

The Detroit Police Department embraced innovation and change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1893, L.T. Toliver became the city’s first African American police officer.  That same year, police superintendent Morgan Collins hired Marie Owen, the first female officer in the United States.  Detroit’s police department was one of the very first in the country to use automobiles for patrol. In 1922, the department became the first in the nation to use radio dispatch technology.

During the 1920s, the Police Department expanded to tackle escalating crime but it also became more controversial; some citizens claimed there was a deliberate policy of recruiting white southerners who would keep black residents in check.

Beginning in the 1950s, the population of Detroit began to change.  Many white citizens relocated to suburbs in the north, east and west.  Remaining and new African American citizens often clashed with the predominantly white police force. The strain grew to a climax in July 1967, when the city erupted in violence after police raided an afterhours club in a predominantly black neighborhood and arrested 82 people.  

After the riot, city officials created a special police task force called S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets).  STRESS escalated the tensions between the police department and the city’s residents.  Civil rights leaders charged that STRESS was unjustly targeting African Americans. In 1974, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor, disbanded the STRESS unit. Mayor Young later hired William Hart, Detroit’s first African American police chief. By 1998, nearly 61% of the police force in Detroit was African American.

By the late 20th century, Detroit had a reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in the country.   In 2000, the Detroit Free Press recorded that Detroit led the nation in fatal shootings by police. Current Police Chief Ralph L. Godbee, Jr., under the direction of Mayor David Bing, is working to restore the Detroit Police Department’s reputation and public image by holding the department to higher standards of professionalism and integrity.

Written by Chris Paris